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Today these former palatial homes are big business, housing hotels, health spas and even re-hab clinics. For those families who didn’t sell up the financial pinch is ever present and belt tightening has often been the order of the day.

The Marquess of Bath recently announced a June dispersal at Christie’s, King Street, of over 400 lots from Longleat, the family seat. Thought to be worth in the region of £15m, the proceeds will be used to set up a house and grounds maintenance fund (It should be noted that there are also sound tax reasons for such a move). And now the Curzons, one of England’s best known ancient aristocratic families, have offered the attic and stabling block contents of their Robert Adam and James Paine designed Derbyshire pile, Kedleston Hall.

The Hall has been a National Trust property for some years now but the family still occupy a substantial wing which needs to be maintained and an attic sale is the perfect way of getting rid of secondary possessions whilst making a profit.

As Foreign Secretary and Viceroy of India in the early 20th century, George Nathaniel Curzon amassed a large collection of works of art, the bulk of which are exhibited in an inhouse museum.

But the curators missed one major exhibit which auctioneer Bruce Fearn stumbled across in the apple store above the stable block. “I noticed a number of very thick blue fragments,” said Mr Fearn. When fitted together they formed a Persian red lustre and cobalt funerary tile panel of barbed arch form. The centre section of the 2ft 2in (63.5cm) high tile, which was thought to date from the 14th century, was missing but members of the family recall a lost paperweight used in the house which may just have been the missing piece to the jigsaw. Despite this loss and other substantial damages, this was a major find which attracted a glut of interest from museums and the specialist Islamic trade.

“The Islamic trade are notoriously wary,” said Mr Fearn, “but because of the strong provenance of this piece they knew it was legit.” Against hopes of up to £2000, the tile was chased to £21,000 by a London-based dealer.

There were a small number of other Islamic pieces, all of which saw enthusiastic bidding. Pulling buyers from the Islamic and militaria camps was a good Mughal dagger. Like the tile, it is most likely that George Nathaniel Curzon was given this weapon during his time as Viceroy. The dagger had a pale grey-green jade hilt with scroll terminals and gold tendrils and flowerheads, all of which was set with foiled rubies, some of which were missing. There was also a certain amount of corrosion to the curved blued steel blade but once again the provenance won through and against a £1500-2000 estimate the dagger brought £15,500.

Militaria aficionados were further catered for by two pairs of continental 19th century double-barrel cannons.
It is unusual to find double-barrelled cannons and Mr Fearn had never seen anything like this polished bronze pair which were set on timber three-wheel carriages.

The story goes that the Lord Scarsdale of the time liked to fire cannons across the lake in the grounds as sport. Apocryphal or fact, this didn’t matter to a Midlands dealer who took one of the pairs at £12,000 with the other going to another buyer at £10,000.

Another family tale was told to explain seven lots of deer antlers which all sold over estimate. Kedleston had kept a herd of deer for almost all of the 900 years it has occupied the land – that was until the army moved in during WW2. During their tenure in the house, it is claimed the army shot the herd and these antlers are all that remain. Hung in an outdoor loggia, the antlers were sun-bleached white and “tremendously dramatic”. Each of the seven lots took between £3000 and £4000 from an anonymous buyer.

“Good provenance gives everything a bit of a kick,” said Mr Fearn and none more so than in the silver where the Curzon family crest was boldly engraved on almost every piece. Many of these pieces attracted what Mr Fearn referred to as the “casual” buyer.

“Casual buyers whose sole aim is to own something from the big house help to boost prices on lesser value things.”

No such buyers attempted to enter the race for an oval George III Irish silver-gilt city of Cork Freedom box.
Measuring 31/2in (9cm) wide and engraved to the cover with a ship between the two towers of Cork Harbour, the box, by Cork makers William Reynolds, was presented by the city to John McBride, Captain of His Majesty’s Ship of War the Bienfeisant, for his attacking and taking of a French warship in Cork harbour.

A smaller more elaborate gold Cork box took £33,000 at Sotheby’s Billingshurst back in January 2001
and this example went over estimate to bring £11,500 from a silver dealer.

The Irish connection continued in the ceramics with a good Bloor Derby apple green Kedleston ewer painted by Daniel Lucas with a view of Cork.
As far as the family are aware, they have no obvious connection to Ireland, but the significant number of related pieces would suggest an influx of Irish pieces at some point for whatever reason.

The shape of this 101/2in (27cm) high ewer was named after the family seat and the family were keen supporters of local industry and patrons of the famous Derby pottery. The c.1830 ewer, which took £1450, was illustrative of the bulk of Derby offered in the sale.

“Most of the pieces dated from the early 19th century when the gilding and designs were simple and repetitive,” said Mr Fearn. “Fans of decorative elaborate Derby were not catered for here.”

Best of the bunch was the Tamworth Tureen, a two-handled armorial soup tureen. Again this dated from the early 19th century and measured 151/4in (39cm) over the handles and 101/4in (26cm) high. Of tapering form beneath a double domed cover with a gilt leafy loop handle, was decorated in enamel and gilt with the arms of Robert Shirley Viscount Tamworth impaling those of this wife, the Hon. Sophia Curzon. As with all the Derby pieces, the tureen was in excellent condition and went to another branch of the Curzon family at £4400.

More local industry found success in the shape of two Blue John campana vases. Both vases were of standard size – 10in (25cm) high – and of standard shape, one with a flared pedestal and the other on a spreading pedestal foot. The latter was of good colour and as the better of the two it took £7600, with the former taking £6000. Both were contested by local privates.

Weak may not be the right word to use for the furniture but if not the weakest section it was certainly the thinnest.

“Furniture is usually the backbone of every sale,” said Bruce Fearn, “but in this case the best bits remain with the family or in the hands of the National Trust.”

Worth noting was the success of a small part 17th century oak oval gateleg table. The 2ft 51/2in by 2ft (75 x 61cm) table was unusual in that its legs did not reach to the floor but instead stopped to sit on a rest. This lifted the table out of the ordinary to take it from hopes of up to £400 to a trade-tendered £7000.