It was not an event to change the course of empire; but it was history nonetheless. On Jan. 29, when Libby Howie, a gray-eyed, 5′ blonde banged the gavel at Sotheby’s, she became the first woman auctioneer at London’s famed art auction house since it was founded 232 years ago.
“I didn’t see three bids,” she recalls. “My hands were shaking so that I couldn’t pick up the glass of water in front of me. And when I finished, I could hardly talk.” But amid applause and cries of “Brava!” the 24-year-old had also sold a creditable $35,000 worth of 19th-century and modern prints.
Sotheby’s head, Peter Wilson, claims the firm promoted Libby “because we want to show that we know life didn’t stop in 1550.” A committed feminist, she might have bridled when her boss described her as “a sweet girl. She’s very, very good.” Instead Libby shrugged. “I sense a certain condescension,” she says, “but it could also be because I’m a young person in an old firm.”
An amateur actress and English literature major at Girton College, Cambridge (she reads three or four 19th-century novels a week), Libby enrolled in Sotheby’s fine arts course in 1973 (graced this year by Caroline Kennedy). In January 1974, she was one of 10 students, out of 50, offered jobs. She now heads her own department, dealing with prints dated 1840 on.
Next month she will take a break from her labors to marry barrister Timothy Scott, 26. They will settle in a one-bedroom flat in west London, where Libby keeps her modest print collection. (“My taste is too expensive to buy what I really want—like the Toulouse-Lautrecs.”) “I don’t know if children are necessary to me,” adds Libby. “If I do have them I wouldn’t mind paying everything I earn for a nanny.”
For her next auction—she will “perform” six times a year—Libby intends to brighten her clothing and follow a suggestion “to be more relaxed.” Meanwhile, she is already peeking beyond the rostrum. “I want to get as far as I possibly can,” she declares, “though I have no idea how far that is.”