This month, Christie’s is celebrating its 250th anniversary. Huon Mallalieu chooses five key sales that chart the transformation of a Pall Mall auction house into a giant of the international art market.

1882: the Hamilton Palace sale

Another extravagance of dukes occasioned the 17-day 1882 Hamilton Palace sale, described by Gerald Reitlinger in The Economics of Taste (1961–70) as ‘unquestionably the most magnificent sale of a single collection that has ever been held anywhere’. Eleven paintings were acquired by the National Gallery, but the sale was more notable in establishing the taste for 18th-century French furniture, which was to be such a feature of Rothschild and many great American collections.

As the Illustrated London News reported: ‘At the sale on Monday a Louis XVI. secretaire of ebony, inlaid with black and gold lacquer, mounted by Gouthiere, with the monogram of Marie Antoinette in the frieze entwined with wreaths and festoons of flowers, sold for £9,450… Such a price was never before given for a piece of furniture.’ The prices paid by the dealers, notably Samson Wertheimer on behalf of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, were not equalled for nearly half a century.

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Max Beerbohm’s The Red Cross Sale at Christie’s, April 1918 caricatures many artistic and literary personalities, including (at the centre, small and sad) J. M. Barrie. The auctioneer, Lance Hannen, can be glimpsed on his rostrum in the distance

Very different was the atmosphere at the Red Cross sales held each year between 1915 and 1918, which raised more than £320,000 (nearly £14 million today) for the charity. Most successful, and spectacular was the last: it consisted entirely of necklaces, pins, brooches and rings made from pearls donated by people of all sorts. The star was a necklace of 63 graduated pearls with a rose-diamond clasp, which made £22,000. At the view, it was remarked: ‘Other pearls come from the sea. These pearls come from human hearts, and human tenderness and gratitude will run up their purchase price.’

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Between 1969 and 1973, Huon Mallalieu worked at Christie’s in the English watercolours and prints department. Christie’s anniversary is the subject of a new book, “Going Once: 250 Years of Culture, Taste and Collecting at Christie’s”, published by Phaidon.