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The Auction that Launched the Antiques Trade

by Wayne Jordan (09/03/13).

As Captain-Generalcy of the English forces, John Churchill was the commander of the English troops at the Battle of Blenheim in Bavaria (1704). His clever tactics enabled him to beat his French opponents, and the Monarchy awarded him the title Duke of Marlborough and an estate (above) named in recognition of his successful battle at Blenheim.

The antiques business began in July, 1886.

At least, that’s the claim made by author Jonathan Gash in his book “Paid and Loving Eyes” (Penguin, 1993). Gash is the creator of the Lovejoy character, a roguish antiques dealer whose escapades are recounted in more than two dozen novels and 71 BBC television shows.

I enjoyed watching the BBC series (what’s not to like about Ian McShane?), but there was little to be learned about antiques by doing so. That’s not the case with the books, however. Although the Lovejoy novels are works of fiction, Gash (real name John Grant) doesn’t stray far from the facts when he discusses antiques. He devotes a lot of detail—sometimes pages—to describing the antiques that are the catalysts for his stories. He also goes into great detail about how forgeries and fakes are made, and how common they are in the antiques trade. Want to know about 18th-century German snuff boxes? Lovejoy will tell you. Want to fake a Sheraton table or age a freshly painted watercolor? Lovejoy gives up those secrets. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that Gash/Grant was an accomplished forger; he seems to know a little too much about how to fake antiques. (He was actually a physician and university professor).

John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough

So, when I read Gash’s claim that the antiques trade began in July of 1886, I paid attention. I’d never known anyone to try to pin a “start date” on the antiques business. I consulted my old friend Google to check the claim myself. Here’s Gash’s claim, from the above book:

“Once upon a time, antiques were a rarified pursuit for scholars… they spent fortunes, and founded private museums. Until July 1886. In that month, the great antiques hunt began when an auctioneer intoned “Lot One” and the Duke of Marlborough’s Blenheim Palace’s magnificent treasures—art, furniture, statuary—went under the hammer… the Great Antiques Rush was on.”

As it turns out, Gash wasn’t too far off regarding the date and spot-on regarding the contents of the auction. The Duke’s possessions were, in fact, auctioned off over a period of several weeks in late June/early July in 1886. In just a few generations, the Marlborough “dynasty” went from fame and fortune to dissolution under the auctioneer’s hammer.

The first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, was initially a page in the Court of Stuart. Through his political savvy and a marriage to Queen Anne’s close friend Sarah Jennings, Churchill rose to the Captain-Generalcy of the English forces. When the War of Spanish Succession broke out, Churchill found himself commanding the English troops at the Battle of Blenheim in Bavaria (1704). His clever tactics enabled him to beat his French opponents, and the Monarchy awarded him the title Duke of Marlborough and an estate named in recognition of his successful battle at Blenheim.

John Churchill died in 1722, and his title and property passed through various successors over the next 150 years. The Churchills (and later Spencers), though not among England’s most prosperous families, were well-to-do and spent a considerable sum furnishing Blenheim Palace. The Fifth Duke of Marlborough was a real spendthrift and bought the family right into an awkward financial position. What was awkward for the family, though, turned out to be good for launching the antiques trade in 1886.

The first Marlborough auction catalog from June 1886.

The second Marlborough auction catalog from July 1886.

The third Marlborough auction catalog from July 1886.

The terms and conditions of Marlborough auctions.

As the grip of the Industrial Revolution tightened around England’s economy, the “Old World” economy of wealthy landowners and tenant farmers began to collapse. By the turn of the 20th Century, many Peerage estates found themselves in financial difficulty. The fastest way for an estate to raise cash was by selling off their vast collections of art, jewelry and furniture.

By 1870, the family’s financial situation was so bad that the Seventh Duke began to sell off family assets. Real estate (other than Blenheim) was sold, as well as personal property, including the famous Marlborough gems. When the amount raised proved to be insufficient to pay his debts, the Duke petitioned Parliament to break the estate’s entail and allow liquidation of the estate. Under English law, estates were required to follow a strict method of inheritance, called an entail. To accommodate the Duke’s request, an act of Parliament was required. When the Blenheim Settled Estates Act of 1880 was passed, the Duke was free to call an auctioneer and arrange for the liquidation of the estate. The Duke’s descendants, including Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Diana Spencer (“Princess Di”) could claim descendancy from Marlborough but didn’t benefit from the Blenheim money.

A portrait of James Christie, founder of what would become the fames Christie’s auction house.

The Marlborough auction began on Saturday, June 26, 1886, and was conducted by the firm of Christie, Manson and Wood (which would become today’s “Christie’s) at their London sale rooms. Auctioneer James Christie had started his auction business some 120 years earlier and his company was considered to be London’s finest auction house. In the 18th century, peerage auctions were uncommon, and much of Christie’s trade came from bankrupt merchants and private sales. In the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Christie’s became the auctioneer of choice for destitute aristocrats.

The Marlborough sale ran, off and on, for several weeks. Lots offered were furnishings, porcelain, rugs, silver and household goods; plus art and sculptures by Rubens, Van Dyck, Raphael, Rembrandt and others. A catalog of the first day’s sale, preserved by the University of California Los Angeles Library, can be seen here.

The Marlborough auction was certainly the most important auction of its time, but is it a fair assessment to use it as the start date for the antiques trade? I believe that it is, although I’m sure that there are those who think I’m crazy for believing so. In my opinion, it makes as much sense to ascribe June 1886 as the start date for the antiques business as it does to ascribe July 4, 1776, as the date of American Independence. Certainly there had been skirmishes with the British before July of 1776—most notably the battles at Concord and Lexington, and the Boston Tea Party—but in spite of those early skirmishes, we lay claim to the date of July 4, 1776, as the start of our independence. Similarly, there was antique buying and selling going on before June 1886. But the Duke of Marlborough’s auction was the watershed event that brought the antiques trade into general awareness. After that date, antiques were no longer the exclusive province of the gentry.

The turn of the 20th century, would see antique shops cropping up all over Europe, and in America they were found in the seaport towns of New York, Boston and New Orleans. In the 21st century, antiques are in vogue; there are thousands of shops in America alone and countless magazines, books, websites, blogs and television shows that cater to antiques collectors and enthusiasts. As Gash’s Lovejoy says:

“Now we’re all at it. Clever people draw graphs of antiques’ values, starting back in that summer of 1886. Don’t be fooled. It’s not a mathematical proposition. It’s not a philosophy. It’s a scramble.”


Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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