When Michel Strauss joined Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department in London in the summer of 1961, the 20-something French aesthete could hardly have known what a pivotal role he would play in forging an impassioned, and lucrative, auction market for Impressionist and Modern art. With his colleagues, he created sales that were as headline-grabbing then as the prices achieved for Banksys and NFTs are today.
His Sotheby’s interview was of its time: a lunch at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair, a short walk from the Bond Street salerooms, and a quick chat with the company’s enigmatic chairman, Peter Wilson—a former intelligence officer known as PCW—and Carmen Gronau, head of the Old Master Paintings department. “PCW liked my art history degree, my Rothschild and other French connections, and the fact that I spoke French,” Strauss recalled. Halfway through the lunch, however, Wilson left, leaving him with Carmen, his rather steely consigliere. “She was a nightmare. She always looked bad tempered,” Strauss noted. Still, he got the job.
Sotheby’s nascent Impressionist and Modern Art Department, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, consisted of Strauss, David Nash and Bruce Chatwin, later a celebrated travel writer and novelist. Strauss and Chatwin were a well-balanced—if occasionally fractious—combination. “My impression on arriving that first morning was that he wasn’t at all happy to see me there,” Strauss remarked. “The first sale that came in after I arrived was the Somerset Maugham sale, and we agreed to catalogue it together in the morning. When I got in at 9.30, I found he’d been in since 5.30 or 6am and had catalogued the whole thing. That’s when I realised it had become very competitive. But ... we were trying to do our best. We complemented one another very well.”
While the Maugham consignment of 1962—which included a Gauguin mural painted on a Tahitian shack door—was won, in part, through Chatwin’s charm with the cantankerous author, Strauss made sure that he catalogued the sale later in the same year of the collection formed by the film producer Sir Alexander Korda. The group included Vincent van Gogh’s Nature Morte aux Citrons et Gants Bleus (1889): “This was the first picture I had catalogued,” Strauss said, “that I really fell in love with.”
Another early success was his editorship of an annual company book: The Ivory Hammer: The Year at Sotheby’s. For his first issue, surveying the sales of 1962-63, Strauss commissioned Ian Fleming to write a James Bond story set in the auction house: the tale, “The Property of a Lady”, saw 007 winkle out a Soviet agent during the sale of a Fabergé egg.
In the 1960s, the art world was changing rapidly, thanks largely to Wilson’s verve. The age of the gala sale, heralded by the famous Goldschmidt auction of 1958, had dawned; PR was involved and television cameras turned up for sales. Strauss saw the market bloom in his field and in 1965 he was made a director of Sotheby’s. Following the departures of Nash, to New York, and Chatwin, to the world of literature, he took control of “The Imps”.
Terrific opportunities followed. In 1969, Strauss went to Tokyo to take bids on Impressionist works being sold in a department store, with the help of a team of interpreters (one of whom was Japan’s Olympic high-diving champion). It was a mild precursor to the frenzy of Japanese buying two decades later. Back in London, there were innovations and escapades: he introduced trans-Atlantic phone bidding and on one occasion was forced to manhandle a dealer in fake Dufys out of Sotheby’s doors.
A family of connoisseurs
Descending from no less than three collecting dynasties, Strauss had connoisseurship in his DNA. He was born in Paris in 1936, to André and Aline Strauss. His paternal grandfather was the Parisian collector Jules Strauss, a great champion of the Impressionists, while on his mother’s side there were the French-Russian de Gunzbourgs and the French Deutsch de la Meurthe family. He was raised in a bubble of high art, with life divided between Paris and the Château de Brécourt in Normandy.
Strauss’s father died of cancer in 1939. In May the following year, faced with the German invasion and the threat that it posed to a prominent Jewish family, Aline Strauss, an intelligent and resourceful woman and championship golfer, drove Michel from Brécourt to Biarritz in her open-top Bentley in the hope of getting visas for Spain. After being denied these, she, Michel and her parents began a fearful period of life in Vichy France. They were in Cannes when the first anti-Jewish laws were proclaimed in October 1940 and Aline secured US visas and exit visas for herself and the three-year-old Michel. They crossed to Spain and Portugal, and then on the SS Excambion to safe haven in New York, where they arrived on 20 January 1941, followed three months later by Aline’s parents. In New York, the young Michel became aware of the work of the Impressionists—especially those in the Havemeyer bequest at the Metropolitan Museum, New York—and of Van Gogh through an exhibition of 80 paintings at the dealers Wildenstein.
In 1943, Aline married Hans Halban, a leading French nuclear physicist who was working for the nascent Manhattan Project in Montreal. In 1946, Michel, his mother and stepfather and his half-brother Peter Halban moved to Oxford, where they set up home in Headington, and Hans worked for the Clarendon Laboratory (a second son, Philippe Halban, was born in 1950). Aline later fell in love with the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who in 1956 became Michel’s second stepfather.
A quiet, studious boy, Michel endured the trials of an English prep school in Montreal—where he was bullied for being both French and Jewish—and an English education, first at Bryanston and then Oxford, where he spent a year reading PPE at Christ Church College and socialising with the smart set, before being sent down for failing his end-of-year exams. At the suggestion of his stepfather Isaiah, he applied to read History of Art at Harvard, where he spent three happy years and was superbly taught, especially by the Rembrandt expert Jakob Rosenberg. “He was inspirational,” Strauss wrote of Rosenberg in his 2010 memoir, Pictures, Passions and Eye, “teaching not only academic interpretations and dry analyses but, and in a way far more important to me, connoisseurship and appreciation”.
At the end of his time at Harvard, Strauss was married to Margery Tongway, a fellow pupil at Harvard, and, after their honeymoon, embarked in 1959 on a doctorate at the Courtauld Institute in London, and started writing reviews for the Burlington Magazine. Anthony Blunt, director of the Courtauld, was not amused when Strauss informed him that he was leaving in 1961 to take a job as a cataloguer at Sotheby’s.
During the 1970s, Strauss was pivotal in Sotheby’s work in helping British Rail build a major collection of Impressionist works that was later converted into a hugely profitable auction in 1989, sold to benefit the company’s pension fund. It was perhaps his greatest sale. With clients he was more likely to deliver art-historical detail than sales patter, although he understood the value of taking risks to create a well-curated auction. “In both rock-climbing and skiing I was capable of recklessly pushing myself to the limit and this same trait came to the fore at Sotheby’s,” he wrote in Pictures, Passions and Eye.
With colleagues he was known as a generous tutor to emerging talent, providing counsel in the 1980s to a new generation of experts, including Melanie Clore, later chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, and Philip Hook, the best-selling author of Breakfast at Sotheby’s. Strauss kept away from the rostrum, however, noting that “to be a successful auctioneer you need some of the qualities of an actor”. He was far more suited to orchestrating sophisticated sales, which he did, expertly, for some four decades.
In 2000, Strauss left Sotheby’s and worked the following year as an art adviser to Bernard Arnault and the LVMH retail group, the then owners of Phillips auctioneers, and as a consultant to museums.
He and Margery had a son, Andrew, who followed his father into a career at Sotheby’s, and a daughter, Julia. Michel was married secondly, in later life, to Sally Lloyd Pearson.
Michel Strauss, born Paris 23 September 1936, died 18 October 2021