In celebration of the 250th anniversary of iconic auction house Christie’s, and the publication of a new book, Going Once: 250 Years of Culture, Taste and Collecting at Christie’s, The Resident takes a look at five of the London institution’s most stand out sales…
1 The Girl Who Had Everything
The legendary jewellery collection of the actress Elizabeth Taylor broke many auction records when it was sold in 2011, netting over £90m from a gala evening sale, a day session and an online sale. The headline lot in the posthumous sale of Taylor’s jewellery was La Peregrina, a rare and beautiful 16th century natural pearl that Richard Burton had bought at auction in 1969. La Peregrina was discovered in the Gulf of Panama in 1579 and became part of the Spanish crown jewels. After Burton bought the pearl, Taylor worked with Cartier to present it as a dramatic drop on a dazzling diamond necklace.
2 The Ultimate Easter Egg
The St Petersburg jeweller Carl Fabergé made about 50 Easter eggs for the Romanov dynasty between 1885 and the start of the Russian revolution. Fabergé also made a dozen or so eggs to the same ‘imperial’ standard for fantastically rich clients. One of these buyers was Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild. Like all Fabergé’s best work, the Rothschild egg is an exquisite marriage of artistry and ingenuity, of unbridled extravagance and fine-tooled micro-engineering. The translucent enamel-on-silver surface shimmers like a becalmed pink ocean. The central band – made of seed pearls and stylised gold leaves – is like the ribbon on an opulent wedding cake. As the hour strikes, the top of the egg opens and a stout cockerel emerges, studded with diamonds.
Eatimate: Not published
(equivalent today: £35,800,000)
The record for a manuscript sold at auction was set on 11 November 1994 when Bill Gates, then chairman of Microsoft, purchased the Codex Hammer, a rare Leonardo da Vinci ‘notebook’, for over £20m. The Codex Hammer comprises 72 loose leaves brought together to form a notebook, written by da Vinci between 1506-1510. The pages are packed with over 350 of da Vinci’s drawings, as well as his tiny ‘mirror’ writing, which reads from right to left in reverse.
4 Waterlilly World
Le bassin aux nympheas is part of Claude Monet’s celebrated waterlily series, which culminated in the ‘grandes decorations’ he designed for the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris (1914-26). In 2008 the oil painting broke the world auction record for a Monet, prompting those who packed the King Street salesroom to break into spontaneous applause. What made Le bassin aux nympheas so unusual and so coveted by collectors in 2008 was that this late painting, produced at the height of Monet’s creative powers, was signed and dated. Monet regarded his waterlily paintings as a work in progress, and guarded them jealously. He signed only five and sold four.
5 The Most Famous Little Dancer in the World
Sold: £5,716,300 (equivalent today: £14,130,000)
When the wax Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Little Dancer aged Fourteen) by Edgar Degas was first exhibited, at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, it scandalised visitors. The sculpture, a portrait of the plucky young dancer Marie van Goethem, was considered so drab and lifelike that one critic described it as a ‘rat from the opera learning her craft with all of her evil instincts and vicious inclinations’. Today, it is one of the most famous artworks in the world.
Degas loved the ballet. He haunted the Paris Opera, studying performances and sketching the dancers backstage, and on one occasion declaring that his soul was like a worn pink-satin ballet shoe. However, by 1880, he was going blind, and so he took to sculpting the dancers in wax rather than painting them. After the artist’s death in 1917, a collection of his wax sculptures was found in his studio, including the little dancer. His family made bronze casts of the originals, and these have been in great demand ever since.
CHRISTIE’S LATES CELEBRATES 250 YEARS OF CHRISTIE’S
85 Old Brompton Road SW7 3LD; christies.com/lates