The joy of house clearance sales, attic sales, and iconic collection sales

Fiona McKenzie Johnston explores the sales where you can buy everything from bargain bed hangings to veritable treasures, and the impact such sales can have on our taste

The Belgravia interior, put together by Robert Kime, whose contents are being sold at Christie's this week

“You can tell everything about somebody by what they choose to live with,” says Jonathan Rendell, Christie’s Deputy Chairman, Americas.  The biographical aspect of interiors is something that we strongly believe in at House & Garden, too – and on occasion the concept has had historical consequences.  In the 1530s, the vast material riches of the monasteries were supposedly a factor in Henry VIII’s dissolution of them – in as much as a bill was presented to parliament linking their treasure (think jewel-encrusted saints’ shrines and glittering gold and silver altar plate) to ‘corrupt morals’ within the clergy.  (Also, Henry VIII was in urgent need of cash for his war with France.) While much was siphoned directly to the Royal treasury, there was also a series of country-wide sales, when the contents of these grand Catholic institutions were inventoried for sale – from their extraordinary libraries of illuminated manuscripts, their gold and their silver, their furniture and bed hangings, right down to (in the case of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire) ‘diverse bent old nails.’  It was undoubtedly a high point in the history of house clearance sales; several parish churches upgraded their liturgical furnishings, and the local gentry are reported to have delighted in discovering occasional bargains.

Five hundred or so years later, we’ve reached another pinnacle.  There are still bargains to be had (including bent nails, if you want them – though you may be more interested in sofascurtainschina and chests of drawers) but there’s also, thanks to a global interest and passion for collecting, exceptional art and antiquities with significant provenance; Jonathan has been involved in sales relating to Elizabeth Taylor, Yves Saint Laurent – as well as Rockefellers, Gettys and Rothschilds.  Coming up at Christie’s this week is a sale of three private collections, which includes items from a Belgravia interior put together by the late, great Robert Kime (who – lest we forget - also decorated for the King.)  There’s a ‘Hammersmith’ carpet designed by William Morris, an early Victorian Gothic Revival burr-walnut, sycamore, holly, boxwood, amaranth and marquetry octagonal centre table by Crace & Co after a design by Pugin, an important William De Morgan framed tile panel, and a group of Pre-Raphaelite paintings.  The same sale offers three magnificent articulated Japanese dragons, which come from a Lutyens-designed house in Berkshire.  Then, coming up in June, also at Christie’s, is the Robin and Rupert Hambro Collection, featuring a rich array of Modern British Art, including works by Glyn Philpot, Barbara Hepworth and Antony Gormley.

The Robin and Rupert Hambro Collection, being auctioned at Christie's in June

Essentially, the sliding scale of such sales offers opportunity both to decorate a house in a practical manner and to add pieces with beauty and fascinating history to an existing collection, as well as – and this is perhaps the most enjoyable facet – to poke around in somebody else’s belongings.

So, what do we need do know about these sales, and where to find them?  Read on:

Vocabulary and sale etiquette, from iconic collections to farm sale

‘House Clearance’ is no longer, for the most part, an accurate term; “often, what we’re doing is helping people downsize, or aiding the generational handover of a house,” describes Thomas Jenner-Fust, Director of the Cotswold’s based auction house, Chorley’s.  He notes that the sale of items from Spetchley Park, “in order to get the house fit for contemporary living,” was called an Attic sale.  At Sotheby’s such sales come under the title of Celebrated Collections, while at Christie’s they’re referred to as Private and Iconic Collections, or sometimes, if the collector has died, an Estate Sale (though that still comes under the heading Private and Iconic Collections.)

At the big auction houses, the most valuable lots will be sold during an evening sale – events which can be comparable to theatre.  At the Christie’s Yves Saint Laurent sale, which attracted five-hour long queues, the auctioneer came to the podium wearing an Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking, while the rest of the Christie’s team were in black tie; “the atmosphere was electric,” recounts Jonathan.  Live day sales are also enjoyable to attend (and perhaps easier – sometimes those evening sales are ticketed) though know that even if the sale is live, you can bid either online or over the phone; equally, there are auctions that are online only (where, usually, the most affordable lots are listed.)

Regrettably for the more inquisitive among us, in the overwhelming majority of instances - and even if it is an entire house clearance - the sales do not happen at the house from which the lots originate, rather, they take place at auction houses.  The exception is a Farm Sale (in no small part because tractors aren’t saleroom friendly.)

Vital to know, if you’re planning to shop, is that you need to register to bid in advance.  Also crucial to take into consideration is that the hammer price is not the final price; the auction house applies a buyer’s premium, which varies between establishment but which can be as much as 35% (typically, the more you spend, the smaller the percentage).

What to look for

“Farm sales are great hunting grounds,” points out Thomas.  “They’re suppliers of everything from lengths of chain to fence posts to Belfast sinks to ancient stone troughs – and everything will be cheaper there than it would be at a reclamation yard,” he continues.  (And points out that it will probably be the reclamation yards that you’ll be bidding against.)

In terms of what you might find at the regional auction houses, the answer is almost anything; Thomas recounts once finding a literal skeleton in an attic (it belonged to one of the first ever female doctors), and a jade-handled sword.  “We come across things people didn’t even know they have,” he explains.  “There might be a coffer in the hall, with a squash racket and a barometer at the top – then we’ll dig down and find a set of leather-bound books that somebody put there 80 years ago.”  Add dressing table sets, dinner services, fireplaces (yes really), silver, jewellery, silk scarves, antique croquet sets, pretty porcelain ornaments – and soft furnishings, which tend to be sold for significantly less than it would cost to have them made.  For example, in the Chorley’s sale that included items from Spetchley Park, a pair of floral curtains, lined and interlined with a drop of nearly three metres, went for £200 (do remember that you can have curtains cut down, have the headings changed, have a new leading edge put on, etc.)  Similarly, sofas and armchairs can be a steal – and reupholstery seems less urgent (even totally inessential) when you know where a sofa has come from.

A view of the magnolia tree in the grounds of Garden Lodge, Freddie Mercury's former home

Which brings us on to provenance, i.e. the biography of a piece, which can be as interesting as the object itself.  It might hold within it the tales of fortunes made or lost, have been present at the most glittering of parties, or survived remarkable moments in time.  Jonathan reminds us that many items from collections belonging to descendants of Rothschilds who were living in Vienna in the 1930s were confiscated by the Nazis following the 1938 Anschluss, and spent the war in crates in the Austrian salt mines of Alt Aussee.  Although much was returned in 1947, it wasn’t until 1999 that full restitution took place.  Such background can add significantly to the sale price, as collectors want to own something that is not only beautiful and valuable on its own merit but holds within it what Jonathan describes as “a piece of history.”  The same can go for collections owned by celebrities – whether that is Yves Saint Laurent, or the Antiques Roadshow specialist Henry Sandon (a Chorley’s sale), or (upcoming at Sotheby’s in September) Freddie Mercury; “then, it can be like a relic.”  Interestingly, the history prior to the most recent custodianship can be just as extraordinary; “the Rothschilds paid more for pieces with good provenance when they were putting their collections together,” recounts Jonathan.

Celebrity and provenance aside, what cannot be underestimated is the quality of these collections – and thus what we can learn from examining them, both in terms of furthering our knowledge of the oeuvre of certain artists and makers (for these items won’t have been seen in public since they were last auctioned) and in understanding more about the person who collected them.  Who knew that Queen’s front man would have such a passion for – as he put it – ‘exquisite clutter’? Among the lots, which include his costumes, is a Fabergé gem-set nephrite and enamel desk clock, an Art Nouveau glass-vase lamp by Daum – and a 1980s cream bakelite rotary telephone.  In June, Christie’s New York has got the second part of the Ann & Gordon Getty Collection, which comes from their turn of the century Berkely property, Temple of Wings, where, explains Jonathan, they “drew together decorative arts from Europe and American from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” There’s Arts and Crafts furniture, Tiffany lamps, and paintings by Leighton and Alma Tadema.  “It’s extraordinary to see how Ann, who had a background in archaeology, threaded it all together,” continues Jonathan.  “With any real collector, who has put things together themselves, you can see the rabbit holes that they’ve gone down.” This can in turn lead us to new places, and new areas of interest, and even have a lasting impact on our taste – for instance making art nouveau lamps suddenly attractive.

Where to find out about them, and how not to miss out

Signing up for newsletters from major auction houses and following them on social media is a good start; then, know that “there’s a chain of salesrooms, and sometimes several might be involved in clearing one house,” explains Thomas.  That Spetchley Park sale, for instance, was split between Chorley’s and Sotheby’s.  Partly, this is to give different lots the opportunity to shine, and partly it is to prevent a sale that goes on for too long (when, after Lord Leighton’s death in 1896, Christie’s sold the complete contents of Leighton House, the sale lasted eight days.)

The Antiques Trade Gazette includes listings, while Farm Sales will often be advertised in local newspapers.  Equally, google is your friend – for those sales will be managed by local auction houses; there’s a Farm Sale in East Sussex on 24th June.

And don’t forget the earlier mentioned Three Private Collections: Belgravia, Berkshire and Guernsey sale at Christie’s this week; it’s on view until 5pm today (24th May), and bidding starts tomorrow.