Christie's Strangest Sales – The Oriental Museum
How a bunch of 'heathen curiosities', blackened with boot polish or painted white, ended up in London
Today, items of oriental art and antiquity are considered just as invaluable as the treasures of the West, and curated with similar reverence. This was not the case, however, in the early 19th century. One story told in Going Once: 250 Years Of Culture, Taste And Collecting At Christie’s begins in 1777, when a 19 year old cadet named Charles Stuart arrived in Calcutta from Dublin. He was immediately smitten by India. He adopted Indian dress and spent his every available hour studying the country’s numerous cultures, religions and languages, as well as collecting its artworks. It was his contention, not one widely shared, that India’s heritage was at least as important as that of classical antiquity or Christianity.
This was a lifelong obsession, even after Stuart rose to the rank of Major-General. Other English expatriates regarded him as an eccentric, this strange fellow who went about surrounded by fakirs, made offerings at “Hindoo” temples and bathed in the Ganges every morning. He even kept what became known as his “Oriental Museum” - a vast and comprehensive trove of artefacts, manuscripts, weaponry and, his speciality, some particularly fine examples of Hindu sculpture.
Stuart died in 1828 and his collection, considered by most to be a farrago of heathen junk, was transported to England. It went up for sale at Christie’s in 1830, to minimal curiosity - only a handful of people bothered to turn up to bid. The entire collection went for just £1,964/$9,350, the equivalent of £157,000/$227,600 today. One of the bidders was a John Bridge of Shepherd’s Bush, London, who acquired most of the sculpture which he then houses in a “museum” of his own on the grounds of his Shepherds Bush estate. He did not treat his haul well - subsequently priceless works were cemented into walls, blacked with boot polish, painted with white numbers
Eventually, however, the collection was bequeathed to the British museum, forming the core of its extremely highly regarded Department Of Asia collection. This is just one of 250 colourful, educational and highly entertaining stories told in this volume of the vast array of treasures of all kinds which have gone under the hammer at Christies. Take a look at Going Once: 250 Years Of Culture, Taste And Collecting At Christie’s in the store now.