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Breakfast at Sotheby's: An A-Z of the Art World

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When you stand in front of a work of art in a museum or exhibition, the first two questions you normally ask yourself are 1) Do I like it? and 2) Who’s it by? When you stand in front of a work of art in an auction room or dealer’s gallery, you ask these two questions followed by others: How much is it worth? How much will it be worth in five or ten years’ time? And what wi When you stand in front of a work of art in a museum or exhibition, the first two questions you normally ask yourself are 1) Do I like it? and 2) Who’s it by? When you stand in front of a work of art in an auction room or dealer’s gallery, you ask these two questions followed by others: How much is it worth? How much will it be worth in five or ten years’ time? And what will people think of me if they see it hanging on my wall?   Breakfast at Sotheby’s is an alphabetical guide to how people reach answers to such questions, and how in the process art is given a financial value. Based on Philip Hook’s thirty-five years’ experience of the art market, Breakfast at Sotheby’s explores the artist and his hinterland (including definitions for -isms, middle-brow artists, Gericault, and suicides), subject and style (from abstract art and banality through surrealism and war), “wall-power,” provenance, and market weather.   Comic, revealing, piquant, splendid, and occasionally absurd, Breakfast at Sotheby’s is a book of pleasure and intelligent observation, as engaged with art as it is with the world that surrounds it.


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When you stand in front of a work of art in a museum or exhibition, the first two questions you normally ask yourself are 1) Do I like it? and 2) Who’s it by? When you stand in front of a work of art in an auction room or dealer’s gallery, you ask these two questions followed by others: How much is it worth? How much will it be worth in five or ten years’ time? And what wi When you stand in front of a work of art in a museum or exhibition, the first two questions you normally ask yourself are 1) Do I like it? and 2) Who’s it by? When you stand in front of a work of art in an auction room or dealer’s gallery, you ask these two questions followed by others: How much is it worth? How much will it be worth in five or ten years’ time? And what will people think of me if they see it hanging on my wall?   Breakfast at Sotheby’s is an alphabetical guide to how people reach answers to such questions, and how in the process art is given a financial value. Based on Philip Hook’s thirty-five years’ experience of the art market, Breakfast at Sotheby’s explores the artist and his hinterland (including definitions for -isms, middle-brow artists, Gericault, and suicides), subject and style (from abstract art and banality through surrealism and war), “wall-power,” provenance, and market weather.   Comic, revealing, piquant, splendid, and occasionally absurd, Breakfast at Sotheby’s is a book of pleasure and intelligent observation, as engaged with art as it is with the world that surrounds it.

30 review for Breakfast at Sotheby's: An A-Z of the Art World

  1. 4 out of 5

    Camelia Rose

    Suppose you are an ordinary art lover, an occasional museum goer, or an amateur artist, or, you've inherited some money so you are thinking of investing in art. You get an invitation--no, you buy a ticket--to have breakfast at Sotheby's with one of their in-house art experts, Philip Hook. In the next hour, instead of giving you a lecture, Mr. Hook recounts anecdotes and insider jokes about arts, artists and money, all in a casual, rambling style. That's what reading Breakfast at Sotheby's: An A- Suppose you are an ordinary art lover, an occasional museum goer, or an amateur artist, or, you've inherited some money so you are thinking of investing in art. You get an invitation--no, you buy a ticket--to have breakfast at Sotheby's with one of their in-house art experts, Philip Hook. In the next hour, instead of giving you a lecture, Mr. Hook recounts anecdotes and insider jokes about arts, artists and money, all in a casual, rambling style. That's what reading Breakfast at Sotheby's: An A-Z of the Art World makes me feel--exactly like having a casual conversation with a knowledgable, funny expert. This book is collection of short essays organized as a dictionary in five parts. Philip Hook worked for Sotheby's and Christie, and appeared in the popular Antique Roadshow on BBC from 1978 to 2003. The writing is humous, mixed with the author's self-deprecating cynicism. Arts are serious, but also fun! Don't be embarrassed by the talk of money! Some quotes: Banality + Irony = Art Banality - Irony = Do you think I am stupid, trying to sell me this bag of rubbish for $100, 000? Appropriationism + Irony = Pop Art Appropriationism - Irony = Plagiarism And who knew there is a big difference between "museum quality" and "museum picture"! The funniest is the mini glossary, which reminds of Perfumes: The Guide. Examples: accessible: euphemism for obvious or superficial dichotomous: fashionable word to indicate a contrast or contradiction, e.g. "dichotomous tension between distance and proximity" (translation: "there's a foreground and a background in this painting") journey: artists don't have careers anymore, they go on journeys signature work: easily recognized, as in "I am looking for a signature work by Monet." (translation: One that all my friends will identify the moment they walk into my drawing room) subtle: dark, e.g., "The subtle tones of Theodore Rousseau's foliage." tenebrist: literally shadowy; pretentious word for "dark" (see subtle) unmediated: direct, simple. A pretentious word for "immediate"; as in a work of installation art which "forges an unmediated relationship between floor and ceiling" (translation: it's an empty room) There are occasional sexism and racism remarks not made but quoted by the author.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Schirmer

    Delicious look at the art world through expensively and impeccably framed glasses. The stacking of commissions as paintings make their way, La Ronde-like through the portfolios of dealers world-wide. The shockingly middlebrow minutiae that guarantees a bonanza at auction. In spite of all he has encountered Hook is never boring nor cynical. Best line: Ringing up Sotheby's: "May I have John Brown, please?" "I don't see why not, everyone else already has." Tee-hee. Delicious look at the art world through expensively and impeccably framed glasses. The stacking of commissions as paintings make their way, La Ronde-like through the portfolios of dealers world-wide. The shockingly middlebrow minutiae that guarantees a bonanza at auction. In spite of all he has encountered Hook is never boring nor cynical. Best line: Ringing up Sotheby's: "May I have John Brown, please?" "I don't see why not, everyone else already has." Tee-hee.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Interesting nuggets of information are a bit lost in the gimmicky dictionary layout - sadly rather a case of concept drowning content! And this is such a shame, as the broad questions laid out in the introduction - what makes art attractive? followed by, what's it worth and what gives it value? - are so interesting. Part of this issue, though, might be caused by me not being the intended audience, i.e. an interested art layman/woman… There are definitely still interesting points and amusing anec Interesting nuggets of information are a bit lost in the gimmicky dictionary layout - sadly rather a case of concept drowning content! And this is such a shame, as the broad questions laid out in the introduction - what makes art attractive? followed by, what's it worth and what gives it value? - are so interesting. Part of this issue, though, might be caused by me not being the intended audience, i.e. an interested art layman/woman… There are definitely still interesting points and amusing anecdotes that make the dodgy layout worth coping with! One other thing that annoyed me was the almost complete ignoring of non-Western art & art markets. I understand that Hook himself deals with European art, but “An A-Z of the Art World” shouldn’t really ignore large swathes of said world. The only real time the non-Western art world is mentioned (repeatedly) is in relation to the Japanese art buying boom of the late 1980s. Again, I understand that this is something Hook had personal knowledge of, because apparently they went mad for Impressionists, but it can’t be the only example he can think to use! There are some really glaring omissions, for example when talking about different countries’ heritage laws, he only discusses those of America and various European countries - when Japan has some of the strictest heritage laws around and would make an interesting comparison. It’s almost as if he’s suggesting “who would want to buy art from there?”…

  4. 5 out of 5

    shpotakovskaya

    It. took. me. two. years. to. finish. this. book 🤦🏻‍♀️

  5. 4 out of 5

    Castles

    I have no doubt that the author of this book is very knowledgeable and I did learn a lot from reading this book, yet I really didn't like the overall cynicism approach of his to the art world. This book is written from a commercial point of view, true, and maybe I don't understand that much about British humor, yet still… At times this book felt like a pile of the worst collection of clichés about art and artist, written by someone who's only interest is the commercial appeal of painting, to rea I have no doubt that the author of this book is very knowledgeable and I did learn a lot from reading this book, yet I really didn't like the overall cynicism approach of his to the art world. This book is written from a commercial point of view, true, and maybe I don't understand that much about British humor, yet still… At times this book felt like a pile of the worst collection of clichés about art and artist, written by someone who's only interest is the commercial appeal of painting, to readers who are probably rich people thinking what to do with their money. It felt corrupted, reading about branding, market value and this 'show-off' sport of buying art, instead of discussing talent, creativity and the joy of art. And so, some of the most disgusting things written in this book, while maybe sometimes written ironically or as a quote, are still a testimony of everything which is wrong in the art world. For example: On Modigliani: "On the whole, the market is grateful for his early suicide. He could become weak and repetitive had he lived longer". "in general, the younger the artist dies the better", when speaking about artists who fought in the first world war. "Paintings are like women, as they get older they need restoration". And last but not least, comparing auction house sales to a visit in a whorehouse. What can you say about this bunch of disgusting views? What I did like about this book is how the author starts with the artist, and then zoom out until he reaches bigger and bigger forces of the art world – markets, dealers, auction houses, etc… I also liked his interesting chapter about the Nazis and art. Overall, this book is not written badly and it's not a bad book, it's just really written for people who are more interested in the market value of art, the money aspect and the cold cynical view part of that world. Who's the book NOT for? Artists, basically.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Sophie

    I came across this title thanks to a weekend literary supplement, an end-of-year piece where everyone cited their best reads of 2013. I think the title misled me, though. Philip Hook has worked in the art world for 35 years and is a director of Sotheby’s so I was expecting more of a memoir, dishing some dirt on life in an auction house. In fact, the book is a miscellany of art-related fact and anecdote, grouped loosely by theme – artists, subject matter, provenance, the art market. It is still pa I came across this title thanks to a weekend literary supplement, an end-of-year piece where everyone cited their best reads of 2013. I think the title misled me, though. Philip Hook has worked in the art world for 35 years and is a director of Sotheby’s so I was expecting more of a memoir, dishing some dirt on life in an auction house. In fact, the book is a miscellany of art-related fact and anecdote, grouped loosely by theme – artists, subject matter, provenance, the art market. It is still packed with interesting nuggets but the structure is chaotic and switches rapidly from one topic to the next, so that just as your interest is piqued he moves you on again. I loved the fact that there are lots of illustrations, so reading this book is a much more visual experience than usual. However, I think exploring fewer topics (especially the autobiographical material) in more depth would have made it a superlative read. For the full version of this review, please check out my blog: http://asianartbrief.com/2014/03/28/b...

  7. 4 out of 5

    carelessdestiny

    This is very entertaining. It's worth reading for the story about the "extremely camp" man at the switchboard at Christies alone. This is very entertaining. It's worth reading for the story about the "extremely camp" man at the switchboard at Christies alone.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Shane

    I'm a bit intrigued by the art trade, so I thought this seemed like an interesting read, and for the most part, it was. Hook overall has a pretty good tone, humorous but informative, and he even pokes fun at some of the more unusual aspects of art dealing (including, very candidly, mentioning how certain artists should have died sooner). The format--dividing the book into categories and then presenting the information based upon alphabetical terms--didn't quite work for me. I appreciate he was tr I'm a bit intrigued by the art trade, so I thought this seemed like an interesting read, and for the most part, it was. Hook overall has a pretty good tone, humorous but informative, and he even pokes fun at some of the more unusual aspects of art dealing (including, very candidly, mentioning how certain artists should have died sooner). The format--dividing the book into categories and then presenting the information based upon alphabetical terms--didn't quite work for me. I appreciate he was trying to do something unique, but it was harder to follow than a more traditional format. There are some really interesting parts; my favorites include about different countries' export and taxation rules, stolen or lost art affecting price, the "new rich" in new areas pushing the price of certain genres (like Middle East oil tycoons buying 19th century Europeans depictions of the Middle East, or Japanese liking Impressionism). He didn't mention much about some aspects that I was expecting more, such as the value of having the art been owned by a famous patron. I also thought there was waaaay to much about modern art, which I understand is what is selling the highest right now so that's what Hook is most concerned with, but he still could have evened it out more (like what about vedutes and capriccios from 17th-19th centuries?). I suppose I should just be glad that if I ever get rich that everyone else is wasting all their money on bad art when the good older stuff is cheaper.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jun-E

    Finally finished this book! Bought it in 2015 it seems, and there it was, half-read on my shelf for all these years. After my museum tour in Europe last year I came back and revisited it, finding it much more interesting after having read more about art history and seen the works myself. This is a very frank and lively book about art and art history grounded in the economics of buying and selling works. A lot of it is dedicated to what sells and what doesn't, which is sometimes rational and some Finally finished this book! Bought it in 2015 it seems, and there it was, half-read on my shelf for all these years. After my museum tour in Europe last year I came back and revisited it, finding it much more interesting after having read more about art history and seen the works myself. This is a very frank and lively book about art and art history grounded in the economics of buying and selling works. A lot of it is dedicated to what sells and what doesn't, which is sometimes rational and sometimes completely idiosyncratic. Smiles sell better than scowls. Paintings with even a smudge of red on them may sell better than those without. Paintings that were marked as "degenerate" by Nazis get also a premium. The author covers all the nooks and crannies of the dealings of artworks, from taxation to restoration. I also appreciate the candour and dark humour of Hook, when he says things like how artists should have known better than to survive World War 1, because the saleability of their art would go up if they had died at their peak and kept the pieces limited. Sad but true.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Rose Auburn

    I enjoyed this, Hook writes in a very engaging, easy style and you feel as if you having a conversation over lunch or something. Slightly debatable whether it's an A to Z of the art world, some sections seemed slightly random (fictional artists?). If you are looking to be thoroughly educated about art, and the art world, this book is probably not it. From a stylistic point, I felt some, if not all, of the pictures, could have been in colour. It's hard to appreciate a painting reproduced in grain I enjoyed this, Hook writes in a very engaging, easy style and you feel as if you having a conversation over lunch or something. Slightly debatable whether it's an A to Z of the art world, some sections seemed slightly random (fictional artists?). If you are looking to be thoroughly educated about art, and the art world, this book is probably not it. From a stylistic point, I felt some, if not all, of the pictures, could have been in colour. It's hard to appreciate a painting reproduced in grainy black and white when Hook is expounding on the colours, light, etc., of the picture. I also found the block initial capital for the headings slightly incongruous and there were a couple of typos throughout. A few more anecdotes from his time at both Christies and Sotheby's would have been good - those he does relate are both humorous and enlightening and leave you wanting more.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Yong Jun

    Interesting enough and with very incisive observations by a veteran of the industry. However, these observations are written with a full insider tone and therefore would probably only really be understood by those within the industry. I am not sure what a layman would get from this. The book revolves around the monetary and trading value of art (painters are described by which their periods sell the best), and can be severely off-putting at times. However, this is the point the author is making, Interesting enough and with very incisive observations by a veteran of the industry. However, these observations are written with a full insider tone and therefore would probably only really be understood by those within the industry. I am not sure what a layman would get from this. The book revolves around the monetary and trading value of art (painters are described by which their periods sell the best), and can be severely off-putting at times. However, this is the point the author is making, and in a way it is self-denial to pretend this aspect of art does not exist or indeed, now, dominate our ways of seeing.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Nicola Pierce

    I'm in the middle of a course of chemo so my attention span is not what it usually is (neither, I suspect, are my reviews are helpful as they could be) but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book about the art world. Hook is a wonderful gossip about a wide cast of artists from Degas to Picasso and back again. It also provides a fascinating insight into the money that can be generated by collectors and dealers and sharks and so on. I've been waiting to read an art book like this for yea I'm in the middle of a course of chemo so my attention span is not what it usually is (neither, I suspect, are my reviews are helpful as they could be) but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book about the art world. Hook is a wonderful gossip about a wide cast of artists from Degas to Picasso and back again. It also provides a fascinating insight into the money that can be generated by collectors and dealers and sharks and so on. I've been waiting to read an art book like this for years.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Patty

    Interesting and entertaining info on the business of art from a real insider. Aside from being an excellent writer, Hook is pretty funny and self-deprecating, in true Brit fashion. My only issue with both of Hook’s books is the lack of quality color plates. Of course, the reason is the cost of these plates, but it took me longer to read because I had to keep referring to my laptop! Nonetheless, if the topic is interesting to you- highly recommended.

  14. 4 out of 5

    John

    Lots of interesting information, but the mini-essay format made for a choppy experience I'm afraid. The art history and technical considerations of assessing pieces held my interest; however, the later section on art among the obscenely rich I could've done without. Library book, yes. Purchase, not so much. Lots of interesting information, but the mini-essay format made for a choppy experience I'm afraid. The art history and technical considerations of assessing pieces held my interest; however, the later section on art among the obscenely rich I could've done without. Library book, yes. Purchase, not so much.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lyazzat

    "What constitues an "eye"? It certainly helps to have a highly tuned and capaciously retentive visual memory; but you also need a feeling for quality and graphologist's ability to recognize the individual "handwriting" of artists in the way they put paint to canvas." The book details as a guidance to pointed subjects follow by descriptions to art world. Very educational too. "What constitues an "eye"? It certainly helps to have a highly tuned and capaciously retentive visual memory; but you also need a feeling for quality and graphologist's ability to recognize the individual "handwriting" of artists in the way they put paint to canvas." The book details as a guidance to pointed subjects follow by descriptions to art world. Very educational too.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Anastasia Presnyakova

    Enormously pretentious, too arrogant and not quite relevant in the context of the contemporary language of art and art history. Rather a collection of vulgar anecdotes than a book about art, allowing the average viewer to explore its world. Supports so many false and destructive stereotypes about art and artists.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Frederike

    Fantastic book about art and all of its dealings. At times sardonically funny wenn discussing the most opportune time for an artist to die, so that their art increases in value. Made me want to go to museums again.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    An oddly tone deaf book about the art market - almost breezily sexist and offensive. The sections about how the art world and auction houses actually work were interesting but mostly I found it all quite forgettable.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Galit

    I learned a lot but the author is so stuck in his whiteness, his Englishness, his upper middle class cis male straightness, and the 1970s in his worldview. Part 1 of me doing too much to land a job at Sotheby’s.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Tolkien InMySleep

    Informed and informative, witty

  21. 4 out of 5

    Vanessa

    A fascinating inside look at the art world, with a lot of information worth highlighting and going back to. Well written, with plenty of humor, never sounds either too academic or too preachy.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    art and artists and fun!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Vera

    Some interesting facts sprinkled here and there but overall an ordeal to read. :<

  24. 5 out of 5

    Carnal Fare

    Good insight into art sales and culture

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lesya Pohorila

    A comprehensive overview of the "business" side of art for those who know nothing or very little about it. I enjoyed the author's delivery style, as well as the glossary format of the book. A comprehensive overview of the "business" side of art for those who know nothing or very little about it. I enjoyed the author's delivery style, as well as the glossary format of the book.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Farah

    Found it interesting on every turn and very accessible for someone who knows nothing about this space.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Brian Hanson

    Mildly diverting and completely unnecessary.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Fyunn

    Interesting and informative. Hook's humour livens up the fascinating relationship of art and money. Interesting and informative. Hook's humour livens up the fascinating relationship of art and money.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sandra Danby

    Philip Hook is an art dealer. He has spent 35 years in the art market, first at Christies then at Sotheby’s, so he knows his stuff. As soon as I heard about this book I put it on my ‘to-read’ list. It’s about the art business, about what sells and why, and what doesn’t and why. It is a fascinating insight into the world of art, written in an entertaining, informative style that is never too dry. Hook mixes in art trivia and some of his own mishaps with an authoritative account of art and money. D Philip Hook is an art dealer. He has spent 35 years in the art market, first at Christies then at Sotheby’s, so he knows his stuff. As soon as I heard about this book I put it on my ‘to-read’ list. It’s about the art business, about what sells and why, and what doesn’t and why. It is a fascinating insight into the world of art, written in an entertaining, informative style that is never too dry. Hook mixes in art trivia and some of his own mishaps with an authoritative account of art and money. Does an artist’s back story have any effect on the price his work fetches? Why do some artists not make the big prices until they are dead? Are the portrayals of artists in literature accurate, or stereotyped? What difference does it make if the subject of a portrait is smiling, or solemn? For me it was interesting on two counts. First, because my protagonist in Connectedness is an artist; so Hook is writing about Justine’s world. Second, because of the many parallels between the creative twins of art and writing. There are sections on artists who write, creativity block, and artists as characters in novels such as Claude Lantier, the hero of Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece, and Ralph Barnby in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The quote that stayed with me after finishing the book is one by Edgar Degas on creativity block: “It seems to me,” he wrote aged 22, “that if one wants to be a serious artist today and create an original little niche for oneself, or at least ensure that one preserves the highest degree of innocent of character, one must constantly immerse oneself in solitude. There is too much tittle-tattle. It is as if paintings were made, like speculations on the stock markets, out of the friction among people eager for gain. All this trading sharpens your mind and falsifies your judgement.”

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jenn Morgans

    I'm fascinated and horrified by the Art World in equal measure, and this was delightful. Funny, interesting, informative, enjoyable and full of witty little anecdotes that occasionally had me covering my face in horror ("what do you MEAN you stripped that Degas out of the frame he originally created for it and put it in a giant lacquered one to ramp the price up?!") It also introduced me to some artists and artworks I didn't know - most of which I had up google, because a) there could be more pi I'm fascinated and horrified by the Art World in equal measure, and this was delightful. Funny, interesting, informative, enjoyable and full of witty little anecdotes that occasionally had me covering my face in horror ("what do you MEAN you stripped that Degas out of the frame he originally created for it and put it in a giant lacquered one to ramp the price up?!") It also introduced me to some artists and artworks I didn't know - most of which I had up google, because a) there could be more pictures and b) I know it would make the book heavier and more expensive, but the black and white photos printed straight into the book aren't really worth it, since you can't see half of them properly. Minor gripes, though - this was a delight to read, nice to dip in and out of, and I've learned lots of things I now cannot use.

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