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.

1766: the first sale

The first lot to be offered by James Christie in his own permanent rooms in Pall Mall, on December 5, 1766, was catalogued as ‘six breakfast pint basons and plates’. It was knocked down to Mr Sheppherd at 19 shillings, which, allowing purely for inflation, might be £160 today. The total for that first, five-day sale was £174 16s 6d—by the same token, £28,000 today.

On November 12, 2013, in New York, Jussi Pylkkänen, James Christie’s distant successor, sold 73 lots of post-Second World War and contemporary art for $691.6 million (£553.8m), with a top price of $142,405,060 (£89,473,060) for Francis Bacon’s triptych portrait of Lucian Freud.

Given the richness of both history and art, it is difficult to tell the auction house’s progress from Pall Mall to its present home in King Street, SW1—and ultimately worldwide giant—in just one sale for each half- century and necessarily many triumphs and disasters must be passed over. That first sale followed some years’ apprenticeship, during which Christie probably worked as clerk and partner to Mr Annesley, an established auctioneer in Covent Garden, then the centre of the London art market.

christies

James Christie, depicted on the rostrum as ‘The Specious Orator’ in this print by Robert Dighton, 1794

Although, from 1764 at the latest, he was putting on his own sales in other people’s premises, the first Pall Mall catalogue marks his firm’s true birth. It was also a sale that foreshadowed one of the major strengths of Christie’s business over the following centuries. It was essentially what we know as a contents sale: ‘The Genuine Household Furniture, jewels, Plate, Fire- Arms, China &c. And a large Quantity of Maderia [sic] and high Flavour’d Claret. Late the Property of a Noble Personage (Deceased).’ Among the various chattels were ‘Useful and ornamental Chelsea, Dresden and Oriental China, a Musical Spring Clock and Eight-day ditto, some fine Bronzes, Models, Pictures &c. &c.’

In March 1767, the first dedicated picture sale was organised and, despite only modest success, Christie soon afterwards attracted a collection of paintings from the Duke of Leeds and the business was fully launched. Techniques and strategies were much the same as today: the enticement of fashionable vendors, if necessary by the judicious offer of ‘money advanced on valuables’, astute use of publicity, theatrical presentation and the cultivation of the press.

Private sales were negotiated from the beginning. In 1778, Christie was commissioned by Lord Orford to value his late father Sir Robert Walpole’s pictures from Houghton House, Norfolk, which he proposed to sell to the Empress Catherine the Great. Christie, in turn, called on the expertise of the painters Benjamin West and Giovanni Battista Cipriani and the painter-dealer Philippe Tassaert and, between them, they settled on a total of £40,455 (now perhaps £2,171,625), which was largely accepted.

One private sale that got away was Christie’s attempt to acquire the Orléans paintings, the greatest non-royal collection in Europe, at 100,000 guineas on behalf of a syndicate that included the Prince of Wales. It must have hurt when, in 1793, his successful rivals exhibited the collection at Mr Bryan’s nearby Pall Mall rooms, attracting 2,000 visitors a day at 1s a head.

– – –

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.