Art: Testing the Highs

Rolls-Royces and Bentleys jammed London's narrow St. George Street one night last week, unloaded enough celebrities to make a smash Covent Garden opening night. Their objective: Sotheby's, the staid auction house where seven impressionist paintings from the collection of the late banker Jakob Goldschmidt were going under the hammer.

Only 400 bidders and selected spectators could get into the musty, green-walled main gallery; the rest of the 1,400 ticket holders were sent to other rooms, where they could follow the bidding on closed-circuit TV screens. The sale took only 21 minutes. But from the first rap of the auctioneer's hammer, prices leaped...

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