When the French Revolution erupted, the influx of French aristocrats – and fine artwork – into London cemented the city’s reputation as the world’s art trading capital. In 1766, it was against this very backdrop that Christie’s established itself as the foremost purveyor of relics, masterpieces and luxury goods.
It would be wrong to say it was the world’s first auction house – that honour goes to the Stockholm Auction House, the Swedish business that pioneered the idea in 1674. In fact, even Sotheby’s preceded Christie’s by some 20 years. It was Christie’s, though, that went on to become the world’s largest auctioneer, with its name almost synonymous with the practice of luxury goods going under the hammer.
The company recently celebrated its 250th anniversary, while this month marks 30 years since it first opened in Hong Kong. This made it the first city in Asia to hold auctions on a regular basis, although there had been a few sporadic sales in Tokyo in the 1960s.
Today, Christie’s hosts around 350 auctions a year, with the company having a presence in 46 countries and dedicated sales rooms in 11 cities. Its sales straddle 80 diverse categories, including classic armour, fine wines, designer handbags and rare musical instruments.
Christie’s has built upon a long tradition of auctioning – one that was not always notably noble. The word “auction” actually stems from the Latin term “auctus,” meaning “increasing.” It refers to a practice in classic times whereby a potential wife was handed over to the highest bidder.
In Rome, around 1 AD, auctions became a popular means of disposing of family estates and selling off war plunder. One of the most significant historical auctions occurred in 193 AD, when the rebellious Praetorian Guard put the entire Roman Empire on the auction block, briefly precipitating a civil war.
By the 18th century, auctions in England were typically held in taverns and coffeehouses, perhaps in the hope that a little liquid inspiration would inspire bidders to empty their wallets. At the time, James Christie, the eponymous founder of Christie’s, was just 20 years old and working as an auctioneer’s assistant in London. Not known as a connoisseur of the arts, he later relied on a team of advisers when it came to stocking the showroom.
In subsequent years, the business he founded became famous for – among other things – selling the personal effects of the rich and famous. At one time or another, the chattels of Princess Diana, Coco Chanel, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Margaret Thatcher all went under its famous hammer.
In one of its more bizarre auctions, Christie’s found a buyer for the nightcap worn by King Charles I on the eve of his 1649 execution for treason. According to The Book of Royal Useless Information, the king put on his nightcap before asking the executioner, “Does my hair trouble you?” Following a yes, the man with the axe helped the king tuck his hair into his cap, before delivering his own terminal trim.
If celebrity clothing is coveted, haute joaillerie is even more in demand. In 2011, a posthumous sale of the jewellery of Elizabeth Taylor – the US actress once regarded as the world’s most beautiful woman – proved to be the most valuable private collection of jewels ever to come up for auction. The star of the collection was a necklace adorned with La Peregrina, a rare 16th-century pearl once part of the Spanish crown jewels.
“Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Thatcher all went under the Christie’s gavel”
One of Taylor’s seven husbands, the legendary actor and carouser Richard Burton (whom she married twice), purchased the pearl at auction in 1969. Designed by Taylor in collaboration with Cartier, the two-strand necklace also boasts 56 natural pearls and four cultured pearls, as well as an array of diamonds and rubies.
The auction was seen by a record number of people. Buyers placed their bids in person, over the phone and online – the first auction ever held on the Christie’s website. In total, some 24 of the 80 jewels on offer fetched more than US$1 million (HK$7.8 million), with six jewels going for more than $5 million.
In the process, the sale established seven new world records, including the highest price paid for a pearl jewel and the most paid per carat for a colourless diamond at auction.
In another dazzling spectacle, Christie’s was also charged with auctioning the famed Agra diamond – a bulky pink gemstone worn by a Mughal emperor in the 16th century. Sold for $6.95 million, it was bought by Hong Kong-based Siba Rare Jewels, with the company proceeding to shock experts by announcing plans to recut the diamond, reducing its weight from 32 to 28 carats in order to give it a more contemporary look.
Props from famous films have also proven hugely popular at auction. A pair of ruby slippers – as worn by Dorothy (Judy Garland) in The Wizard of Oz – was auctioned off for US$165,000 in 1988. A fairly hefty sum, especially considering they didn’t contain any real rubies, with 2,300 red sequins delivering the required look. In 2000, the shoes were again sold by Christie’s, this time going for a devilish $666,000.
With all its luxury cars, cool gadgets and stylish suits, it is perhaps unsurprising that the James Bond film franchise has spawned a number of high-profile auctions over the years. An Aston Martin DB5 – driven by both Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye (1995) and Sean Connery in Goldfinger (1964) – sold for £157,750 (HK$1.5 million), while the Aston Martin DBS from Quantum of Solace (2008) went for £241,250.
While movie memorabilia stirs up considerable fanfare, it’s famous works of art that truly steal the show in terms of legacy and price tag. Among the most celebrated to have passed through Christie’s doors are Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli, Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple by El Greco and Figures dans un Café (L’Absinthe) by Edgar Degas.
In 1987, Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers famously became the most expensive painting ever sold when it went for £24 million. That record only lasted three years, however, before it was smashed by the £49.1 million sale of Portrait of Dr Gachet, another work by Van Gogh. Ironically, success came far too late for this notoriously tortured artist who sold only one painting during the course of his lifetime.
Christie’s Hong Kong saleroom has also fared well in the art arena, particularly with regard to traditional Chinese artworks. At its anniversary auction last year, a rare blue and white dragon jar from the Ming Dynasty sold for more than US$20 million, while the sale of a 600-year-old Tibetan thangka set a record in 2014 for the most expensive Chinese artwork ever sold – $45 million.
All in all, the Hong Kong branch has come a long way since its first auction of Chinese paintings and jadeite jewellery back in 1986. It started with just 200 lots and generated around $2 million. In 2015, it had 8,000 lots and generated nearly $800 million. Following London and New York, Hong Kong is now Christie’s third most important sales site in terms of revenue – even beating Paris.
With 30 percent of its sales revenue coming from Asian buyers, it looks like the future of Europe’s most venerable auctioneers is very much tied up with its Far Eastern outposts. Some 250 years on, with the hammer going down on ever higher price tags, it could be a very long time indeed before Christie’s is going…going…gone.