A quarter of a century ago, Christie’s sold an amazing doll’s house known as Titania’s Palace. This truly palatial mansion, more miniature museum than dolls’ house, was designed by Sir Nevile Wilkinson over 15 years from 1907-22, when it was opened by Queen Mary. Initially intended for Sir Nevile’s daughter, as the house and project grew it turned into a fund-raising publicity exercise for children’s charities.
When Titania’s Palace was bought by Legoland at auction in 1978 for £135,000, this was an enormous sum and, significantly, one which has yet to be bettered.
Last month, however, its closest contender so far went under the hammer at Christie’s South Kensington in their October 29 sale of dolls, dolls’ houses and mechanical music. This residence was not a scale model of a royal palace, but a more traditional albeit larger-than-average doll’s house proper, made for the children of a wealthy banking family, the Curries and, more unusually, assembled by two small boys – Laurence and Isaac Currie.
Passed down through Laurence’s side of the family, the five-bay house, known as Dingley Hall, had been on loan to The Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood for the last half century.
Designed in an architecturally eclectic style that combines Italianate and Flemish elements, it is 9ft 53/4in (2.8m) wide by 6ft 51/4in (1.96m) high and 20in (51cm) deep, and is thought to have been constructed from two mahogany bookcases. It is dated 1877 and monogrammed with the brothers’ initials LIC to the facade.
Although the provenance and large size of the building were bonuses, the real attraction of Dingley Hall was the contents. Not only has it survived with a complete array of original chattels, those individual contents were in themselves rarities, mostly large-scale to complement the larger-than-usual dimensions of the house. Many are highly collectable pieces by the likes of Rock and Graner or Walterhausen, (German firms being the main producers of such pieces at the time) while rare Austrian pinperle figures constitute many of the Hall’s inhabitants.
This completeness and the inclusion of many small domestic objects and utensils gives the house a socio-historical dimension as a miniature snapshot of life in a grand late-19th century house, as our detail of the ground-floor salon shows.
All of this had prompted Christie’s to give the piece a substantial £30,000-50,000 estimate, but it generated such pre-sale interest, mainly from overseas institutions, that come sale day the auctioneers were confident that it would exceed expectations. “We had enough interest to sell it 10 times over at the estimate,” said CSK’s specialist Daniel Agnew. So it proved, with bidding rapidly reaching more than double that level at £110,000 as two bidders, one in the room the other having left a commission bid, battled for possession. The hammer fell to the bidder at the back of the room, a representative of a German toy museum near Hamburg known as the Norddeutsches Spielzugmuseum, Soltau.
The museum’s Antje Ernst explained that they cover a wide range of material in terms of age, from the 17th century to the present, and are trying to develop the European element of the collection. Speaking immediately after their purchase, a plainly delighted Ms Ernst explained why they were so eager to buy this particular piece. “For us it was a unique opportunity to acquire a house with the original family history and what was so fascinating is that it was put together by two boys.”
Dingley Hall will need an export licence, but it looks as if it will once again be on public display amongst other past playthings, although this time in Germany rather than in Bethnal Green.
Needless to say the high price of Dingley Hall contributed substantially to the £436,330 total achieved by the 372 lots, which recorded what, for the auctioneers, were pleasingly high selling rates of 82 per cent by lot and 89 per cent by value.
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