Collectors United Kingdom

Aristocrats rush to sell the family silver

Works of art worth £100m from historic collections go to market

Earl Spencer is sending heirlooms from Althorp to the sale room, as are his peers (Photo: AP/Richard Lewis)

LONDON. Art treasures worth a total of £100m are being sold from UK country houses. With cuts in government spending it is becoming increasingly difficult for museums to purchase ­masterpieces and so most are going abroad.

Works from Earl Spencer’s mansion at Althorp were sold at Christie’s on 6-8 July, fetching a total of £21.2m. The Earl of Rosebery sold a Turner painting at Sotheby’s on 7 July. It soared above its estimate, going to the Getty Museum for £29.7, a record auction price for a British work of art. A £10m bronze relief from Chatsworth by Pierino da Vinci has just been bought by the Prince of Liechtenstein.

­These sales come just after the National Heritage Memorial Fund rejected a grant request towards the Van Dyck self-portrait that was offered jointly to the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery for £9.4m. It is now likely to go overseas.

Altogether we have recorded major works of art on the market valued at around £80m. Adding lesser items and works being sold discreetly through dealers is likely to bring the figure up to probably around £100m. This excludes the Duke of Suther­land’s second Titian, Diana and Callisto, which the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland have been offered the option to buy for £50m in early 2013.

Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar believes the flurry of sales is “a combination of a difficult economic climate for owners plus a buoyant art market at the top end, an unusual combination”.

Traditionally a death (with tax due), divorce or the cost of maintaining stately homes and estates has motivated such sales. But there is a new factor: owners increasingly regard works of art not as heritage, but as assets and are aiming to diversify their portfolios.

There are a number of other cases where sales have been mooted in recent years. These include the Duke of Rutland’s set of five Poussin Sacraments (worth more than £100m), the Earl of Halifax’s Titian, Portrait of a Young Man (about £55m), and Penrhyn Castle’s Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet (around £40m) and the privately owned Laughing Man (around £20m), both by Rembrandt.

One of the few encouraging signs is that in May the Nat­ional Gallery was able to find a purchaser for Domen­ichino’s St John the Evangelist, which ­­Sir George Christie of Glynde­bourne sold at Christie’s in 2009. It went at auction for £9.2m to a foreign buyer, but when an export licence was deferred, a UK buyer stepped in to match the price. Our art market editor-at-large, Georgina Adam, has established that the buyer is Chris Rokos, a UK-based Amer­ican financier with Brevan Howard Asset Manage­ment. He has lent the paint­ing to the National Gal­lery, initially until November 2011.

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22 Jul 10
16:55 CET


It has been an open secret for decades that the members of the aristocracy of Europe are on the ropes financially. They are often saddled with enormous unsellable properties and with little cash in the bank. They need another influx of American dollar princesses to save them. Now, how many daughters do Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have...

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