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The Big Bang of the Antique Trades

The Auction that Started the Antique Trades

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, many English Peerage estates found themselves in financial difficulty. The fastest way for an estate to raise cash was by selling off their vast collections of art, jewelry, and furniture.

In 1870, the 7th Duke of Marlborough began to sell off his family assets. Unentailed real estate and personal property were sold, including the famous Marlborough gems. When the amount raised wasn’t enough to cover his debts, the Duke petitioned Parliament to break the estate’s entail and allow liquidation of the estate. English inheritance law required that estates follow a strict method of passing on property, called an entail. Any change in the law required an act of Parliament. Passage of the Blenheim Settled Estates Act of 1880 enabled the Duke to call an auctioneer and arrange for the liquidation of the estate.

The Marlborough auction began on Saturday June 26 1886, and was conducted by the firm of Christie, Manson and Wood (today’s “Christie’s) at their London sale rooms. The Marlborough sale ran off-and-on for several weeks. Lots offered were furnishings, porcelain, rugs, silver, and household goods; plus art and sculptures by Rubens, Van Dyck, Raphael, Rembrandt, and others. A catalog of the first day’s sale can be seen at https://archive.org/details/catalogueofcolle00marliala

The Duke’s descendants – Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Diana Spencer (Princess Di) could claim kinship to His Lordship, but didn’t inherit any money.

The Marlborough auction was certainly the most important auction of its time, but is it a fair assessment to use it as the start date for the antique trades?  In my opinion, it makes as much sense to ascribe June 1886 as the start date for the antique business as it does to ascribe July 4, 1776 as the date of American Independence. Certainly there had been skirmishes with the British before July of 1776 – most notably the battles at Concord, Lexington, and the Boston Tea Party – but in spite of those early skirmishes we lay claim to the date of July 4, 1776 as the start of our independence. Similarly, there was antique buying and selling going on before June 1886. But the Duke of Marlborough’s auction was the watershed event that brought the antiques trade into general awareness. After that date, antiques were no longer the exclusive province of the gentry.

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