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TIME Magazine, December 29, 1947, p. 56:|
CARRIAGE TRADE: What Am I Offered?
The auctioneer, resplendent in morning coat and wing collar, said: "I am offered 1,000 guineas for lot 11." In the front row, a bidder merely lifted his finger to raise the price to 1,500 guineas. Near him another deliberate finger went up, and the bid rose to 2,000. Thus calmly and decorously went the biggest art auction of the year, held in London by Christie, Manson & Woods-- the world famed "Christie's."
On the block were about $200,000 worth of paintings, including items from the collections of Lord Halifax, Lord Winterton and the estate of the late Lord Rothermere. As usual, Sir Alec Martin, the 63-year-old managing director of Christie's, conducted the auction himself. Last week, the sale ended, he was able to report that Christie's had all but wound up one of its busiest years since 1929.
Stained Rags. Through Christie's auction rooms have passed the glories of some of England's greatest houses. The parade was started in 1766 by James Christie, an enterprising young Scot, with his first catalogued sale of "jewels, plates, firearms, china, etc.... late the property of a noble person (deceased)."
At first Christie, and elegant man-about town in wig and ruff, auctioned anything that came his way: coffins, barrel organs, pigs. He scoffed at paintings, which he called "stained rags."
Christie's first paintings brought absurdly low prices. At his first picture auction, a Holbein went for £3 18s. and a Titian for two guineas. But Christie's friends, Painters Reynolds and Gainsborough, taught him the value of "stained rags"; Christie's descendants and their successors (the last Christie in the firm died in 1889) have never forgotten the lessons. Paintings now comprise the bulk of their sales. In 1876 Gainsborough's Duchess of Devonshire was auctioned for 10,000 guineas, then a record price. For almost a century each successive Christie sale was described as "the greatest this country has ever seen."
...Drops of Blood. Anguish at Christie's has not always been confined to those who have been forced to sell. When Lord Nelson heard that a portrait of Lady Hamilton was to go on the block, he wrote a desperate note to his Emma: "But you are at auction. Good God! My blood boils." He succeeded at buying the picture (for £300) before the auction day, and recorded happily that "I should have bought it... if it had cost me 300 drops of blood."
In Nelson's day, Christie's pocketed 7½% of the purchase price, a standard fee recently upped to 10%. Christie's percentages on the sale of pictures, silver, jewelry, furniture, china have brought the house a prosperity equal to its fame. In 1941, the old King Street auction room was bombed out. In recent months the house has conducted its business rent-free in Lord Spencer's 18th Century house in St. James's Place. As overhead is low, the seven partners make a... profit of over £100,000 on an annual gross of £1,000,000. British stocks in public companies usually pay no more than 6%. But Christie shares, all held by the partners, are estimated to yield 200% a year.