Coming across this sketch by Thomas Rowlandson from 1808 entitled ‘Picture Sale at Christies’ (courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum ) made me look up the origins of the company. Sotheby’s had been formed way back in 1744, but Christie’s was founded in 1766 by James Christie. He held a sale in his “Great Rooms” on London’s Pall Mall, apparently offering for sale various items including a couple of chamber pots and two pillowcases. The company has come quite a long way since then…
The official company literature states that founder James Christie conducted the first sale on 5 December 1766. However, other sources note that James had been renting auction rooms since 1762, and newspaper advertisements of Christie’s sales dating from 1759 have also been traced.
By 1778, James Christie had moved on to art auctions, and arranged the sale of Sir Robert Walpole’s collection of pictures on behalf of his grandson, George Walpole. The buyer? Catherine the Great of Russia, who forked out £40,000.
In 1795, Christie secured a total of £25,000 for the contents of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ studio, the sale taking place over the course of five days.
James had been born in Perth in 1730. He became a close friend and neighbour of the artist Thomas Gainsborough – the latter painted him in 1778.
When James died in 1803 the business was taken over by his son, also called James, and twenty years later the business moved to 8 King Street in St James’s, where it remains to this day.
Rowlandson was not the only artist to picture Christie’s auction house. James Gillray gives us ‘A Peep at Christies, or Tally-ho and his Nimmey-Pimmeney taking the Morning Lounge’ (1796), showing caricatures of the willowy actress Elizabeth Farren and the diminutive figure of Lord Derby (a keen huntsman). She gazes head-height at a scene of actors in a classical drama, while Lord Derby examines a hunting scene at what is head-height for him also!
The National Portrait Gallery has a couple of nice caricatures of the elder Christie, perhaps giving a flavour of his eloquent hyperbole in describing Lots. The first, by an unknown artist, is entitled ‘Eloquence – or the King of Epithets’
The second caricature is by Robert Dighton and appeared in 1794 and is called The Specious Orator: