Duke of Northumberland's auction has had us all gripped

The Duke's multi-million pound sale of furniture, paintings and letters at Sotheby's reveals the magnitude of the family's former power and influence

Duke Northumberland
Duke Northumberland

Italian voyages, friendships with native Americans and Charles II apologising for his money woes - the Duke of Northumberland’s multi-million pound auction of his possessions has let us delve into an unknown treasure trove of history.

For the last month, auctioneers at Sotheby’s in London have brought their gavel down on lot after lot from the current Duke’s estate.

Sharp witted and sharp tongued, these ring masters of antiquarian drama have kept millionaire bidders on their toes as collectors from across Europe, Russia and Asia scrambled to get their hands on the estate’s wares.

A Roman marble statue of Aphrodite went for a record £10m to an anonymous collector, painter Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Garden of Eden went to Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, for £6.8m after 300 people crammed into the auction house gallery to catch a glimpse. Less magnificent, but no less enthralling a letter signed by Elizabeth I fetched, £22,000.

 

And remarkably these are the items the Duke and Duchess have decided they can live without. Alnwick Castle and the family’s second residence, Syon House just outside London, will be somewhat emptier as the Duke’s estates sought to raise funds after getting a multi-million bill related to flooding in Newburn, Newcastle.

Yet even this tantalising but minuscule fraction of treasures, many of which have never been available to buy before, created an astonishing buzz among collectors around the world.

Last week, Sotheby’s filled with the super-rich, their agents, their dealers and staff, for one of many sales in which the estate features. This was the highly perfumed domain of Rolls Royce cars, unplaceable trans-Atlantic accents and celebratory drinks on purchase at Claridges. The wealth on show was the secretive and private kind, indicative only by the cut of the buyers’ suit and the complex mélange of shipping arrangements for acquired lots overseas.

Although the top buyers, the type with £10m to spend on a Roman statue, don’t turn up in person at all. Buried deep within the Mayfair auction house, the Duke’s treasures sale a week last Wednesday saw muffled phone conversations to private collectors fly into the bunker-like, cavernous auction hall.

So far £32m has been raised and Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, intends to spend this on the upkeep of his vast estate and to service the bill he received after Newburn flooded in 2012 due to a collapsed culvert on his land.

Houses in Spencer Court, Newburn, Newcastle Upon Tyne are being demolished after a culvert collapsed underneath them
 

He only needed to raise £12m to pay for the Newburn damage, but such was the interest, he raised nearly three times as much, carving up many of his family’s treasures to the four corners of the world.

Before the sale, Mario Tavella, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Europe for private European collections, said: “The collections of the Dukes of Northumberland formed over 500 years, ranks amongst the finest private art collections in the world and this sale offers an exceptional opportunity to acquire worlds of the same calibre as pieces preserved in the most important museums.”

Among the items ruffling a few feathers was the £4.1m sale of a portrait of Mohawk war chieftain Thayendanegea, commissioned by Hugh Percy, the 2nd Duke of Northumberland in 1786.

Known as Joseph Brant in English, the chieftain became an interpreter for the British Indian Department and helped regain land in the American War of Independence for Mohawk people. He became life-long friends with the 2nd Duke - the only white man he ever befriended - when the pair fought together at the Battle of Long Island in 1776.

Fascinating letters from monarchs acquired by the Duke’s estate include one signed by Elizabeth I in 1570 in which she orders Lord Charles Howard, Lord High Admiral, to go and meet the Queen of Spain in Holland.

Another signed by Charles II to a man named Tom Elliott blames his delay in writing on money troubles but explains that will be sending him 50 pistols - for what purpose is lost in the midsts of time.

Intriguingly Charless II writes: “Which is all I can do till my bills come from Madrid, in the mean time I must charge you, that you keep this secret.”

Both letters are likely to have ended up with the Duke of Northumberland estate through a complex web of marriages between noble and aristocratic families over several centuries.

A rapturous round of applause was reserved for the sale of a mahogany chest of drawers, known as the Stanwick Commode, went for a staggering £1.5m.

It was made in around 1740 and was commissioned by Hugh Smithson, who would later become the very 1st Duke of Northumberland, for his home at Stanwick Park in North Yorkshire.

A letter passed between his wife Elizabeth Percy and her mother Lady Herford vividly describes its beauty, and it is the earliest ever reference to a chest being made from mahogany wood - an inconsequential detail to those who exist outside the realm of fine furniture, but exactly the kind of information a collector dreams of.

The first duke was an incredible patron of the arts and furniture and funded Canaletto to paint many of his famous works of Venetian landscapes. He was also one of the first of a swathe of Grand Tourists to arrive in Italy in 1773 with wife Elizabeth, who went on to become a central figure at the court of George III and was Queen Charlotte’s lady of the bedchamber.

In Italy, the couple, who had a penchant for cabinets made by Rome based craftsmen, snapped up many prized examples and created one of the finest collections in England at their home Northumberland House in London, just off Trafalgar Square. Years later this would be added to by their son Hugh, the 3rd Duke.

Elizabeth was also passionately nosey and recorded not only her own personal possessions in exquisite detail in her diaries but also those of the people she knew and the Royal Court.

Her buying trips on the continent were extensive and in time she created her very own Museum Room at Northumberland House, where her prized cabinets would have stood including one which went at the Sotheby’s auction for £386,000.

The couple’s acquisition of the 1st century Roman marble Aphrodite which once stood in the Cesi gardens near St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is another example of their unparalleled support for the classical arts in Georgian Britain.

It was bought at a Christie’s auction in 1773 and intended for the great hall of their Syon House property. There it has stood for 241 years until its re-sale at Sotheby’s last week where it broke all records for an antiquity in Europe, fetching £10m for its new and no doubt delighted private owner.

The Duke’s auction revealed the world’s rarest treasures for just a few moments, bringing wonder and astonishment to those lucky enough to catch a glimpse over the heads of a bustling sale room.

In a moment they were gone, sold under the sharp bang of a hammer, and unlikely to be seen again in our lifetime.

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