Thursday, Sep. 04, 2008

Lorna Kelly

Lorna Kelly was 30 years old and a firecracker secretary at Sotheby's New York when the esteemed auction house informed her that she was simply too wild to be promoted to executive row when her boss was named senior vice president. Kelly had atomic energy and a theatrical British accent and wore rings on every finger and vintage clothes. So instead, she was transferred to the Japanese division, and shortly after that she knocked on the door of the president, telling him that what she'd really like to do is conduct her own sales. To her shock, and with a decision that made history, he said, "I think that's a good idea."

As the first female auctioneer in American art's major leagues, the British-born Kelly has spent decades on the rostrum, selling everything from Monets to Mondrians and displaying her blazing charisma. "As soon as I walked through the doors at Sotheby's, I knew. It was like spotting your honey across the room," she says. "It was the energy of the marketplace. And that it involved beautiful things." Today, as an independent auctioneer, she is called upon to sell items like the last diamond necklace worn by Princess Diana. And her gavel-wielding panache earned her a cameo in the Sex in the City movie—as herself.

What sets her apart, she says, is compassion. "Do you really want to know? I think I'm one of the best in America," says Kelly, who, at 63, is an avid student of Buddhism and often sports a dramatic pink streak in her hair. "I can't do grand ballet or cook to save my life, but I'm a great auctioneer. When I'm on the rostrum, I don't feel at all like I'm getting something from you. I am helping marry you with your desire." —Kristina Zimbalist