The Arty Semite

Art-Collecting Memoirs of Isaiah Berlin's Stepson

By Benjamin Ivry

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Courtesy of Halban Publishers
Michel Strauss with a Degas.

The poet W. H. Auden once remarked that hearing gourmets describe favorite meals made him wish he could live on pills, and reading the memoirs of some art collectors describing their acquisitions can make one want to live sans art. An exception to this trend is the art connoisseur Michel Strauss, born in France in 1936 to Jewish parents, and former Head of the Impressionist and Modern Art Department at Sotheby’s auction house, London.

Strauss’s “Pictures, Passions and Eye: A Life at Sotheby’s,” out in September from Halban Publishers is a gimlet-eyed, refreshingly un-gossipy view of art and its collectors. Strauss writes:

Although I am not a practicing Jew, I am proud of the history, traditions, and culture I inherited.

Part of that tradition came from his paternal grandfather, the art collector Jules Strauss, whereas his mother’s family comprised Jewish art lovers with such resonant names as de Gunzbourg and Deutsche de la Meurthe.

After the early death of his father, Strauss’s mother eventually married the noted British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, of whom Strauss recalls: “In all the years I knew him, I never heard him put anyone down…He was very direct and liked people who were warm-hearted and spontaneous.”

This braininess, kindliness, and creativity clearly inspired Strauss, whose instincts about art were so astute that in 1962, he was one of the only experts consulted who spotted that the works of now-notorious Hungarian Jewish art forger Elmyr de Hory, star of Orson Welles’ 1973 film “F For Fake,” were bogus.

The ever-polite and well-mannered Strauss recounts that he pushed de Hory’s agent out of the Sotheby’s building, “something I had never done before or since.” Indeed, so decorous is “Pictures, Passions and Eye” that it even edulcorates a statement by the raucous French filmstar Arletty, a prewar mistress of his father’s, who later explained why she slept with a Nazi officer during the war:

Mon cœur est français mais mon cul est international!
(My heart is French, but my booty is international).

Strauss bowdlerizes this to “Mon cœur est français mais mon corps est international” (My heart is French but my body is international).

Innovating with fresh ideas, such as his 1967 notion to introduce telephone bidding to the auction room, Strauss has also been gratified to preside in recent years over the return of Nazi-looted art to families of its original Jewish owners. Isaiah Berlin would have liked this warm-hearted and spontaneous, incisive yet kindly autobiography.


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