The 15th Earl of Westmorland Guides Sotheby's into the Turbulent '80s Art Market

updated 09/29/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"Who knows on whom Fortune would then have smil'd?"—The Earl of Westmoreland, in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II.

When a member of Britain's gentry faces economic crisis in this era of diminished empire, he can make ends meet by turning his estate into a safari park (Lord Bath) or an auto museum (Lord Montagu), or even by taping a commercial for American TV (the Duke of Bedford has confessed that one oughtn't to leave one's castle without an American Express card). But back in 1904, the 13th Earl of Westmorland had no such options when fortune did not smile. To satisfy creditors, the earl had to liquidate Apethorpe, the 2,000-acre ancestral seat in Northamptonshire. So it was that his eldest son's eldest son inherited no fief to call his own. Instead, David Anthony Thomas Fane—15th and present Earl of Westmorland, who is also the Queen's Master of the Horse—had to work for a living.

Today at age 56, Westmorland has forgiven "Grandpa Tony" for falling on his uppers. "If I'd had to run a large family seat," he explains, "I would not have had the freedom to be in business, as I am now." That business is what David modestly calls "the auction game." He has been its ranking peer since his promotion last February to the chairmanship of Sotheby Parke Bernet, the London-based house that is the Pittsburgh Steelers of auctioneers (total sales in 20 countries for the 1979-80 season: $573 million, or half again as much as its closest competitor, Christie's). Since assuming command, David has already overseen the largest single art sale in history, the $6.4 million knockdown of J.M.W. Turner's Juliet and Her Nurse last May. Previewing the new season opening this month, he happily calculates that in these inflationary times business is "going to grow more and more."

Bullishness befits a man whose coat of arms prominently features two such animals. More important, if Westmorland's prediction proves accurate, Sotheby's fortunes in the coming years will enable him to escape the intimidating shadow cast by his predecessor (and first cousin), Peter Cecil Wilson. Wilson was at once a masterful auctioneer, said by many to be the greatest in history; a high-profile art expert; a legendary showman; and a man with impeccable social ties. Wilson's combination of gifts is unrivaled by any other head of a major auction house. In Westmorland's 15 years with the firm, by comparison, the number of auctions he has conducted can be totted up on a thumb. His taste in art runs not to Old Masters or Impressionists but to clubby prints of sporting scenes. As Peregrine Pollen, Sotheby's deputy chairman, analyzes it, "David has a civilized interest in the arts, and picks up a lot by osmosis, but he wouldn't claim to be an expert." Nor a showman; his spartan office measures 11'x15', and though he is immaculately attired in London's bespoken finest, Westmorland eschews the traditional Rolls-Royce—"I don't need the ego trip"—for a Ford Granada that he drives himself.

Auctioneering's need for a leader who is equal parts P.T. Barnum and Bernard Berenson lessened as art speculation grew during the past two decades. In 1959 Sotheby's annual sales amounted to $14 million. In 1970, after Sotheby acquired the American firm of Parke-Bernet, that figure climbed to $108 million, and has since quintupled. Such quantum jumps are not so much the result of Page One sales as inflation. Shortly before his retirement, Peter Wilson observed, "Nobody in the world believes in real currency anymore." Translated, that means even the proletariat is now investing its extra dollars in collectibles. The auction houses are, of course, doing their best to oblige this new market; in the 1978-79 season, the items placed on the block at Sotheby's Los Angeles gallery fetched an average price of $300.

The increasing emphasis on volume only confirms Westmorland's selection as chairman. Wilson describes his successor as "a good organizer who extraordinarily quickly got the grasp of a complex organization." Peregrine Pollen concurs: "Whereas Peter was a one-man band, David is the conductor of an orchestra. He's an administrator listening carefully and trying to judge the right course." Pollen, 49, presumed by some to be Wilson's heir, adds, "For us, he was the right person at the right time."

All of which is not to suggest that Lord Westmorland merely sits back and counts Sotheby's beans. In one crucial area David even surpasses Peter Wilson: knowing the right people. And it is those swells whose trade elevates an auction house from glorified flea market to glamorous international gallery. Marvels Pollen, "People come to us or Christie's because they know someone—David has exactly that kind of network of friends, and the ability to inspire such confidence." Westmorland is more understated about his connections: "I can't say I depend on my friends for business. On the other hand, a lot of my business comes through friends. They come to you if they want to sell something. As with lawyers, such links are built up over a long time."

The Westmorlands helped rule Britannia even before the invention of the old school tie. Two of them appear in Shakespeare. The family was granted lands in 1397 by Richard II. In 1584 they made the mistake of backing the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots, against Queen Elizabeth I, and were banished. But in 1624 Mary's son, James I, restored the current Westmorland earldom, and subsequent heads distinguished themselves in military and diplomatic service. The unlucky 13th, alas, had a wife whom David describes as "very glamorous and a great spendthrift. She took endless trips abroad with tons of servants. My grandfather adored her and was weak."

The dismantling of Apethorpe (it's now a borstal, or boys' reformatory) failed to dim the Westmorlands' social luster; David's godfather was the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, and, after abdication, the Duke of Windsor. David's father, Burghie, kept financially afloat by marrying a daughter of Baron Ribblesdale. Twice widowed, she had enough inherited money to purchase Lyegrove, the Gloucestershire estate where David grew up with his brother Julian and sister Rose. Says Westmorland of his father, "He was an extremely good golfer—handicap of one. And he was tremendously extraverted, an incredible mixer, just as happy sitting down to dinner with the Prince of Wales as he was in the village pub." Of his mother, Diana, who is still the mistress of Lyegrove (which his two elder half sisters, not David, will inherit), Westmorland says, "She has good taste, and the house has nice things in it. When I was a child, she was totally undemanding, and never imposed."

Seventeen when he left wartime Eton, which was often bombed and where he slept in a shelter in the garden, David helped make RAF bomber turrets for a year until he was old enough to enter the army. "My father was rather disappointed," he recalls. "He tried to persuade me to go into the navy, but I didn't like water, swimming or the idea of drowning." Westmorland was top of his class at Sandhurst, joined the Royal Horse Guards and shortly after D-Day saw his first action as an armored car troop commander in Normandy. He was wounded in the left arm but soon was back at the front.

After the war, David was posted as a riding instructor in the shadow of Buckingham Palace, "a dream" assignment that afforded him access to London's high life. He dated Princess Margaret and American socialite Sharman Douglas, but in 1949 began to court Jane Findlay, granddaughter of crown jeweler Harry Garrard. "David was very dashing," Lady Jane recalls, "by far the best-looking and nicest in our group. And I admired his prowess as a horseman." At 24 he became the 15th earl on his father's death from pneumonia, an event that hastened the young man's resignation from the Horse Guards. "I had to go out into the big, wide world and make some money," he says.

Westmorland's first job was selling champagne for a meager $60 a month plus a $2.80-a-case commission ("In one sensational year, I earned $2,300 in commissions"). His marriage to Jane in 1950 was London's "wedding of the year." In 1955 Queen Elizabeth II appointed David a Lord-in-Waiting (duties: attending visiting VIPs and representing her on occasion). That year he gave up champagne peddling to try farming in Wiltshire as he and Lady Jane expanded their family (heir apparent Burghie, now 29, has been among other things a nightclub greeter; Harry, 27, is an art dealer; and Camilla, 22, a real estate agent, has been reported a contender in the Prince Charles marital sweepstakes). In 1956 Westmorland changed careers again, using his horse-world contacts to sell insurance on thoroughbreds through Lloyds of London.

He might still be doing that had he not encountered cousin Peter Wilson of Sotheby's at a dinner party in late 1964. David remembers, "He told me, 'I am so bored by administrative problems. Why don't you come in and help me so that I can do what I like doing best, looking at beautiful pictures?' " To head off charges of nepotism, Wilson says he revealed their kinship to no one. Still, Westmorland remembers initial resistance to his appointment: "If you're a distinguished art expert, you don't think you need administrators." But through the years, by arranging timely introductions and helping to engineer Sotheby's diversification (including real estate sales and counseling in art investments) and overseas expansion (including a new Tokyo branch), Westmorland earned the right to succeed Wilson. His promotion was unanimously approved by the house's board and senior directors.

David still cannot afford to live in the type of manor to which his forebears were born. The family weekends are spent at Kingsmead, a 12-acre, nine-bedroom Gloucestershire retreat, where David and Lady Jane garden or he rides to hounds. During the annual Badminton horse trials, the Queen and Prince Philip drop by Kingsmead for tea. The workweek is spent in London at their three-bedroom Belgravia town-house. Other moments are reserved for the royal circuit—visits to Windsor, Balmoral, Sandringham—or cultivating the often overlapping worlds of nobility, art and finance.

So demanding are Westmorland's chores that two years ago he swapped his position as Lord-in-Waiting for the less time-consuming job of Master of the Horse (chief duty: riding in a position of prominence at royal ceremonies). "Because of Sotheby's rapid growth," he says, "it's become a little gangly. We have to get the company together, then look at all the opportunities. And my goodness, there are a lot. I see a very exciting future." Then, reflecting on the Westmorlands' own saga, he adds, "After being slightly in the doldrums, the family has been able to get itself back on the map. I take great pride in that." There is more. His firm was one of those that long ago helped sell off Apethorpe's contents, and David, by watching auction sales—including Sotheby's own—has managed to buy back some of the portraits and other Westmorland treasures lost. In a way, then, a vestige of the empire has struck back.

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