Christie's top ten Old Master sales

February 5 2018

Image of Christie's top ten Old Master sales

Picture: Norton Simon Museum

There's a great 'top ten' piece on Christie's site - even auction houses go in for clickbait - listing their most significant Old Master sales over the last 251 years. Naturally, the sale of the Salvator Mundi is top of the list. But two other tales stand out. First, the day Norton Simon tried to bid on Rembrandt's Portrait of the Artist's Son, Titus (above):

Prior to the introduction of the paddle system, buyers were allowed to choose their own bidding signals. The American industrialist and collector Norton Simon sent a letter to Christie’s before the sale of the Rembrandt, explaining, ‘If he is sitting he is bidding; if he stands he has stopped bidding. If he sits down again he is not bidding until he raises his finger. Having raised his finger he is bidding again until he stands up again.’ Unfortunately, Chance misinterpreted Simon’s sitting and finger-raising, and sold the work to Marlborough Fine Art in London for 700,000 guineas. 

When the hammer came down, the enraged collector approached Chance’s rostrum and demanded that bidding be reopened. Simon went on to win the auction, spending an additional 60,000 guineas to secure the work. But if the industrialist’s obscure bidding tactics were intended to help him hide from press attention, he now became the focus of the sale. When the painting made the front cover of Time  magazine that year, Simon became an unlikely star. Today the portrait hangs in Simon’s museum in Pasadena, California.

And then a postscript to the sale of the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare from Stowe in 1848:

In another twist of fate, Thomas Woods, the son of Stowe’s gamekeeper, was so inspired by the sale that he decided to become an auctioneer. In 1859 Woods joined George Christie and William Manson as a partner in their firm, creating Christie, Manson & Woods — still the official name for Christie’s.

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