If You Go Down To South Ken Today...

5th June 2015

Christie’s, South Kensington, is forty years old this year. While still upholding the fine arts tradition of company founder James Christie, its success also rests on its expertise in the collectibles market, says Jack Watkins

The BBC’s ‘Antiques Roadshow’ may seem like the epitome of cosy Middle Britain, but as a concept its roots are planted in the well-heeled streets of London SW7. Visiting Christie’s auction rooms in South Kensington in the mid-1980s, a BBC producer was inspired by the sight of queues of people waiting to have their items examined for free by experts at the valuations counter. From such a spectacle arose the idea of taking a similar service out around the counties, and making it a form of popular entertainment at the same time.

“In those days, there was an average of fifty people here at any given moment,” says Nic McElhatton, chairman of the South Kensington branch of the famous company, which now has offices and auction rooms around the world. “The place was just rammed. This went on into the 1990s, when it started to change with the advent of the internet, which meant people could send digital images in, but back then they’d just turn up with cartloads of stuff. Even today, we still take in one and a half million pounds worth a month of unsolicited goods at the counter, and that’s apart from all the stuff that comes in from our representatives around the country. We are open every day of the week, and anyone is welcome to come free of charge to have an item looked at. Our experts are always passionate about showing off their knowledge.”

Of course, the name Christie’s is synonymous with the fine arts. Its founder James Christie had been a midshipman in the navy who then found work as an auctioneer in Covent Garden, establishing his own business in Pall Mall in 1767. To begin with, he sold everything from sedan chairs to chamber pots but, counting among his friends both Gainsborough and Reynolds, gradually shifted into the art sales market. His son moved the business to King Street, St James, in 1823, and that has been its headquarters ever since.

However, by mid-1970s, the need for another London saleroom was clear, explains Nic. “This was really the time when the collectibles market was growing fast. They were holding furniture sales every week in King Street, and they just couldn’t cope with it.” Acquiring a new saleroom by buying up the Old Brompton Road auctioneers Debenham Coe, the first sale on the new premises came to symbolise the eclecticism for which Christie’s, South Kensington, is now known. Held in March 1974, the catalogue for its first auction described it as ‘a Sale of Dolls, Toys, Miniature Furniture, Children’s Books, Automata, Musical Boxes, Talking Machines and Records’. It was quickly followed by sales focusing on costumes, textiles and lead soldiers and Dinky Toys, and the trend has continued. In 1993, Elliott, a unique blue-coloured Steiff teddy bear, fetched £49,500 at auction.

“Christie’s, South Kensington, really went from strength to strength on the back of this collectibles market,” says Nic. “Everything from Victorian Christmas cards to car number plates. We even did one on cookers and cooking ranges. And the threshold value could be quite low, sometimes between £20 and £30.” Even today, individual items can go for as little as £500 which, Nic argues, in retail terms is “not excessive now.”

An interest in popular culture has also been a recurring theme, with many sales relating to theatre, film and pop memorabilia. Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat and cane went for £82,500 in 1987. A sale marking fifty years of James Bond films in 2012 saw props including the swimming trunks worn by Daniel Craig in Casino Royale raising large sums for charity.

Another specialisation in recent decades has been in vintage posters. “We held our first sale of posters in 1982,” says Nicolette Tomlinson, director of the Christie’s Poster Department, “and we’ve been selling them ever since, from travel and fashion, and food and drink, to sport and film. We also hold an annual sale dedicated to ski posters, the only sale of its kind worldwide.”
Nicolette describes posters as “a visual document of a moment in time, quite unlike any other collecting area.” She says the first pictorial posters in the form we know them today started in the 1870s, owing to advances in lithography that made printing possible on a large scale.

The oldest poster sold at Christie’s was in 2014 – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge – La Goulue, from 1891, in excellent condition; its estimate value had been £30,000-£50,000, but it realised £314,500, setting a record price for a poster sold at auction.

The golden age of poster design, however, came in the early decades of the20th century, with the London Underground leading the way in bringing Modernist stylistic designs to the wider public. “From the outset, the Underground commissioned the very best designers of the day to promote everything from off-peak travel, leisure trips, seasonal sales and sporting fixtures, to the reliability of the Tube itself,” explains Nicolette. “By the 1920s, the status of winning a commission with the Underground was such that the company had no problem attracting leading poster designers of the time, together with well-known cutting edge modernists such as Man Ray, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Julius Klinger. Fine artists like Edward Wadsworth, Paul Nash and William Roberts were equally keen to see their work displayed on what was soon being termed “the longest art gallery in the world.”

It is design work from names like these that continues to attract the highest prices, a Man Ray poster for the Underground from 1939, Keeps London Going, reaching £50,400 in a Shipping and Vintage Posters sale at Christie’s in 2007. According to Nicolette, the average price for a poster at auction is £3,000, but prices start from £800. Earlier this week (4 June), they held a mouth-watering sale of 1930s Shell posters, produced under the aegis of Jack Beddington, at a time when the company rivalled the Underground in its commissioning of top notch artists and designers to work for them. Richard Guyatt’s These Men Use Shell, Racing Motorists typifies the high standard of Shell poster art of that era.

There are experts at Christie’s, South Kensington, on everything from Victorian sporting art, and rugs and carpets, to old clocks.

Even so, a feeling may persist among some members of the public that Christie’s is a bit exclusive, admits Nic. So, as part of their anniversary celebrations, they are running a series of ‘Tuesday Lates’ throughout the year, in which anyone can come along and hear specialists talking about their particular field, and get an idea of what happens behind the scenes.

Anyone interested in collectibles, or merely curious, is encouraged to come along. Nic is very keen to present the location as an ‘alternative museum’ in the ‘South Kensington cultural hub,’ which includes the Natural History and Science Museums. “We have over one hundred sales a year. If you came in once a week, you’d see something different every time you entered the building. And it’s completely free. Come in, have a look, and be inspired.” As invites go, they seldom come more welcoming than that, do they?


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