Published: December 1, 2020
As evidenced by the popularity of such television series as Downton Abbey, The Crown, and Upstairs, Downstairs, the British aristocracy has long been a source of fascination, both at home and abroad, for people fascinated with how the top tier of British society lived. Auction houses around the world frequently offer large collections amassed over the course of a collector’s lifetime, but it is an increasingly rare occasion when the contents of an entire house, amassed not in a single generation but multiple consecutive ones, come to market. When word that Bonhams was conducting a sale temptingly titled The Dunrobin Attic Sale, we set up a Zoom call with Charlie Thomas, director of Private Collections and House Sales, for a sneak peek at some of the treasures he found among the cobwebs.
Congratulations on landing Dunrobin! For those readers who aren’t familiar with Dunrobin Castle, what should they know about it?
The sale has been a bit of a dream, actually. Dunrobin Castle is one of the most beautiful and magical castles in the whole of Scotland. It looks like it belongs in Bavaria and, indeed, I’d say it is my favorite castle. It’s the ancestral home of the earls and dukes of Sutherland and when we’re not in a pandemic, parts of the castle, including the state rooms, are open to the public. We got a call from the Earl of Sutherland’s office, so as soon as I could I flew from London to Inverness – the Castle is absolutely miles away, right on the north coast, it’s about as far north as you can possibly go. We drove there in the most beautiful weather – it was magical.
Bonhams has announced it as the Dunrobin Attic Sale? What did you find up there?
Keep in mind that the attics in a stately home like Dunrobin are not like the attics in a typical house. If you are familiar with Downton Abbey, the attics are where the servants lived, under the eaves, and at Dunrobin, which is huge, they’re quite extensive and overlook the sea. Each room was absolutely filled. These large houses were built to entertain and there was a tremendous volume of stuff. There was one room with dozens of crested chamber pots; rooms and rooms of dinner services, some for 80-120 people; and some rooms filled just with picture frames. Downstairs, the cellars are vast, they just go on for miles and are filled with copper kitchen cookware-all sorts of things-furniture, lanterns, old skis.
The sale includes everything from the best in Old Master pictures to boxes of silver and silverplate. None of it has been seen for a couple of generations at least, and it will be the first time any of it will be on the market.
Is there a moment or two that stand out?
The most exciting moment was when the Castle’s managing director pushed open a heavy door and inside, behind decades of cobwebs, was a room filled with marble and plaster busts. It was extraordinary. There was another room with green baize-lined shelves that was just filled with silver, all with the Sutherland crest.
What are some of the highlights of the sale?
The Sutherlands are an interesting family, and they’ve produced some extraordinary explorers. Lots of people took the Grand Tour seriously but the Sutherlands took it to another level. We discovered a Nineteenth Century mahogany cased-frame filled with Grand Tour plaster medallions that is just spectacular.
We also found a bound manuscript by Captain Otter, a naval explorer, who was commissioned by the second Duke of Sutherland to chart and map the Northern coast of Scotland, to explain where to fish, etc. That comes with some letters, which are really wonderful.
Something we’re still working on is a small watercolor – about the size of a postcard – of a dog inscribed “Dash 1832.” Dash was Queen Victoria’s favorite dog and the Duchess of Sutherland was one of her ladies in waiting. I’ve not taken it out of the frame yet but that was another exciting find.
How will you present the sale? Will it be held at the Castle?
We are having a tour of highlights in London of some of the most exciting, quirky and whimsical things the week of January 25. The entire sale will take place in our Edinburgh saleroom the week of February 22.
Are you finished cataloging it? Is it a large sale?
We’re still somewhat at the early stage. There are literally thousands of items. We’re at 462 lots and counting…but we’ve cataloged quite a bit. We’ll do much more after next week, once we wrap up a furniture sale we’re having here in London.
Has the pandemic changed the way in which Bonhams is presenting this collection? If so, in what way?
So far, it has not had an impact – luckily, it’s easy to social distance in a castle! We hope by February we will be back to at least the same level of normality we enjoyed in July and August and we can offer live viewing and live bidders. As a company we have been able to adapt to the pandemic and the additional challenges it has thrown at us, so I am expecting things to go smoothly whatever the circumstance. But everyone is looking forward to life without Covid!
Do you think most of the buyers will be from Scotland?
Buyers from Scotland will be a large part of the market, certainly, as will the whole of the United Kingdom, but these private house sales have an allure and appeal that is worldwide. I expect we will see lots of bidding from America and Canada, where there are strong Scottish links, and also from Europe (especially Germany). It’s not uncommon for house sales to have bidders registering from 35-40 countries.
Why is that?
These lots are a tangible link to the past and people are fascinated with what goes on behind closed doors. It conjures up an era that we’ll never see again, really.
Bonhams has had a dedicated Private House Sales department since 2014. What’s the history of the category and where do you see it going?
After World Wars I and II, a lot of private houses were sold because they were so expensive to maintain. That’s how a lot of auction houses were started; they were called in to sell the contents. Large single owner collections that have been built over a lifetime are fairly common, but the ones like Dunrobin that are multigenerational, those are quite special and don’t come along nearly as often…maybe every three to four years.
You started your career in the furniture department. What was the path from that to private house sales?
When I started in furniture in 2003, the furniture market was way up; it’s in a different place now but I’ve always loved it, particularly when you’re working with something with exciting provenance.
Is that the best part of the job?
I love every aspect of my job. You start with the valuation; it’s hugely exciting when you make discoveries. Then, when you are preparing the sale catalog, doing the marketing, you can be creative. Once you get to the sale itself, it’s tremendous fun to see what things sell for, who buys them. No one ever really knows what things are worth because it’s hard to put a value on provenance. When you do these sales, you also get to know the families really well, which is a great privilege.
I’ve loads of favorite sales. When I think back, they’ve all been so different. We sold the estate of Lord Glenconner, who was a fascinating character – he bought the island of Mustique in the 1950s and made it into the celebrity and holiday destination it’s become today.
In 2017, we sold the contents of Glyn Cywarch, the property of the Fifth Lord Harlech, David Ormsby Gore. Ormsby Gore was Britain’s ambassador to the United States during the Kennedy administration, and we discovered, in a locked government dispatch box, a trove of personal letters between Ormsby Gore and Jackie Kennedy, which were written after JFK’s assassination. The letters brought to light that he proposed marriage to her, why she turned him down and why, shortly afterwards, she married Aristotle Onassis. The family agreed we could sell them and they sold for $124,400.
The estate of Walid Juffali, the Saudi billionaire, was huge fun; it was a vast collection and we sold it onsite, at Bishopsgate House, his estate in Surrey.
Bonhams’ Private House Sales department seems to be in a good place. Do you have anything lined up to follow the Dunrobin Castle sale?
We’re good at it and have a great track record. We seem to consistently get great sales but it is a very competitive market. We’re at the pitching stage of another one that’s been in the same family for generations. It’s too early yet to say for sure but watch this space!
-Madelia Hickman Ring
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