Christie’s said the works were “carefully selected to ensure that nothing which is intrinsic to the history of Rugby School will be sold”.
The lots on offer at the auction on December 4 will include a rare black chalk study by Lucas van Leyden (c.1494-1533), thought to be last drawing by the artist outside a museum, which is estimated in the region of £1.5m.
It is believed to have come to the school as part of an impressive collection of drawings given c.1880 by Matthew Holbeche Bloxam (1805-88), a distinguished antiquarian who was also an alumnus (or ‘Rugbeian’). A number of the drawings were previously owned by his uncle – the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence – before Bloxam later acquired them.
The lowest-value lots in the sale have estimates starting at £500.
The governing body of the 450-year-old independent fee-paying school said it will use the proceeds to support the school’s projects, including establishing a newly designated museum space on the site for the remaining works in the collection which also comprises important memorabilia relating to the invention of the sport of rugby.
Chairman of the school’s governing body Lucinda Holmes said: “Rugby School has been generously endowed over its 451-year history, and is fortunate to have been given such an impressive collection of artworks, many of which have been held at the school for more than 100 years.
“The school’s governing body has recently had the collection assessed and in the light of this, and the advice received about the cost and expertise of preserving, insuring and storing the collection, has decided to sell those items that are not intrinsic to the history of the school. The decision to sell this part of the collection is aligned with the school’s commitment as a registered charity to use its resources to benefit current and future students.”
The collection offered spans Old Master and British drawings and watercolours, 19th century paintings, books and manuscripts, antiquities, sculpture and Chinese ceramics.
While the van Leyden drawing has the highest expectations of the sale by some distance, other important works include a study for Sir Edward Poynter’s (1836-1919) Perseus and Andromeda, a ‘lost’ major work commissioned by the Earl of Wharncliffe for his billiard room at Wortley Hall, near Sheffield.
Today it is only known through photographs and a handful of preparatory sketches as Wortley was bombed during the Second World War and the paintings destroyed.
The full compositional study in the Rugby School collection will be estimated at £120,000-180,000.
Among the highlights of the books on offer is a copy of the popular 14th-century travel memoir The Book of John Mandeville (estimate: £100,000-150,000), while the antiquities are led by an Attic amphora attributed to the Three-Line Group and dating from c.520-510BC.
It shows the goddess Athena driving a chariot on one side, and Dionysus and Ariadne drinking on the other (estimate: £40,000-60,000).