HOUSE contents sales always create a frisson of excitement. Alongside the stars of the show, big-ticket pieces that comes trailing clouds of pre-sale publicity, there is the potential thrill of the unexpected, the serendipitous attractions of the less elevated contents of cellar, outhouse and attic, which hold out the possibility of a bargain.
When the clearout comes from a really big stately home or country estate, that potential can only be magnified.
The Althorp Attic sale, to be held at Christie's on July 7-8 at South Kensington rooms, has over 760 such opportunities to buy pieces from the famous Northampton seat of the Spencer family.
In their search for pieces surplus to requirements that are not intrinsic to the core of the Spencer holdings, Christie's house sale team have literally trawled the house from attic to cellar and out into the stables.
Storerooms and cupboards were piled high with potential, as this illustration taken in situ at Althorp shows.
The result is a house contents mix, ranging from the typical family silver, china dinner services, brown household furniture, curtains and decorative paintings, to pieces with more distinct Spencer associations, like the duplicate family portraits and miniatures, or their horse-drawn carriages, although all will, by definition, carry the bonus of an Althorp provenance.
Estimates for some of the more rarified pieces reach into the five-figure bracket, but there is much more that is affordably guided here, including plenty of lots estimated at under £1000.
A selection of 25 jelly moulds from the 19th and early 20th century, for example, are part of a huge disused batterie de cuisine found piled on the floor in the cellars gathering dust, which has now been divided into four lots.
While they might not be deemed core to the collection, it doesn't mean these contents come without research or history. Christie's have managed to piece together interesting provenance for many individual lots, often aided by the inventory produced by Albert Edward John Spencer, the 7th or 'curator' Earl.
The shell and swag carved mouldings in the foreground of our illustration are carved sections from a walnut chimneypiece that once stood in the Althorp saloon, as its inscription "saloon fireplace" indicates, and a black and white photograph of the saloon from 1909 confirms.
When the grander architectural mouldings were removed from Spencer House, the family's London home, and installed at Althorp in the 1930s, the existing fittings were taken down and stored away.
These fragments are attributed to James 'Athenian' Stuart (who was responsible for much of the grandly innovative interiors at Spencer House), but also worked at Althorp. They are guided at £1500-2500.
By Anne Crane