WHEN it comes to pulling in buyers, the country house sale held on the premises is a hard format hard to beat – unless, of course, you can combine the attraction with a titled provenance.
This was, plainly, the promotional strategy behind
Christie's two-day, 1290-lot Bedfordshire bonanza at Woburn on
September 20-21 billed as Property From Two Ducal
The collections belonged to the Bedfords of Woburn and the
Westminsters. The former was a storeroom clearout - pieces of
furniture from Woburn which had been in store for decades which the
Russell family and the trustees of the Bedford estates wanted to
sell to improve the house and core collections.
The latter was rather more of a proper house contents dispersal,
brought about by the death last year of Anne Duchess of
Westminster, wife of the 2nd Duke, and sold to benefit her
Sandwiched between the two events, was a third related property
- the contents of Endsleigh, an 18th century ornamental cottage in
Devon. This had been built for Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford, but
sold in the 1960s to the Endsleigh Fishing Club. Now the building
has been sold to Olga Polizzi with a view to turning it into a
hotel and the fishing club and the Endsleigh Charitable trust was
selling off the contents.
None of these properties was substantial enough to make an
individual 'in situ'sale commercially viable, but the economies of
scale gained from a triple combination allowed Christie's to mount
an on-the-premises event hoping to reap the benefits of the country
The final statistics suggest it worked. Christie's total of just
under £3m was twice their projection and another characteristic of
the country house sale was the near total sell out with just 106
lots failing to find buyers.
Perhaps the one aspect that differed from the usual country
house sale was the relatively thin attendance. While these events
often draw a large audience, the Woburn sale saw the bigger crowds
at the viewing.
Come the sale days, Woburn's Sculpture Gallery, where all three
sessions were held, was never full to capacity.
Not that this materially affected the results as the final
statistics and highlights discussed here indicate. It was more that
most of the trade viewed then bid in absentia via
commissions or on one of the banks of telephones manned by
So much for the benefits of combined promotions, but these were
still three distinct properties from different vendors, each with
their own distinct characteristics. That much was evident when they
were set out on view in the various buildings of Woburn's North
Court and those distinctions remained through to the performance of
each sale session.
Above: from Woburn, a set of nine Louis XV white painted and
parcel gilt chaises à la Reinée attributed to Jean Baptiste
Lebas c.1765 acquired by John the 4th Duke of Bedford
following his French ambassadorial appointment in 1762
- £11,000 at Christie's sale.
The Woburn material, which made up the first 643 lots, and took
up the entire first day, was an eclectic mix of paintings,
ceramics, furniture and old toys and games from the nursery. Much
of this sale derived from the decorative schemes in the demolished
east wing with the rest comprising modest items of furniture from
the private rooms.
Most hadn't been in use for 50 years, much was in a poor state
of repair: seat-less chairs, dirt splattered sculpture and damaged
paintings that would require considerable outlay in restoration.
But some of the constituents had real quality underneath the
blemishes and, all importantly, they had the cachet of the Woburn
provenance. Asked before the sale about the decision to hold the
dispersal, the present duke said "Personally I am not sad to see
these things go. They are going to be looked after and not left to
Judging by the prices paid for some of the distressed elements,
his predictions looked accurate. One of the most dramatic instances
came with a set of five c.1790 mahogany dining table pedestals,
each with channelled sabre legs and brass castors but lacking a top
to turn them into a Georgian dining table.
Christie's had predicted £2500-4000 for these but they ended up
selling to the trade for £35,000.
Then there were the two early 19th century cheval mirrors
thought to have been commissioned by the 6th Duke of Bedford. One
was painted grey with parcel gilt Egyptian mask capitals to the
uprights and paw feet but with no plate, the other still had its
plate but was of plainer design. These were estimated at £800-1200
apiece but sold at £5500 and £4000.
That said, most of the Woburn best-sellers were, predictably
enough, pieces that were rare or unusual or by known cabinetmakers.
Heading the list, as expected, was a massive George III six
pedestal, mahogany dining table of c.1790-1800 attributed to
Gillows and thought to have been supplied c.1815 to the 5th Duke
for the State Dining Room. This came in at £130,000, comfortably
over its £60,000-100,000 estimate.
Following it in price was a piece which, while far from perfect,
was rare enough to attract attention wherever it appeared - a
Chinese famille rose and blue and white model of a pagoda. Even
with some missing components and finials it still stood 6ft 7in
(2m) high and was almost certainly supplied as part of the 6th
Duke's decorative scheme for the Chinese rooms at Woburn.
Few such pagoda models of this size have survived so buyers were
ready to overlook damage in the knowledge they were not likely to
find many better examples.
Before the sale, many of the missing elements were rounded up
and offered with the piece so, while it represented a complex
restoration job, recreation was at least possible. It ended up
eclipsing its £6000-10,000 estimate to take £92,000.
Other Woburn pieces of particular individual merit and interest
included a Regency bronze torchère based on a Piranesi design and
attributed to Vulliamy and a set of 11, c.1790 dining chairs
thought to have been designed by Henry Holland and executed by the
Paris-trained, London-based Francois Hervé.
The torchère fetched £16,000. The chairs, which are now leather
upholstered but were originally caned with squab cushions making
them easily portable for the card playing set of the period,
realised £38,000, selling to an "advisor" acting presumably for a
private client. The bulk of the Woburn pieces weren't making
anything like these kind of sums although prices often exceeded the
There was plenty of modest seat furniture upholstered armchairs
mirrors or white painted wash stands, picture frames and domestic
silver guided in the low hundreds and selling for under £2000,
examples of which are shown in our saleroom selection. Overall the
Woburn clearout netted just over £1.3m for the trustees to use on
improving the upkeep and collections of Woburn Abbey.
The buyer's premium was 19.5/12%.