Under the Hammer

Few towns are without their local auction rooms. The writer can well remember as a child standing in a bare room in a house in New Brunswick as the collection of shabby goods and chattels representing his parents’ years of toil, quickly vanished ’’under the hammer”. Later, we set sail for new horizons, also to find the same old wage slavery elsewhere.

But, such auctions of working class “property” never hit the headlines. Why should they? They have no sensational news value for journalists to scoop. They prefer such stories as the recent Franz Hals write-up—the Cavalier painting with the £182,000 touch. So—ignoring the ”small fry” auctions—let us take a look at the “Big Boys”. Messrs Christie. Manson and Woods, and Sotheby.

The 1958/1959 auction season turnover at Sotheby’s was £5,756,742. In June 1959, the famous Rubens painting Adoration of the Magi from the late Duke of Westminster’s collection, realised £275,000. The following day’s sale saw bidding on the Westminster Diamond Tiara begin at £40,000 and close on the selling price of £110,000. Then early in December 1960, Messrs Sotheby’s hammer descended with a shower of golden sparks (in the form of commission) on the £182.000 sale of the Franz Hals.

The 1959 turnover at Messrs Christie’s was £2,783.490. In June of that year a 23 carat diamond ring belonging to Mrs. Michael Wilding went for £56,000. A collection of porcelain belonging to the Marquess of Exeter, was sold in July for a total of £21,250, a 45 piece Swansea dessert service from the above collection, realizing 4,800 guineas. Again on November 6th a collection of paintings. 29 in all. including 15 by Constable belonging to the late Mr. H. L. Fison, fetched £85,900.

Christie’s 1959/60 season turnover was £3,500,000. a substantial increase on the previous year. A Matisse oil painting sold for £21,000, and a diamond and sapphire necklet belonging to the Earl of Harcwood was knocked down for a mere £28,000. So here lies an opportunity for all those who “have never had it so good” to invest some of their surplus wages instead of frittering it away on the pools!

As Messrs Christie’s have been providing opportunities since 1766, their records must show the handling of a sizeable proportion of the wealth of the ruling class. Amongst their “exclusive” clientele were Madame du Barry (1795), Queen Charlotte (1819), and the Empress Eugenie (1872). In 1927 they handled the Russian, and in 1931 the Bavarian, crown jewels.

So, as the vast majority of workers go about their daily routine in office. mine or factory, the habitués of Christie’s tirelessly raise a linger or nod a head as the descending hammer of the auctioneer “raises the wind” for his “exclusive” clientele. One nod of the head at these sales can often equal 5 or 10 weeks’ wages of a member of the working class. The assumption that those who collect, can afford to pay the piper, is never in doubt and runs through most of the sales literature of these firms. In Christie’s Review of the Year 1957 we read the following: —

“The jewel sales continue to show that there is a constant demand for fine diamonds and coloured stones and that early Victoriana and, above all, samples of 17th and 18th century jewellery are collected more than ever by those who appreciate design and craftsmanship as well as intrinsic values of stones.”

But this does not apply to society as a whole, because of course there arc many human beings who appreciate design and craftsmanship “but certainly do not collect items from Christie’s sales, simply because they could not even afford Christie’s 10% commission.

Christie’s literature is of course written for the “haves“ in society. The vast majority, the “have-nots,” require a world in which auction sales and all other commercial paraphernalia will be thrown overboard and the means of life made accessible for all.


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