Posts tagged ‘Christie’s’

July 6, 2019

Year of the Dealer – Antiques Trade Gazette and the Harewood Library Table and ‘Raynham’ Commodes

Thank you to Frances Allitt and the team at the Antiques Trade Gazette (ATG) for the news piece on the launch of the SOLD! The Year of the Dealer project. Frances composed a short promotional piece in the ATG this week – See – ATG Year of the Dealer. We have been busy in planning meetings the last few weeks, at the V&A Museum, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Temple Newsam and at the University of Leeds, settling on final dates for some of the planned events and activities – you can follow updates on the Year of the Dealer project website – Click Here.

In the coming weeks we are planning further project meetings with the rest of the project partners. There’s still a lot of work to do, but the Year of the Dealer is beginning to take shape and the final lists of the 20 objects that will form each of the proposed curated ‘dealer trails’ through the galleries at the 7 major museum partners are coming together.  We can give you an exclusive preview of just one of the 20 key objects identified for the ‘Year of the Dealer’ antique dealer trail for Temple Newsam in Leeds –

Library Table, c.1770, by Thomas Chippendale; formerly at Harewood House, near Leeds, now at Temple Newsam, Leeds. Photograph courtesy of Leeds Museums & Galleries

And here it is –  the famous Library Table made by Thomas Chippendale, c.1770 for Harewood House, near Leeds.  The ‘Year of the Dealer’ trail will obviously mention Chippendale in the story about the Library Table but the main focus of the trails will be the stories about the antique dealers that lie behind the acquisition of the objects by the museums.  For the Harewood Library Table the story we will be foregrounding is how it was acquired by Temple Newsam through the antique dealers’ H. Blairman & Sons in July 1965.   The Library Table was purchased by the antique dealer George Levy, Director of H. Blairman & Sons, at Christie’s auction sale of artworks from Lord Harewood’s estate in London on 1st July 1965 (the table was lot 57).  Blairman’s were established in 1884 and George Levy had joined the business in 1949 – here’s the H. Blairman & Sons stand at the famous Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, London, in June 1950, the year after George Levy joined the business.

H. Blairman & Sons stand at the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair 1950. Photograph courtesy of H. Blairman & Sons.

The 1965 auction sale of the Harewood Library Table generated a great deal of interest at the time – one anonymous reporter writing in Tatler 30th June 1965, the day before the auction, wrote, ‘There is little doubt that such an item will cause a lively stir in the saleroom and I shall be surprised if it does not eventually reach five figures.’  Martin Levy (the son of George Levy), and who remains the owner and director of H. Blairman & Sons, recalls that his father persuaded the group of Yorkshire businessmen who had agreed to support the acquisition of the Harewood table for Leeds Museums & Galleries, that he should bid the agreed limit of 40,000 guineas ‘plus one’ at the Christie’s auction – this was to ensure that if Blairman entered the bidding on the ‘wrong foot’ so to speak – i.e. if they entered the bidding at say 20,000 guineas and their maximum bid was 40,000 guineas, they may end up with a bid at 39,000 guineas, with the opposition having the bid of 40,000 guineas…so a bid of ‘plus one’ would potentially secure the object – indeed, George Levy’s suggestion proved prescient, as the final and successful auction bid was 41,000 guineas!

41,000 guineas (a guinea is £1 + 1 shilling) equated to £43,050 in 1965 and was at the time acknowledged as a world record price for a piece of English furniture. This was indeed an enormous sum for a piece of antique furniture; the equivalent value today would be about £2,450,000 (see Measuring  It’s always difficult to work out relative values of course, and the notion of a ‘world record price’ is no less complex – Gerald Reitlinger (The Economics of Taste, volume 3, 1963 and which was obviously published slightly before the auction sale of the Harewood Library Table) cites several ‘world record’ prices for English furniture – (Reitlinger’s data is derived from artworks circulating on the auction market of course…we don’t know about any values from private treaty sales…).  Reitlinger cites 10,000 guineas (£10,605) in at an auction in 1928, paid for a Queen Anne console table with matching mirror and torcheres (what is often called a ‘trio’), and sold from the collections of Earl Howe, as the world record auction price for English furniture in the 1920s; although Reitlinger also notes the sale, in 1921, of one of the famous ‘Raynham Commodes’, (also attributed to Chippendale) which made £3,900 (equating to £1,721,000 today).

According to Reitlinger the ‘world record’ of £10,605 of 1928 stood until 1961 when he recorded that one of the famous ‘Rainham Commodes’  (also called ‘Raynham’) was sold in New York for £25,000 – I’m not so sure about this?…According to the newspaper reports at the time (30th June 1961) the piece that sold for £25,000 in New York was, and I quote, ‘an Adam-Chippendale satinwood and mahogany marquetry serpentine-front commode in the French taste.  A masterpiece of design probably executed by Chippendale himself.’  The ‘Rainham Commode’ is, as many of you will know, a mahogany commode (sans marquetry) – here’s a couple of illustrations of ‘Rainham/Raynham’ model commodes – left is an 18th century mahogany commode, described as ‘possibly supplied to…Raynham Hall, Norfolk’ and which was sold at Christie’s New York in 1998 (for c. $1,500,000) at the auction sale of the stock of the New York antique dealer French & Co.  This commode incidentally was previously in the stock of the antique dealer Walter Waddingham, of Harrogate, in 1955, and was shown by Waddingham at the famous Grosvenor House Antiques Fair in the same year.  On the right is an acknowledged ‘Raynham Hall’ commode – this one is now at the Philadelphia Art Museum in the USA, and was acquired in 1941 having been in the collections of both H.H. Mulliner (1861-1924) and William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951).

18th century commode, sold at the auction sale of the stock of the dealer French & Co. – Christie’s New York 1998. Photograph copyright Christie’s New York.
18th century commode, from Raynham Hall, Norfolk. Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA. Purchased with the John D. McIllhenny Fund, 1941. Photograph copyright Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The history of the ‘Rainham’ and ‘Raynham’ commodes is also complicated by the fact that the well-known collector of English furniture, H. H. Mulliner, purchased Rainham Hall, which is in Essex, in 1920 as a suitable home for his extraordinary collection of antique English furniture; Mulliner’s collection is said to have included a commode from Raynham Hall, Norfolk  – so maybe there is more unravelling to do on these ‘Raynham’ and ‘Rainham’ commodes?

The Norfolk Raynham Commode was actually made much more famous in the popular television series’ Tales of the Unexpected (1980), in a version of Roald Dahl’s short story ‘Parson’s Pleasure‘ (1959). In the TV version, in which John Gielgud plays the crooked antique dealer ‘Cyril Boggis’, Mr Boggis stumbles across a piece of Chippendale furniture in an old farmhouse – and the model for the piece of Chippendale furniture is the ‘Raynham Commode’ – you can just see the commode, painted white, in this film still from the episode of Tales of the Unexpected.

Still from ‘Parson’s Pleasure’ in Tales of the Unexpected (1980).

Roald Dahl was a very keen collector of antique furniture himself, and specifically mentions the Raynham commode in his short story – as Dahl writes; ‘He knew, as does every other dealer in Europe and America, that among the most celebrated and coveted examples of eighteenth-century English furniture in existence are the three famous pieces known as ‘The Chippendale Commodes’….coming out of Raynham Hall, Norfolk.’ (Parson’s Pleasure, in Kiss, Kiss, p.78). Dahl mirrors the real-life history of the Raynham commode in his story – during the negotiations between ‘Mr Boggis’ and the farmers who own the commode, one of the farmers (‘Bert’) asks his fellow farmer to fetch ‘that bit of paper you found at the back of one of them drawers’ (Parson’s Pleasure, in Kiss, Kiss, p.82) – this proved to be the original bill for the commode, supplied by Thomas Chippendale; mimicking an article by the furniture historian Herbert Cescinsky published in Burlington Magazine in June 1921 which highlighted the presence, then as now, lost, of the original bill for one of the ‘Raynham’ commodes.

But anyway, besides this fascinating interweaving of fact and fiction in the history of the Raynham Commodes, what we hope that the Year of the Dealer trails will draw attention to is the complex relationships between cultural value and economic value.  Indeed, if we take the Measuring calculations for these auction sale values of English furniture we can see that the notion of a ‘World Record price’ is a notoriously difficult thing to nail down.  For example, the economic value of the Queen Anne ‘trio’ sold in 1928 of 10,000 guineas (£10,605) was the equivalent of c.£5,000,000; and the ‘Rainham Commode’ sold in 1961 for £25,000 (if indeed it was the ‘Rainham Commode) was the equivalent of just £1,881,000.  So technically the Queen Anne ‘trio’ sold in 1928 still holds the ‘world record’ for a piece of English furniture sold at auction, even surpassing the auction sale of the Harewood Library Table in 1965 (equivalent of £2,450,000).

But then again, there’s more to ‘World Records’ that merely economic calculations; they are complex cultural and social signifiers that both transcend and complexify the blunt instrument of economic value.


June 14, 2016

Reflections on the Antique Trade – John Hudson, Christie’s & James Oakley Antiques

We’ve had a huge amount of help and information on the history of the British Antique Trade from various people, and one of the most energetic supports of the project has been John Hudson – he has given us a variety of antique dealer ephemera, and also sent us these fascinating reflections on his life in the world of art & antiques, and from his time working at Christie’s auctioneers – and with the forthcoming celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Christie’s this year, we thought John’s memories would be of considerable interest. Anyway, Here’s John, in his younger days –

john h

John Hudson

And here are John’s reflections –

“Looking back to the some 50 years ago when I first started at Christie’s in 1965 behind the Front Counter, the entire staff, including overseas offices, was about 120, and a turnover of £4.5 million.  There were no Fax machines, photocopiers, the Internet, or digital cameras. The secretaries typed one off formal letters with a carbon copy, any mistake and the whole letter had to be redone!

  The Main London Salerooms advertised their sales in the Daily Telegraph and The Times on Mondays and Tuesdays respectively, with the occasional provincial auctioneer included. To be informed about sales in the provinces the trade would subscribe to a press cuttings agency , Romeike, who would cut out the relevant advertisements out of the local papers and about twice a week post the group of clippings. The arrival of the Antiques Trade  Gazette  and photocopier were the death knell of this service.

  At Christie’s there was a constant flow of private and trade clients  to the front counter (this was before any Regional Offices opened, the early 1970s saw the first two , Shropshire and the West Country; Scotland and Ireland were  a few years later) bringing in items for  inspection and valuation for possible sale and for this purpose there were three small rooms and later four, where items could be unpacked and discussed discretely; if a client only brought in a single item or so we would take it up to the relevant department to be looked at to save the “expert” ( Christie’s preferred the term Technical Advisor)  spending a lot of time going up and downstairs.  If there were several items or a piece of importance then of course some one would come and see the client. 

  Something I noticed about the trade clients, those who came with items to sell, tended to be those that covered the Country Sales, in many case  driving a significant mileage each week, bringing their discoveries as often they had no retail outlet.  Also we saw a few Brighton knockers and the Irish knockers.  I well recall one Brighton knocker telling me how they would advertise in the Shires, to say they were in the area, looking to buy pictures, silver, porcelain etc. when  one winter, they received a letter with a heading or something similar like:- ” Ivy Cottage , Lower *****,  *****shire. ” or words to the effect that the writer was a spinster and because of the weather she wished  in due course to move into the nearby town and had a considerable amount of silver , china and pictures etc she wished to sell.  There was no telephone number so the dealer and his associate changed their plans and immediately set off at short notice to see the lady concerned.  After a considerable time spent in a fruitless search for the cottage, they called in at the local police station.  The police checked their records and said as far as they were concerned the address didn’t exist and could it be that a local dealer or rival had written the letter!    

  Auction catalogues were available both illustrated and unillustrated, but with no estimates printed, and this in a curious way helped to alert if there was a possible sleeper, by undue interest, as verbal estimates were available on request.  Printed price lists  with the names of buyers as well as “bought in” names after the sale cost 5/- or 25p, often more than the cost of the original catalogue ( this was an historic quirk as the young clerks originally supplemented their income by writing up the catalogue with the prices realised and the buyers names for various members of the trade, some had as many as 20to 30 dealers covering the different categories charging 5/- each sale).   Although the porters in Christie’s weren’t allowed to bid for a client, senior staff were; history relates that the Chief Sales Clerk at Christie’s, before the Second World War, was able to employ a butler and gardener on the strength of his tips.  When I arrived at Christie’s South Kensington in 1977  the porters had been allowed to bid in sales with the previous firm Coes, and many of them were already home owners. 

  In London up to the early 1980s there was a furniture sale every day of the week each saleroom having their own designated day.  In the Season at Christie’s, which usually ran from late September, with perhaps a House sale or two earlier in the month, until July the following year, with a 3 week break at Christmas, would see:-

Monday, ceramics, English, Continental, or Chinese Porcelain

Tuesday, Watercolours/drawings/prints and or Japanese works of Art, or Works of Art & objects of vertu or Antiquities

Wednesday, Silver and or Jewellery,

Thursday, Furniture, Wine and sometimes Books

Friday, Paintings, various  categories, English, Continental, Old Masters, Modern British, Impressionist

Christie’s were renowned for selling in Guineas; this was because in the very early days the 0ne shilling difference was the vendors commission.  Guineas ceased on decimalisation in 1972.

  I should perhaps mention how I started my career in the Auction World.  At Christie’s the foreman Porter at the time Jim Taylor hired and fired the porters, unless they were student porters.  In the 1960s many of the porters had served in the same Regiment as the Partners (Directors) during WWII; also a number were related by marriage.  The young Clerks in the general office were selected by the Headmaster of a School near Pimlico who sent his brightest pupils, at the end of the Summer Term, just in time for the start of the new season.  The girls were interviewed by Mrs Andrews who ran the filing room. The Directors usually chose and interviewed their own secretary, sometimes a girl whose family might have an interesting Painting or Collection. 

  I was fortunate that my Great Uncle and Aunt had had antiques shops in both Bury Street and Duke Street since the 1920s till early 1960s, and had known many of the directors at Christie’s for a considerable time.  Christie’s was bombed by incendiaries during  WWII, but because there were fire pickets on duty during that night (a member of the picket John Hancock was working at Christie’s up until the 1980s) they were able to save the archives including all the auctioneers books since Christie’s foundation in 1766, as well as the day books going back to the 1840s.  Christie’s was rebuilt after WWII and re-opened in the Autumn of 1953.  Everything that came in for sale was able to be stored on the premises including furniture, it was only as late as about 1969 that the furniture was moved out to a warehouse (Hudsons just across the road from platform 1 at Victoria Station, ) now long gone.         

   My Great Uncle and Aunt were James Oakes and Amy Oakes. Uncle served in World War1 with the South Staffordshire Regiment, he was a skilled clock maker and in his house he had a Year Clock, a Month clock and an 8 day clock, all made by him. He was keen on engineering and always used to have a Buggatti car.   He had premises next to the Aolian Hall in Bond Street, opposite Sothebys, but moved to Bury St St James’s because of the noise from the musicians.  After World War II , he moved to Duke Street, St James’s. (Here’s an advertisement by James Oakes, in the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair Handbook, 1950).

James Oakes GH 1950

Grosvenor House Antiques Fair Handbook 1950 – James Oakes Antiques.

  After Christie’s was rebuilt in 1953 my Uncle supplied the clock in the main saleroom and in the anti-room, which were each situated above the main door.  My Aunt also had a shop, in The Old Bailey close to the Criminal Court, where she sold jewellery, early English porcelain, pocket watches,  and possibly silver.  Her shop was one of the few shops to survive the bombing in WWII and was pulled down in the 1950s.  My Uncle took out a 15 year lease (for I believe £5,000 a year) on a three storey building 121 New Bond Street in 1960, but died a year later.  So my Aunt took over the shop until the very late 1960s when sadly dementia took its toll and she was no longer able to continue.”

Fascinating stuff John…thank you for sharing this with the Antique Dealer Research project!



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The Period Room: Museum, Material, Experience

An International Conference hosted by The Bowes Museum and The University of Leeds

H. Blairman & Sons Ltd

A research project investigating the history of the antiques trade in Britain in the 19th & 20th centuries

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East India Company at Home, 1757-1857

A research project investigating the history of the antiques trade in Britain in the 19th & 20th centuries