Peregrine Pollen’s position as president of Sotheby Parke-Bernet in New York involved livening up the stuffy world of the auction house. On one occasion, after a beachcomber in Florida spotted a gold necklace that turned out to be from a ship sunk in a storm in 1715, the company held a “Treasure of the Spanish Main” sale. Before bidding started Pollen dimmed the lights and silhouettes of the stricken fleet, flung about by a wrathful sea, were projected on to an enormous screen behind the podium.

Among the haul was a trunk of gold coins that were offered for sale only to children, who were formally addressed by the auctioneer as “sir” or “madam”. Behind him a large scarlet macaw named Julius, acquired by Pollen for the occasion, screeched: “Pieces of eight! Get your pieces of eight!” Once the sale was complete Julius retired to the Pollens’ ninth-floor apartment on Park Avenue, where on meeting Patricia, Pollen’s wife, he cried: “Lift up your skirt, lift up your skirt.”

A Devoted, Alcoholic Parrot

Julius was eventually dispatched to an unlicensed pet dealer in Queens, but shortly afterwards Pollen came home from a business trip with Papagoya, a South American caique that he claimed to have smuggled into the US by sedating it with vodka and hiding the comatose bird inside his coat. Papagoya duly became addicted to alcohol. It also took to roosting on Pollen’s shoulder, chewing devotedly on his ear lobes, and they would take walks together in Central Park.

On another occasion Pollen, a flamboyant character whose business attire in New York included cowboy boots and a coat that once belonged to his grandfather, smuggled four impressionist paintings out of Buenos Aires rolled up in a Beatles poster.

A Parke-Bernet auction in New York in 1970.

Pollen’s work entailed hosting a lot of cocktail parties and sometimes his young children would be roped in as additional waiting staff. Once a guest remarked to his young daughter Bella, “Goodness, child, you’ve got tall”, to which she blurted back, “and you’re fat”. As she recalled half a century later: “Both statements were equally true, but I’m pretty sure Mr Whipstein’s didn’t cost him a week’s pocket money and the mortification of an apology.”

A flamboyant character whose business attire in New York included cowboy boots, Pollen once smuggled four impressionist paintings out of Buenos Aires rolled up in a Beatles poster.

Peregrine Michael Hungerford Pollen was born in Oxford in 1931, the son of Captain Sir Walter Pollen, an industrialist who was awarded the Military Cross during the First World War, and his wife Rosalind (née Benson); he had a sister, Pandora, who was principal of Hatherop Castle School in Gloucestershire, from where she once expelled the rebellious Bella.

“We were very spoilt as a family,” Pollen told The Sunday Times in 2017. “My grandfather was a banker and he had a wonderful collection of Italian paintings, which he sold in the 1920s. The money ran out in the 1950s, but we still have some nice pictures and a small estate in Gloucestershire.” Another family collection had belonged to his great-uncle Sir George Holford and included four Rembrandts that ended up in the US. “Every once in a while, chasing round the States after some client, I run across an odd piece from the Holford collection,” he said.

Ran, Rode, and Rowed Three Miles in 14 Minutes

He was educated at Eton, did National Service with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and read classics at Christ Church, Oxford, where once he ran a mile, rode a mile and rowed a mile, all within 14 minutes. From 1955 to 1957 he served as ADC to Sir Evelyn Baring, governor of Kenya. Along the way he was a petrol pump attendant, warehouse man in Los Angeles, aluminium worker in British Columbia, psychiatric hospital attendant in Australia, organist in a Chicago nightclub, and pantry boy on the London-Las Palmas shipping route. He also taught Latin.

In 1958 he married Patricia Barry, who worked for the security services and was later a teacher in Harlem. They had three children: Susannah, who is an art adviser; Bella, an author; and Marcus, who runs a steelworks. They divorced in 1972 but remarried six years later, by which time he had two more children, Josh, a scientific cook, and Lally, a mature student, with Amanda Willis. Patricia died in September 2016 and he is survived by his five children and 11 grandchildren.

Pollen was a petrol pump attendant, warehouse man, psychiatric hospital attendant in Australia, organist in a Chicago nightclub, and pantry boy on the London–Las Palmas shipping route. He also taught Latin.

Before joining Sotheby’s Pollen applied for work at Christie’s in London, where his cousin was head of Old Master paintings. “But I got a hugely pompous letter back when I wrote to him asking for a job, so I gave up on them,” he recalled. Instead he followed the suggestion of a friend whose father was a director at Sotheby’s. “Don’t ask for a job, just walk in and ask what you should do,” he was told. “If you’re any good you’ll become indispensable; if not, they’ll sack you.”

Pollen with three of his children, in the mid-60s.

It was good advice. He was sent first to the Old Master department and then became personal assistant to Peter Wilson, the chairman. However, he soon got bored and in his free time tried to start a helicopter commuting service into London that never quite took off. In 1960 Sotheby’s sent him to open an office in New York, where he took a stand at a trade fair, furnishing it with black-and-white photos of recent sales, prompting one passer-by to remark: “I always thought Rubens painted in colour.” The exercise won him the chance to sell surplus stock from the Guggenheim collections.

Convinced Sotheby’s to Acquire Parke-Bernet

Four years later he learnt that Parke-Bernet Galleries, the largest auction house in America, was for sale. He convinced the Sotheby’s board that they should acquire it, giving the company its first overseas saleroom. Within five years he had tripled their combined turnover despite insisting that they should refuse any impressionist or later painting if there was any doubt about its authenticity.

As president of the merged company Pollen recruited bright young experts in specialised categories of art. He opened offices in Los Angeles and other US cities before moving south to Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. The company also opened PB-84, a discount saleroom in New York.

Behind the scenes his office was a mishmash of utilitarian contemporary laden with a tired sofa, metal bookcases and a “stop smoking” sign. “Within two minutes, you know the sign hasn’t worked,” recalled a visitor from Home Furnishings Daily in 1969. “Peregrine Pollen buzzes the intercom and asks someone to bring him a cigarette.” Occasionally he would “bunk off” work, round up his children and take them to see a film.

In 1972 the family returned to London, where he was executive vice-chairman of Sotheby’s, reinforcing its international operations. However, he was passed over for the chairmanship and retired in 1982. Thereafter he maintained his involvement with the art world, particularly British drawings. He was an instinctive collector and his pursuit of objects that fascinated him bordered on obsession. His curiosity and brilliant eye resulted in an extraordinary range of collections in fields as diverse as minerals, shells, natural history specimens and tribal art.

His office was a mishmash of utilitarian contemporary laden with a tired sofa, metal bookcases and a “stop smoking” sign. Occasionally he would “bunk off” work, round up his children and take them to see a film.

He was a trustee of Westonbirt, the national arboretum created by Robert Holford, his great-grandfather, and would travel widely, collecting, propagating and planting seeds as well as corresponding with experts around the world. He established woods of native trees to replace losses from diseases such as Dutch elm and ash dieback, planting between 6,000 and 8,000 trees and recording them all. To these he added rare trees, transforming over 40 years the landscape of Norton Hall, the family home in Gloucestershire. There he would shoot pigeons, drive the tractor and build 20ft bonfires.

Pollen was an insatiably curious man with a genuine fascination for people, places and things. He was tall, slim and bespectacled, with the long fingers of a pianist; he was a fine amateur player and taught his children the instrument. When interested in something he would take off his heavy, black-rimmed glasses and pinch the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. As a young man he played tennis in cowboy boots, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth; in later years he would travel by train to Paddington with a plastic bag containing his newspaper hooked to one finger and a toothbrush poking from his jacket pocket. He would sleep on his back with his hands crossed, benediction-style, over his chest.

Fur Collars, White Food, Never Water

Colleagues recalled the fur collars on his coat, which they described as “a well-worn fibre doormat” or “a collage of a shredded wheat”. He enjoyed white food, such as soft smelly cheeses and Mother’s Pride bread, hot dogs and shellfish. He would never drink water: not in a restaurant, not in a desert, not if his life depended on it.

While in New York this tall, sophisticated Englishman with an easy grasp of American idioms spent about ten days a month pursuing auction spoils across the US, finding that doors opened with ease. “There are extraordinary collections here, and extraordinary collecting; nothing like in England,” he told The New York Times in 1966. Other times he would be taking bids at auctions, visiting collectors or, as Bella recalled, “serving time in a Chilean prison for a crime nobody has ever quite got to the bottom of”.

Peregrine Pollen, auctioneer, was born on January 24, 1931. He died after being struck by a truck on February 18, 2020, aged 89