Remembering Lorna Kelly: Sotheby's First Female Fine-Arts Auctioneer, Author, Speaker and Selfle
By Pam Nochlin
Lorna Kelly passed away this summer at the age of 70. I had the privilege of hearing this extraordinary woman speak at an event in 2014. I was so taken by her life’s journey, compassion and sense of humor that I immediately approached to ask if she’d be interested in speaking at a Thrive event – and to my delight she agreed.
Lorna talked about personal branding. Lorna, who was 68 at the time, had white hair with a shocking pink streak, which certainly made for a memorable personal brand. However at 5’10”, a delightful British accent and infectious laugh, she already had a larger than life presence.
Lorna’s remarkable life journey starts with a British school-girl upbringing. She came to America to study dance and wound up at Sotheby’s Auction House, working as a secretary. Over time, she realized she wanted to be an auctioneer and to her surprise the president agreed. With that opportunity she became the first female fine-arts auctioneer in America. With her typical over-the-top enthusiasm, she threw herself into the role with gusto. By all accounts she was a success and became one of their top auctioneers, (Lorna also made a cameo appearance as herself in the movie Sex and the City).
Yet she was harboring a not-to-discreet secret. While her career was rising at a meteoric rate, Lorna was also battling alcoholism and that eventually led to her undoing. As Lorna noted in her book, The Camel Knows the Way, “other characters in my life had come and gone but there was always one person featured in every disastrous episode – one person who was always at the scene of every tawdry crime – me.”
After 13 years, she was unceremoniously fired and felt felt she hit rock bottom. She needed to come to terms with her alcoholism and not only get sober (which she did and remained sober for the rest of her life), but to also look within. She told herself she “had to let God run the show and hoped He knew what He was doing.”
This led to a desire to embark on a spiritual journey and the overwhelming feeling she needed to meet Mother Teresa and help the poor. So she simply boarded a plane to Calcutta – this was the 1980’s and before the internet – and knocked at Mother Teresa’s door and thus began a new chapter of her life.
She stayed three weeks volunteering at the House for the Dying, where she administered to the terminally ill and it changed her life. As she wrote about helping one dying woman, “I scooped her up like a baby. She felt like a bony bird in my arms. My heart cracked open. I felt the shift.”
She returned many times over the years, developing an intensely strong bond with Mother Teresa. When asked what she was was like, Lorna simply said, “This little old lady could run General Motors.” If you ask me, Lorna could have as well.