Thursday, 26 July 2007

Sales of the centuries

House contents sales are dead. Long live house sales. Time was when the chattels of homes, big and small, rich or poor, were almost without exception sold on the premises but sadly, not any more. The once rich source of bargains for the amateur collector and the professional dealer alike are now rarities that are marked by much blowing of trumpets and banging of drums by the auctioneers.

I had the pleasure of attending one of the biggest to be seen in recent times when the contents of Sunlight Soap magnate Lord Leverhulme’s home at Thornton Manor, Wirral, were dispersed.

That sale over three days in June 2001 raised £9.6 million, still a record total for any UK country house sale. So, no bargains there, I'm afraid!

But oh for a return to the house sales of 20 years ago ... it's where we learned much of what we know and where we bought much of what we own.

Ah yes, I remember them well. Like the time we stood among a crowd of buyers in the pouring rain at the front door of a house stuffed with the treasures of generations of hoarders. The only person who kept himself dry was the auctioneer.

He had the presence of mind to remain under the eaves of the front porch while the rest of us stood in the rain.

We came home with the makings of pneumonia, a marvellous Staffordshire flatback figure called Flight into Egypt (Joseph leading an ass with Mary seated upon it cradling the infant Jesus) and a Victorian glass wasp trap. (They look like a clear glass chianti bottle with feet and no base. You fill a rim around the inside with beer which attracts the wasps. They fly in through the hole in the base but, because they cannot find the way out, they drown exhausted in the drink. Cruel, but highly effective).

Then there was the time we drove miles to a sale, simply on the strength of a newspaper advert which listed "dinner service" among the things to be sold.

When we were married, my parents gave us six plates that had been given to them as a wedding present from their parents. What if the dinner service in the sale matched our plates?

We arrived ... late ... to find the assembled buyers already besieging the auctioneer with bids for the fine furniture, silver and paintings on offer.

However, the china, glass, bric-a-brac and general detritus that makes house sales so much fun was laid out in meandering lines on the extensive lawns at the front of the house.

Amazingly, the dinner service was the same as our own and thankfully, it was to be sold where it lay at the end of the day.

By the time the proceedings reached the two tea chests crammed with our plate-matching dinner service, the serious buyers of the day had departed. We bid, almost casually, and several dozen pieces were ours - and remain so - for very little outlay.

Then there was the time we heard about a sale on the premises that included a grandfather (sorry, longcase) clock bearing the name of a maker who, centuries earlier, had lived in our home town.

We had to make the clock our own. Sadly, though, the money - or the lack of it was going to be a problem.

Hours of agonising later, we agreed that our only option was "to go liquid" as the money men would have it.

With less than two weeks to go before the sale, we called friends, contacted friendly dealers and placed ads in the local paper to sell bits from our beloved collection that we had convinced ourselves we could live without.

It all backfired, of course. Come the sale and bidding for the clock spiralled way past what not just we could afford but, with the exception of two or three people who just kept on outbidding each other, and every other potential purchaser there too.

It transpired that the reason for the house sale was a disagreement between a brother and his sisters who had inherited the property and its contents. No one could agree on an amicable share-out of the spoils, so an auctioneer was called in.

If they wanted something from the house, then they would have to bid for it. In their case, of course, money was not a problem. The cash raised from the sale was being split between them as beneficiaries, so whatever they spent, they would subsequently get a percentage back!

We vowed that next time, we would buy first, then go liquid to pay what we owed!

Picture shows: The cover of Sotheby’s two-volume catalogue for the sale of The Leverhulme Collection – still the most valuable house contents sale in the UK

Chirk Castle sale – a rare treat for collectors

Today, house contents sales “to be conducted on the premises” are so expensive to organise that usually only the largest of properties feature in them. Usually, it is far more cost-effective to ship the contents of smaller, less important homes back to a saleroom for cataloguing and eventual sale.

However, dealers and collectors in the area enjoyed a rare treat on Monday, June 21, when Christie’s staged a classic country house sale at Chirk Castle, near Wrexham (pictured above). Click here for top ten prices

More than 600 lots of works of art, furniture, paintings, ceramics, books and silver as well as antique household effects were sold from the private collection of the Myddelton family who have lived at Chirk, now a National Trust property, since 1595.

The sale followed the decision by Guy Myddelton to move his family out of the private wing of the castle because it has become too busy an environment to bring up his young children. “We will not be able to take all our belongings with us to our new home, hence we have instructed Christie’s to stage this sale,” he said.

Highlights of the sale included a George III mahogany serving-table (estimate in the region of £80,000) and a set of four George III mahogany hall chairs attributed to Mayhew & Ince (estimate in the region of £20,000).

Dating to the period when A.W.N. Pugin was involved in the remodelling of Chirk were a pair of early Victorian cast-iron and brass andirons, from a design attributed to Pugin, probably produced by John Hardman & Co., Birmingham (estimate in the region of £10,000) and a pair of Victorian oak benches, also probably designed by Pugin (estimate in the region of £8,000).

Among books were four volumes entitled a collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman antiquities from the Cabinet of the Hon. William Hamilton, Naples (1766-67) (estimate: £20,000-30,000), while paintings ranged from Old Masters to a small selection of portraits.

Unique and appealing antique household objects included collections of falconry tackle, hunting horns, Yeomanry swords, tack, 18th century leather fire buckets with family initials and Georgian men’s costume.



Anonymous Janet said...

Hello Christopher,
have you heard of John Buck. I just picked up a Pitcher jug that is a off white colour with pink roses. It says underneath Britania Pottery, Stoke on trent,John Buck made in England. I have not found anything about them on the net.
Best regards


9 August 2010 at 00:45  

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