The 5 sales which made Christie’s – No.4: The Holford sale

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.

1928: the Holford sale

The 1928–9 season saw the peak of the inter-World War art market, with Christie’s turnover at more than £2 million for the first time, equivalent today to about £110 million. The peak of that peak was the two-day sale of the Holford Collection of 78 Dutch and Flemish pictures in May 1928, for a total of £416,427 (£22,353,747 today).

Robert Holford (1808–92), who formed it, had inherited a fortune, partly from family involvement in the New River, which supplied London’s drinking water. He also began the development of the Westonbirt Arboretum, continued by his son, a general and courtier, who had no interest in art. In 1893, he sold his father’s prints and draw- ings at Christie’s, including one of the most famous works in the collection, Rubens’s drawing of his wife, Isabella Brant. After his own death, in 1926, the rest of the collection followed her.

On May 1, the rooms were packed and, as an eye witness ‘given a seat by one of the family’, recorded: ‘Mr Lance Hannen mounted the rostrum in an atmosphere rather resembling that of a fashionable “first night”… I was sitting next to a friend, a well-known collector, the late Walter Burns—“Prices are too high for me,” he said.’

The sale opened with a ‘superb little Rembrandt, signed and dated 1634’, which made 10,000 guineas, followed by three more, the most expensive selling for £48,000 guineas (today £2,705,472). Many of these paintings may have been demoted or reattributed by later scholarship, but the prices are no less impressive. Wall Street began its precipitous crash on October 24, 1929. Such peaks were not climbed again for many years.

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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.