Saturday, October 07, 2006

1842 Catalog Auction of the Contents of Horace Walpole's “Strawberry Hill” Castle
By Robert A. Doyle, CAI, ISA, CES, CAGA

50th President of the National Auctioneers Association
Principal Auctioneer/Appraiser Absolute Auction & Realty, Inc.

Robert A. Doyle


The celebrated English Auctioneer, George Robins (1778 – 1847) had the honor of cataloging and auctioning the contents of the castle known as “Strawberry Hill” over a 24 day period at his Auction Rooms in Covent Gardens. This catalog and subsequent research provide insight into the mid-19th Century Auction business and the types of goods that were sold.

Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, more commonly known as Horace Walpole, (1717 – 1797) was a politician, writer, architectural innovator and a prolific collector of fine art, antiques, books and manuscripts. The youngest son of the British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, Horace was born in London. After the death of his father in 1745, Horace became a man of independent means. He chose to expand his property holdings, build an expansive castle and then fill it with the finest treasures he could secure until his death in 1797. he named his castle “Strawberry Hill.”

Upon his death the real property was past on in the family, eventually being purchased by the Catholic church that operates it as a school today. However, the personal property fell into the care custody and control of the Earl of Waldegrave who took little time to commission Auctioneer George Robins “To Sell By Public Competition, the Valuable Contents of Strawberry Hill.”

According to Auctioneer Robins the collection could be “Fearlessly proclaimed as the most distinguished gem that has ever adorned the annals of Auctions.” He goes on to boast, “It is definitely fixed for Monday, the 25th day of April, 1842, and twenty – three following days (Sundays Excepted), and withiin will be found a repast for the lovers of Literature and the Fine Arts, of which bygone days furnish no previous example, and it would be in vain to contemplate it in times to come.” In other words, no bigger auction has happened and don’t expect one in the future to surpass it either!

The one inch thick catalog had a cover cost of seven shillings and was meant to “admit four persons to the Public View, and be a passport to the Purchaser thoughout the Sale; they may be had at “Galignani’s Journal,” in Paris; of Mr. I.A.G. Weigel, of Leipsic; at Strawberry Hill; at the Auction Mart; and at Mr. George Robins’ Offices, Covent Garden. The Private view will commence on the 28th Day of March, and the Public will be admitted on Monday, April 4th.” (Interesting, almost a month of Preview on personal property prior to the commencement of the Auction on April 25th)

The five “Conditions of Sale” were simply and succintly stated just below the statement in the catalog of “It is particularly requested, that the visitors of Strawbery Hill will refrain from touching or displacing the articles.” The first term was “The highest bidder is to be the purchaser, and if any dispute arise between two or more bidders, the lot so disputed is to be immediately put up again and re-sold.” (Note: it does not state to be resold only between the two bidders)

The second term allows for the purchasers giving their names and place of abode and paying a deposit of five shillings in the pound. If the purchaser defaults the deposit would be lost and the item(s) resold. Thirdly, no representations are made and all lots must be absolutely removed by the 24th day of May. The fourth term speaks of prompt payment. Once paid for the lots could be picked up each day from 5PM til 6PM and the morning of the Auction from 9AM until 12 Noon. Each daily Auction started at 1PM. The last term addressed “failure to comply” with the first four terms would result in loss of deposit. Items would be resold in a public or private sale and the defaulting bidder would be responsible for all costs and any deficiency. Further, there shall be no claim for any surplus that arises.

The openning remarks by Auctioneer George Robins are worth reprinting as they set the stage for the wonderful Auction that would follow. There are fifteen pages of explanation and salesmanship in the front of the catalog. I will provide just the first paragraph of page one.

“The individual who has received instructions from the Right Honourable the Earl of Waldegrave (Auctioneer Robins), to distribute to the world the unrivalled and wondrous Collection of Strawberry Hill, formed by his Lordship’s great ancestor, Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, and has thus had placed within his power the ability to enrich the royal and national collections of every civilized country, the galleries of the cognoscenti, and the cabinets of amateurs, in every class of the highest walks of art; had had the singular good fortune, during a long professional career’ to be favoured agent in introducing to the public, in endless variety, unique collections of all that is rare in taste and vertu, and although, through his instrumentality, he has exchanged properties extending over several millions of pounds sterling, yet he approaches his present herculean undertaking with feelings such as he never experienced on any former occasion, fully sensible that the distribution of this precious museum, crowded with the tangible records of past ages – treasures consecrated by the hand of time and of genius – far exceeding in interest and importance all that has preceded it in the chronicles of auctions, and that no future sale can by possibility enter into rivalry with it.” (Wow, I’m impressed with this self-serving run on sentence.)

There is an explanation as to the arrangement of the Auction. Some Auctioneers may have removed items and sold by the specialty. However the introduction explains, “Mr. Robins feels it necessary to state, that in forming the disposition of the Sale, and in the arrangement of this vast assemblage of rare and interesting property for the public view, he has been anxious, as far as possible, to preserve the exact situation which almost every article has retained since the death of Horace Walpole, and which will be continued until its dispersion at the Auction.

The first six days of selling hammered 1,555 lots of books for a total of 3,900 pounds Sterling. (Converting to US Dollar and bringing to the present, the value of just the books by today’s standards would be approximately $359,634.)

According to a contemporary article found on the internet critiquing the books and print section of Robins’ catalog the author states, “It was very badly catalogued, and the books and books of prints, collection of portraits, &c., Forming the seventh and eighth days' sale, were withdrawn, re-catalogued, and extended to a ten days' sale. Perhaps this observation is why today’s professional Auctioneer should consider employing an expert to catalog specialties that he or she is not personally familiar with.

The ninth and tenth days of selling focused on coins and medals, eleventh featured pictures (paintings), drawings, miniatures, the “blue room” and porcelain. The twelfth day boasted the contents of the china room, porcelain and rare Venetian glass. Day thirteen had cabinet pictures, drawings and bronzes, with a collection of enamels and miniatures selling on the fourteenth. The fifteenth day offered the contents of the Tribune room with the sixteenth concentrating on furniture and valuables of the North bedchamber and contents of closets. The remaining eight days had a mixture of fine furniture, artwork, china, porcelain, and rare one-of-a-kind artifacts. One room was devoted to portraits by Holbein.

Some highlights of many unusual one of a kind items included the hat of Cardinal Wolsey, a clock which had been presented by King Henry VIII as a morning gift to Anne Bullen. The dagger of King Henry VIII and mourning ring for Charles I, the armour of Francis I as well as an elegant silver bell. This ornate bell was designed and made by Bonvenuto Cellini, for Pope Clement VI. According to an article encountered doing research on the internet, the bell had “a rich display of carvings on the exterior, representing serpents, flies, grasshoppers, and other insects, the purpose of the bell having been to serve in a papal cursing of these animals, when they on one occasion became so trouble-some as to demand that mode of castigation.”

What I find most curious, with this, and many other early catalogs is the number of lots offered at Auction each day. It appears that Mr. Robins averaged less then 150 lots a day. The 19thC Auctioneers were in no rush to sell quickly. Today, we are often selling in one day the number of lots that the 19th Century Auctioneer offered in a week of daily vendues. We will resort to selling in multiple rings in order to be efficient and not inconvenience the buyers by having them travel a second day or incur the expense of overnight lodging. This catalog proves once more that the finest things in the world sell best at Auction.



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