How the sale of Mentmore Towers' contents changed how we view national heritage
PUBLISHED: 11:47 13 April 2017 | UPDATED: 11:00 15 March 2018
How the 1977 ‘Sale of the Century’ of a magnificent home’s art treasures and contents helped to change how we view national heritage
These days we are likely to find iconic architect-designed homes and offices built in the 1960s and 70s becoming Listed Buildings, but the truth is that era also saw some blithe destruction of properties many would now fight tooth and nail to save.
As the bulldozers moved in to clear sites, sometimes a couple of centuries of history were just crunched into the mud as new roads, snazzy homes and business parks rapidly replaced admittedly sometimes tumbledown Victorian and Georgian properties.
The New ruled, and quickly. Echoes of the Second World War were finally fading and a new middle class (including a finally better off ‘working class made good’) wanted better homes and leisure facilities to go with their lifestyles and Baby Boomer families.
When we finally said ‘goodbye’ to Downton Abbey on our TV screens, most agreed it was a good place to finish the series. Not just because the cast would have trouble ageing, but that next stop would have to be the miserable 1930s and the brilliant Dame Maggie Smith’s Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, would surely have had to pass on. Storylines were already heading in the direction of the demise of a world of masters and servants and the loss of grand country houses.
The gentry had been depleted in the First World War alongside the ranks and the first sales of valuable contents were already taking place by the 1920s. Among them was a sale of some 3,700 lots from Stowe, which saw stunning collections spread across a growing worldwide market.
By the 1960s and 70s the social order was having a new shake up. Welcome to the arrival of the throw-away world woven in with a minimal interest in heritage.
And one of the most telling signs of this was a spate of ‘grand country house’ sales where the contents acquired over generations would go under the hammer. Of all such sales one still stands out – the nine days in 1977 when Sotheby’s sold the contents of Mentmore Towers in the Vale of Aylesbury. Built in the mid-19th century, Mentmore was originally part of the Rothschild family estate and by Victorian times was an amazing treasure trove of fine art. It passed via the marriage of Hannah Rothschild to the Earls of Rosebery.
The collection grew over the years and during the Second World War the British government stored part of the national art collection there for safe-keeping, as well as The Royal Collection, including the 18th century Gold State Coach we all still marvel at.
As the years passed those with a strong interest in the arts were working to keep Mentmore’s treasures together. For instance, art historian Sir Roy Strong sought to have The National Land Fund, created to secure culturally significant property for the nation as a memorial to the war dead, used to purchase the contents. But the fund rarely provided grants and an eventual run-in with James Callaghan’s Labour government was to lead to the extraordinary sale of the mansion’s contents.
When the sixth earl passed on in 1973 the collections were offered to the state in lieu of death duties, and also the house and contents for £2 million, deals the government rejected. That would be over £20 million today, and have ensured that the nation had one of the finest museums of European furniture and art, housed in a significant property. The government wanted hard cash, not a load of paintings, fancy tables and Italian busts.
Three years of wrangling over the sums involved ensued and eventually the executors decided the only solution was to sell the contents by public auction. Every day for a week and a half art collectors and the simply curious turned up in their thousands to bid for lots such as paintings by Gainsborough and Reynolds and furniture by Chippendale. Splendid silver and stunning gold items were joined on the auction list by the finest Limoges enamel.
By the time the final hammer went down more than £6 million had been paid, breaking all previous records, but for those connected to the campaign to preserve collections for all to see its subsequent scattering across the world to private owners was a huge loss and considered a turning point in national attitudes towards heritage.
The sale led to a House of Commons Expenditure Committee inquiry and by 1980 The National Heritage Memorial Fund had been set up to replace the previous failed scheme to save national treasures (the fund receives £5m a year from the government). A recent purchase was Charles Dickens’s desk and chair and other items saved for the nation last year include Lawrence of Arabia’s dagger, robes and kaffiyah for the National Army Musuem,and the earliest depiction of Henry VIII’s lost palace of Nonsuch, that once stood in Cheam, Surrey.
Some of the Mentmore items were kept by the Roseberys and taken to Dalmeny House, their home near Edinburgh which had been the ‘family seat’ since 1662. It still is, and those visiting Scotland in June or July can tour the house when it opens to the public.
It’s very difficult to know what the collection, had it been kept together, would be worth today. But items from the 1977 sale do reappear at auction. In 2004 a pair of 18th century Italian giltwood console tables were sold by Sotheby’s for £218,400, and a fine pair of 18th century North Italian busts of Bacchic youths went for £72,500 in 2015.
As for Grade I Listed Mentmore itself, the property was purchased by the Marihishi Foundation, part of the Transcendental Meditation movement, before passing to property developer Simon Halibi, who at one time planned to turn it into a hotel.
But back to the original sale. There was so much to dispose of that auction workers eventually decided to simply chuck out some of the cheaper looking stuff. Local residents are said to have turned up with wheelbarrows to pick up scuffed furniture and rejected crockery, plus bits and bobs and memorabilia from the kitchens and servants rooms. These days such items have a value and are the sort of finds which turn up on the likes of The Antiques Roadshow. How times change!
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