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.

1970: the first million-pound picture

For all that a modern auction would still be familiar to James Christie, the art market has changed almost beyond recognition during the past half century and Christie’s with it. Then, there were daily sales, sometimes two or three, in a diversity of specialist fields that are no longer regarded as profitable. Informed collecting was a game anyone could play and not simply a word used as a synonym for investment. Annual turnover was somewhere in the £20 millions.

In 1965, a New York office was tentatively opened. The first telephone bid was accepted in 1968. In the following year, a sale was held in Tokyo and, on November 27, 1970, the sale of one painting changed the way that the art market was perceived. Velázquez’s sublime Juan de Pareja, painted in 1650, had visited Christie’s twice before: first in 1801, when it was sold for 39 guineas from Sir William Hamilton’s collection, and again in 1966, when, lent by the Earl of Radnor, it was the star of the bicentennial exhibition.

The auction record for any work of art had stood at £821,482 since 1961 (when Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer was bought by the Metropolitan Museum in New York), so when one of the greatest masterpieces in British hands came in for sale, speculation was intense far beyond the art world—could this be the first £1 million picture?

I can still remember the tension in the crowd of Christie’s colleagues crushed in the doorway behind the rostrum and the unruffled suavity with which Patrick Lindsay bought the hammer down at 2,200,000 guineas (roughly £32 million today). The purchaser was Wildenstein, acting on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum. After that, the floodgates opened and ever more million markers were exceeded.

I doubt that the tension felt by the onlookers at Rockefeller Plaza almost exactly 46 years later was any greater than ours, although Jussi Pylkkänen’s demeanour was as composed as Lindsay’s had been.

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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.