Christie's Strangest Sales - Hercules and the Duke
The auction that signalled a turning point in the high esteem in which the British Royal Family were once held
The extravagances of George IV in his days as Prince Regent are well known. However, his younger brother Frederick, Duke Of York, also led a somewhat colourful life, one ultimately clouded by debt. He was forced to resign from the Army following a scandal with his mistress in 1811. He then devoted much of his life to collecting silverware, particularly favouring the antiquarian retailer Kensington Lewis.
The duke died in 1827, leaving behind him financial debts estimated at between £200,000 and £500,000 - the equivalent to £15.5m-38.7m/$22.3m-55.7m today. The executors felt they had no option than to sell off his silverware collection, a royal collection, at public auction. The story of its sale is told in the splendidly entertaining Going Once: 250 Years Of Culture, Taste And Collecting At Christie's one of 250 stories of its most notable sales, spanning high art to historical memorabilia.
The auction attracted huge interest from a public who were already beginning to find the royal family as much a source of entertainment as authority. Leading members of London society jostled alongside curious commoners at Christie’s King Street.
One of the major pieces of the sale was a silver candelabrum made by Edward Farrell, one of England’s most distinguished silversmiths and an employee of Kensington Lewis. Made in 1924, it depicts Hercules slaying the Hydra, and was thought to symbolise England’s successful military endeavours against its various enemies.
Hopes were naturally high for the sale, prefaced by a few generous words of tribute by auctioneer James Christie to the late duke, who he praised for his “urbanity of manners and kind condescension to all who approached him.” And yet, all the duke’s lifetime kindnesses did not translate into a high auction price for his treasured belongings, nor interest in the sale extend to taking part in it.
After poor bidding, the candelabrum was knocked down for just six shillings an ounce, with an indignant murmur of “How cheap!” rippling across the saleroom. It sold for just £343, five shillings and sixpence. It did, however, later go for $791,500 (£438,500) at Christie’s New York.
This is just one of 250 stories told in this highly entertaining, erudite, often very funny volume, which you can either read in a single sitting or dip into randomly. Order your copy of Going Once: 250 Years Of Culture, Taste And Collecting At Christie's here.