From Georgian times until the past 20 years or so, Country House Sales were a relatively frequent occurrence. We all loved them because they offered the perfect mix of fabulous pieces across the board with a wonderful provenance. For those selling, a single auction or series of auction provided them with catalogues of the events that could be kept as family mementos. For buyers, it was the chance to nose around a grand home and perhaps pick up something decent that had the gloss and glamour of aristocratic connections.
These sales were relatively commonplace between the end of the Second World War and the late 1960s, when homes that had been turned over to the military were restored to those who could no longer afford to keep or renovate them.
In recent years, such sales have been rarer, although we were delighted to host one in June at Selham House.
Now, however, what promises to be the ‘Country House’ sale of the decade has been announced: in fact it is the sale of the contents of eight homes, all belonging to the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who died in 2019.
Although his personal style was one of restrained flamboyance, limiting himself to black and white in his own dress, Lagerfeld’s lavish tastes found magnificent expression in his homes.
From traditional sets of porcelain and antique sculpture to the most contemporary of modern art, the designer’s possessions seem to have no limit. In true country house fashion, items for sale cross a very wide expanse, from furniture and elaborate works of art to handbags, glassware and clothing.
Goodness knows how much money all this will take, but the auctioneers should make a pretty penny simply from selling copies of the catalogues, which will immediately become collectors’ pieces themselves.
Although auctions date back millennia, they not only remain relevant today as a way of conducting business, but as up to date as ever.
The Romans settled the throny issue of the Empire’s succession by literally lotting it up in its entirety and selling it off to the highest bidder. The lucky winner was Marcus Didius Julianus, who won the prize in AD 133. Luck soon turned against him, though, when the Senate condemned him nine weeks later after his rival – and successor – Severus got the upper hand.
From antique furniture to NFTs, fine art and collectables have always found a happy home at auction. In recent years, as technology has widened its scope considerably, the auction process has been applied to everything from imports confiscated by customs to nuclear power stations.
As an auctioneer myself, I have always been committed to the process, but I have often wondered who else is, so in the past few days I checked by using a simple Google search.
Here are a few of the things I found being offered at auction: a First Class Seat (not a ticket for it but the seat itself) from an aeroplane; a guest role in the TV series Doc Martin; an abandoned chateau in the South of France (sold for just €205,000!); the Porsche used by Tom Cruise in the film Risky Business ($1.8m!); and a First Edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (over $1m!).
My favourite article, though, was an opinion column on whether cricket teams should scrap the toss at the beginning of matches because it gave too much of an advantage to the winner. Instead, it suggested, teams should bid against each other, awarding each other runs for the privilege of choosing who should bat first. The highest offer would effectively win ‘the toss’.
One of my favourite stories of the past week or so has been about the sale of Napoleon’s trademark bicorn hat. So the story goes, the seller did not know when they bought it that it had once belonged to the great French general and emperor. Only when they had investigated inscriptions on it, its dimensions and, ultimately, hairs found within it, was it confirmed to have been the real deal.
Estimated at £100,000-150,000, it seems a conservative price bearing in mind that other Napoleonic hats have made up to £1 million.
The emergence of the hat at auction set me thinking about what other lost treasures might come to light. Which would I most like to see and what might they be worth?
The list may be endless, but assuming you could verify them as the genuine article, few things would excite potential bidders as much as King John’s Treasure, lost in The Wash just over 800 years ago. A modern-day speculator claims to have found the site where it lies near Sutton Bridge – we shall see. No one is certain of its exact contents, but if it lives up to the legend then it must be worth tens of millions of pounds at least.
Another great loss was the Amber Room, presented to Tsar Peter the Great by the Prussian king Fredrich Wilhelm I in 1716. Looted by the Nazis, it was lost from view until salvage experts recently claimed to have found it in a sunken warship off Poland. Divers, however, said they found nothing.
The ultimate lost treasure? Surely it has to be the legendary Holy Grail, an item that would be utterly priceless.
What is art? How many times have I heard that question asked? And how many times answered? If anyone ever thinks they have found the definitive response, they would probably make a fortune.
You may think it doesn’t matter, and for the most part it may not. Certainly, some things clearly are art and some things are not. The difficulty is establishing the boundary between the two; a bit like the exact moment you go from being awake to being asleep.
What made me get all philosophical about this was the news that what is arguably now Banksy’s most famous artwork, Love is in the bin – previously Girl with Balloon – was back on the market and expected to make up to $8 million at auction.
It became his most celebrated – or notorious – artwork after it was shredded live during its last sale three years ago. Was it an automated reaction to the hammer falling at just over a million pounds or a remotely controlled process (by someone acting for the artists in the room?)?
Apparently, it was Banksy’s social comment on the art market, which he holds in contempt as he continues to rake in millions from it.
Whether it was a genuine attempt to destroy market value in an expensive painting or not, the controversial incident only added to the work’s allure and price tag. But why? Is it a better picture for being shredded or not? Is its true value found in Banksy’s destructive treatment of it or in his original concept? Should it be seen now as a picture or a piece of performance art?
I’ll leave you to ponder on all that. But what it tells me is that art does not have to be beautiful to be successful.