Sold for £640 in a Dominic Winter (20% buyer’s premium) sale was an entry ticket to the famous 1823 sale of William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey.
Valid for any two days of the view, it features an engraved image of Fonthill by Thomas Higham after a drawing by the architect Stedman Whitwell, and is printed on toned card. It is seemingly made out to to a Mrs Ames and a Miss Harrington and signed by the auctioneer, Harry Phillips. The bottom edge is unevenly trimmed and only one of the two little entry tokens, initialled HP, has been removed.
Having accrued large debts because of the collapse in the West Indian sugar market, Beckford had originally asked the younger James Christie (the founder’s son), to put Fonthill and its contents up for sale.
The announcement generated huge interest from a curious public and some 72,000 copies of the catalogue, priced at a guinea, were sold.
During the months of August and September 1822 between 600 and 700 people visited each day, but then Beckford sold the abbey and its contents for £330,000 to a wealthy Scottish gunpowder dealer, John Farquhar.
The auction that Farquhar decided on was conducted instead by Phillips, formerly senior clerk to the elder James Christie.
It is now known, said the cataloguer for the July 24 South Cerney sale, that Phillips surreptitiously included items from other vendors in order to enlarge his Fonthill sale, hoping to increase demand and hence values.
The auction was spread over 37 days during the months of September and October 1823. Public interest was immense and even the Duke of Wellington paid a visit.
William Hazlitt described it as “a desert of magnificence, a glittering waste of laborious idleness, a cathedral turned into a toy shop” – though as the 2019 cataloguer observed, he was unaware of the extra inclusions in the sale.
Beckford himself retired to Bath, and even purchased a number of items back during the sale.
Fonthill’s main tower collapsed in 1825 and much of the vast structure was rapidly demolished thereafter, leaving only the western end of the abbey intact.