His­tory un­der the ham­mer

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

Country Life Every Week - - Focus On The Visual Arts - Edited by Michael Hall

T1766: the first sale

HE first lot to be of­fered by James Christie in his own per­ma­nent rooms in Pall Mall, on De­cem­ber 5, 1766, was cat­a­logued as ‘six break­fast pint ba­sons and plates’. It was knocked down to Mr Shep­pherd at 19 shillings, which, al­low­ing purely for in­fla­tion, might be £160 today. The to­tal for that first, five-day sale was £174 16s 6d—by the same to­ken, £28,000 today.

On Novem­ber 12, 2013, in New York, Jussi Pylkkä­nen, James Christie’s dis­tant suc­ces­sor, sold 73 lots of post-sec­ond World War and con­tem­po­rary art for $691.6 mil­lion (£553.8m), with a top price of $142,405,060 (£89,473,060) for Fran­cis Ba­con’s trip­tych por­trait of Lu­cian Freud (Fig 3).

Given the rich­ness of both his­tory and art, it is dif­fi­cult to tell the auc­tion house’s progress from Pall Mall to its present home in King Street, Sw1—and ul­ti­mately world­wide gi­ant—in just one sale for each half­cen­tury and nec­es­sar­ily many tri­umphs and dis­as­ters must be passed over. That first sale fol­lowed some years’ ap­pren­tice­ship, dur­ing which Christie (Fig 1) prob­a­bly worked as clerk and part­ner to Mr An­nes­ley, an es­tab­lished auc­tion­eer in Covent Gar­den, then the cen­tre of the Lon­don art mar­ket.

Al­though, from 1764 at the lat­est, he was putting on his own sales in other peo­ple’s premises, the first Pall Mall cat­a­logue marks his firm’s true birth. It was also a sale that fore­shad­owed one of the ma­jor strengths of Christie’s busi­ness over the fol­low­ing cen­turies. It was es­sen­tially what we know as a contents sale: ‘The Gen­uine House­hold Fur­ni­ture, jew­els, Plate, Firearms, China &c. And a large Quan­tity of Made­ria [sic] and high Flavour’d Claret. Late the Prop­erty of a Noble Per­son­age (De­ceased).’ Among the var­i­ous chat­tels were ‘Use­ful and or­na­men­tal Chelsea, Dres­den and Ori­en­tal China, a Mu­si­cal

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