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.

1848: the Stowe sale

The end of the French wars created a new class of collectors and altered British picture-buying tastes. Many new men who had done well from the wars were suspicious of Old Masters, because it was becoming very apparent that aristocratic collections formed by Grand Tourists were riddled with copies and fakes. By the mid 19th century, the market for 17th-century Italian masters had collapsed. It was safer to go directly to living artists, or at least to their agents, which resulted in some of the highest prices, relatively, ever paid for contemporary art before the past couple of decades, and in the enrichment of the top dealers.

Similarly, before the turn of the 19th century, it was not thought possible that a ‘modern’ picture sold at auction might make more than the artist had originally received for it. However, the years between 1815 and the agricultural crash of the 1870s were golden for modern art.

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One of the highlights of the Stowe sale of 1848: the ‘Chandos’ portrait of Shakespeare, the first painting acquired by the National Portrait Gallery

There were, of course, also losers, most spectacular among them the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (1797–1861), whose contents sale at Stowe was the sensation of 1848. The Duke had built on his inherited debts magnificently until the annual interest exceeded his income. As The Times put it, he ‘flung all away by extravagance and folly, and reduced his honours to the tinsel of a pauper and the bauble of a fool’. The sale of Stowe’s contents —including even the deer in the park— stretched over 40 days in August and September.

 

The crowds were drawn more by Schadenfreude than the quality of the contents. An onlooker reported: ‘Standing under the Pantheon-like vault of the great central saloon, and glancing right and left at the endless vistas of gorgeous apartments, one realized the sacrilege that was being perpetrated.’ In fact, the family managed to retain or buy back some of its belongings and survived at Stowe until a final sale in the 1920s.

The 1848 sale was also notable for the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, which became the first work to enter the National Portrait Gallery, and for the involvement of Thomas Woods, son of Stowe’s gamekeeper, in the preparations. A decade later, he was a partner in Christie’s and became the foremost auctioneer of his time.

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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.