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
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