Three extraordinary sales of forgotten treasures found at the ancestral home of the Spencer family are expected to yield £20 million. Elizabeth Grice reports
Torch in hand, Andy Waters felt his way down the dark stone corridors beneath Althorp House. The attics and stables of the ancestral home of the Spencer family were already yielding a chaotic hoard of forgotten treasures and now the Christie’s man was stumbling through the labyrinthine cellars towards his Tutankhamun moment.
“I crept along by the light of my torch,” he says. “I could see some brass flashing in the darkness. I went back for a plug-in light so I could see what was in this dark corner. Wrapped in old newspapers was a complete Victorian batterie de cuisine – more than 100 pieces, including copper pans, fish kettles and jelly moulds, that had been put aside 60 or 70 years ago and not used since.”
Waters has been toiling in the dark recesses of the Spencers’ country seat in Northamptonshire for the past three months, assembling the contents of what will be one of three sales of art and antiques this summer. The proceeds will pay for the current re-roofing and renovation project at Althorp Estate, childhood home of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
The sales include treasures from both Althorp and Spencer House in St James’s, and are expected to make £20 million, of which half will come from the sale of two old masters, a Rubens and a Guernico.
And the trawl is not over yet. From time to time, Waters emerges blinking into the daylight with a new object of wonder as a team of porters bears the stash away – Meissen and Sèvres porcelain, time-blackened silver, innumerable chairs, cut-glass table display centrepieces. Five-hundred years of acquisition by a single family is enshrined in a gorgeous gallimaufry of items that outlived their usefulness or their charm and were put into store.
“When we went into the attics,” says Waters, head of Christie’s private collection and country house sales, “a run of what used to be servants’ bedrooms, they were full to bursting. The safes were overfull. We did not know from hour to hour what we would find. Dawn, the head housekeeper, was seeing some of the items for the first time and so was William, the butler. It is exciting that there is a provenance for almost everything. If there is a back story, we always try to nail it.”
The idea of finding treasure in the attic is so potent that even people without attics fantasise about it. Waters and his colleagues have been living out a kind of auction-house dream. They have uncovered everything the inventive aristocrat required for a well-rounded existence, from horse-drawn carriages and coachmen’s livery to several centuries of textiles, fine furniture, old cricket bats, ice skates, snuffboxes and beechwood shovels.
Such a haphazard agglomeration of the grand, the practical, the ostentatious and the frankly superfluous is rare. A set of four Irish glass table display centrepieces (£15,000-£25,000) commissioned by the Fifth Earl Spencer when he was Viceroy of Ireland; 17th-century Japanese mother-of-pearl inlaid Imari vases (£50,000-£80,000); a tortoiseshell dog collar with gold inlay (£500-£700); a snakeskin box of George III drafting tools (£500-£700); a George III silver-gilt child’s rattle and coral teether, circa 1800, with eight bells and a whistle (£400-£500) – a bit chewed, obviously, but still in its velvet-lined Bond Street box. Would upper-class family life have been supportable without them?
The 750 lots will consist of up to 5,000 individual items. Key works of art and furniture are from the family’s former London home, Spencer House, but some 500 lots are from the attics, stables and cellars at Althorp. Waters and his colleague, Jeffrey Lassaline, senior specialist in the silver department, are like boys in a sweetshop. They eye up the silver strongroom in Christie’s basement where hundreds of items are waiting to be cleaned, researched and catalogued. Nothing like this diversity, they say, would appear in regular sales.
Lassaline caresses a George II silver spoon engraved “kitchen”. It was made in 1755, so he surmises that it was part of a service made to mark the marriage of the First Earl. The Spencer family crest is somewhat worn and the spoon’s lopsided bowl testifies to centuries of stirring the pot. This is thrilling to a collector, he says, because it will always retain its provenance, and provenance adds cachet.
Waters produces a piece of old wood that you might find in a skip. “This doesn’t look particularly exciting,” he says, “but the label says this is the only piece of wood saved from the stables at Spencer House during the German bombardment of May 1941. Interestingly, a bomb also hit Christie’s in 1941 and for a time Spencer House was a temporary home for Christie’s, so that’s a nice synergy.”
The two carved roundels on the board, part of an elaborate whip rack, were where carriage drivers hung their whips. At Althorp, every aspect of life had its designer curio. And this being the house sale of a family of hoarders, the coachmen’s whips and hunting crops have survived, too.
Between the wars, the magnificent Spencer carriage collection was moved for safekeeping to the stables at Althorp House, a precaution that ensured its survival as the most important group of aristocratic 19th century horse-drawn family vehicles in existence – and the most extensive to remain in the family for whom they were made. At the top of the range, there’s the grand two-seater Regency state chariot lined with red Padua watered silk (£50,000-£80,000). Down the order, a posting barouche, complete with two postilions’ saddles (£20,000-£30,000), a park barouche for the ritual of driving out in Hyde Park (£20,000-£30,000), phaetons for the ladies and a charming little cream-and-livery-painted children’s horse-drawn sleigh (£2,000-£4,000).
“They were probably last used in the 19th century,” says Edward Clive, a director of Christie’s. “They are 13 carriages of the full spectrum, from the grandest Hyde Park Coronation-type conveyance to the private omnibus that must have been used to ferry guests from the station in Northampton to the house. All the undercarriages are painted in the same livery: Padua red with a yellow edging, the colour of the local Pytchley Hunt.”
He produces two “white metal” coronets, the size of small pineapples. “Feel the weight,” he says. “They were spares, identical to the four coronets on the roof of the state chariot.” Did this family throw away nothing?
The sale’s most modest item is a key. No one is quite sure whether the gilded Spencer House key (£200-£300), inscribed “St James’s Palace Gates, VR”, unlocked a garden gate, now vanished, or a private gate between St James’s Palace and Spencer House. Christie’s is working on it. Meantime, they are sure of one thing: the key makes a perfect Lot 1.
We have the auction catalogue for sale in the boutique at the following link: