The Sale of the Century:
By Laura Beach
The Sale of the Century is the colorful tale of the most infamous estate sale of all time: the dismantling of much of England’s royal collections by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament after King Charles I was beheaded outside the Whitehall Banqueting Room in Westminster Yard in 1649.
Published by Yale University Press in association with Museo del Prado in Madrid, the richly illustrated, heavily researched volume is the work of art historian Jonathan Brown of New York University and Sir John Elliott, a professor of history at Oxford University. The two collaborated on the exhibition “Sale of the Century: Artistic Relations Between Spain and Great Britain,1604-1655,” seen at the Prado in Madrid earlier this year.
The accompanying catalog recreates the exhibition, which reunited masterpieces of Old Master paintings, classical sculpture and Renaissance tapestry that had been scattered throughout Europe after the king’s death. The book also provides a fascinating look at the beginnings of the modern art market, which — stimulated by international trade, travel and diplomacy — relied heavily on the web of aristocratic connections and political alliances that bound Europe together.
The events of The Sale of the Century were reconstructed through close examination of a previously unpublished cache of documents preserved in the Archivo de la Casa de Alba in Spain.
The period under consideration spans just half a century. It begins in 1604, when England and Spain sign a peace treaty after years of enmity. It concludes in 1655, by which time agents from Spain and France had cherry-picked the collection that was dumped on the market after the king’s death. “For England, it was a tragic end to one of the most glorious episodes in the history of collecting … Many decades would transpire before English collections were replenished,” writes Brown.
Readers are introduced to the larger-than-life players in this drama. Charles, Prince of Wales when we first meet him, needs to make a suitable match to hold together his fragile peace with Spain. His Spanish counterpart, Philip IV, is a monarch hugely devoted to art. He boasts one of the best paintings collections in Europe and keeps Velasquez on retainer as his court painter.
Envious of Philip’s stash, Charles begins amassing a paintings collection of his own. He turns for help not to the Earl of Arundel, the foremost English art connoisseur of his day (called “the father of vertu in England” by Horace Walpole) but to the Duke of Buckingham, a flashy art-world newcomer. After Cromwell’s revolutionary government passes the “Act for the Sale of the Late King’s Goods” in 1649, we get to know Alonso de Cardenas, the Spanish ambassador in London who is discreetly buying up many of the best works from the distress sale. Cardenas is acting on behalf of Luis de Haro, a government official who is very, very close to Philip IV. Haro has little competition. The English nobility, which largely sided with the crown, is either dead or in exile. European nobility wants nothing to do with the regicide.
The Sale of the Century implies that, for all its luster, the art market is but a symbolic manifestation of wealth and power. As Brown points out, works of art were “habitually pressed into political service in this epoch, whether as diplomatic gifts or as assertions of princely and ecclesiastical power or as attributes of magnificence by elite collectors.” When political fortunes turned, so did the art market. English collectors did not even have access to European pictures until the Anglo-Spanish peace treaty of 1604 lifted restrictions on travel.
The first English collector to take advantage of the détente was the Earl of Arundel, who was “running a network of art agents and informers more extensive and intricate than that of any other Seventeenth Century collector.” For the next three decades, English collectors scoured Madrid for artistic treasures, while the Spanish made few if any acquisitions in London. “Italianate ideas of princely collecting and display had taken hold in London,” writes Brown.
Diplomats and agents of the English crown were the first to travel, buying on behalf of wealthy collectors. Then, in 1623, the Prince of Wales and his entourage ventured to Spain, where Charles, needing an alliance to secure his kingdom, made a bid for the Infanta Maria’s hand in marriage. The deal fell through. Charles returned to London unbetrothed, but smitten by Hapsburg grandeur. He affected Spanish costume for a while and dreamed of a palace as grand as El Escorial. After ascending the throne in 1625, Charles began amassing a major picture collection emphasizing Sixteenth Century masters. It is at about this time that the word “almoneda,” Spanish for estate sale, crept into contemporary English usage.
Charles’s first foray into the art market was his most successful one. In 1626, the hereditary collection of the Dukes of Mantua was coming up for sale. With the assistance of an unscrupulous dealer, Daniel Nys, Charles’s agent secured the prime works, including paintings by Mantegna, Titian, Correggio, Raphael and other Italian masters. In one fell swoop Charles had one of the best collections in Europe.
Diplomacy between England and Spain deteriorated after Charles failed to make his Spanish match. As relations soured, Charles and Philip agreed to negotiate through an intermediary, Peter-Paul Rubens, the celebrated Antwerp painter who was very much in the service of the Hapsburg court. Neither Rubens nor Charles’s own machinations could save the doomed king. Following his defeat in the English Civil War, Charles sat in prison in Carisbrook awaiting his execution, still dreaming of a new Whitehall Palace, to be built along the lines of the Escorial, according to plans by his architect, Inigo Jones.
After Charles’s death, Parliament was eager to destroy all symbols of princely excess and to pay off debts. On July 20, 1649, the new government allocated Somerset House, a former residence of the queen, as the primary venue for “the sale of the century,” which commenced in early October.
“The course of the sale was never to be direct, unlike the well-oiled auction sales of today,” writes Brown. “One complication was the so-called reserved goods, or objects claimed by the Council of State for use in decorating the halls of government and the residences of its members, especially Oliver Cromwell. As time passed, the Council developed an appetite for the splendid trappings of monarchy and withdrew rdf_Descriptions, especially tapestries, from the sale.”
The venue proceeded slowly and with many glitches. Eager to be done with it, Parliament turned the objects themselves over to the creditors. The creditors in turn formed syndicates, called dividends. Each dividend opened an impromptu art gallery, either in a home or in leased quarters.
“The distribution of paintings to the dividends flooded the market and sank the prices,” writes Brown. Discounts of 50 percent were not unusual. Raphael’s “Holy Family” — known as “La Perla” by the Spanish, who regarded it as a gem — was widely viewed as the collection’s signature piece. Wrote the Spanish ambassador Cardenas, “The painting is well done, but so expensive that no one talks of buying it.” In the end, he landed it for 1,000 pounds, 1,250 pounds less than its estimated value.
Cardenas had little competition until 1652, when the new French ambassador Antoine de Bordeaux appeared to act on behalf of the greatest collector in France, Cardinal Jules Mazarin. The competition sparked a bidding war for Correggio’s “Education of Cupid.” De Bordeaux got the picture, for 4,300 pounds.
“During the waning days of 1653, the ambassadors battled tooth and nail for pictures of quality. Their rivalry and the increasing shortage of important works finally turned the market in favor of the sellers…,” Brown concludes.
When the dust had settled, the core of Charles’ collection, including what he called the “Mantua peeces,” were in the hands of the Spanish minister Haro. Haro gave about ten percent of the 125 pictures he acquired from English collections to Philip IV. They were vetted by Velasquez, who arranged for their installation in the sacristy of the Escorial. The rest of Haro’s collection was inherited by the Casa de Alba and eventually dispersed. Scholars are still trying to trace them. “As for the works presented to the king,” writes Brown, “they remained in the royal collection and, in the nineteenth century, passed to the Prado, where they can be enjoyed to this day.”
The Sale of the Century includes six essays on political conditions and cultural currents in Spain and England in the first half of the Seventeenth Century; extended biographies of the collectors Luis de Haro and the Earl of Arundel; and a final essay on pictorial decoration of the Escorial during the reign of Philip IV. Catalog entries are divided chronologically into five sections covering the Anglo-Spanish peace treaty of 1604, the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1623, the decade of the 1630s, “the sale of the century” and a follow-up section on Spanish acquisitions from British collections other than the king’s.
Though the visit of Charles, Prince of Wales, to Spain in 1623 was a boon to the arts in Britain,.Brown and Elliott conclude that Parliament’s venture into the art market was an act of supreme folly. “Some 1,570 paintings and untold number of precious and utilitarian objects were liquidated, causing the dispersal of one of the greatest collections of the seventeenth century.”
The Sale of the Century: Artistic Relations Between Spain and Great Britain, 1604-1655 by Jonathan Brown and John Elliott. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with Museo del Prado, Madrid, 2002; 315 pages, 120 illustrations, $65 hardcover.