Christie’s King Street archives now occupy more than two kilometres of shelf space. Our head librarian, who first dusted off the collection nigh on 20 years ago, takes us on a deep dive into more than 250 years of auctioneering history
Don’t judge a book by its cover. In 2018 I will have been working at King Street for 20 years. Before Christie’s, I had been working at the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. I will always remember that first interview at King Street. I asked if I could see the library, and the two interviewers palpably gulped. When they brought me down to the archives, it was gruesome. Catalogues were piled from floor to ceiling. In my first three months here, I literally wore a mask and overalls — and all I did was dust and tidy.
Google is a start, not the end. Many researchers today expect to be able to sit at their desks and do everything online. But we are constantly picking up reference volumes and looking through index cards. It’s our job to show specialists what historical documents are available to them.
We’re always looking back, harvesting our history. At King Street, we have sales catalogues dating to 1766. Some of the auctioneer’s books might look a little careworn, but they have actually been conserved. When we went through the conservation process, the conservator said, ‘I could get rid of all these watermarks,’ and I said, ‘No!’ These pages have had a journey themselves. The King Street building was bombed in 1941, and the catalogues took a battering. It’s important to preserve the history of their paths as well.
‘It’s the lovely “eureka moments” that keep you here. We have researchers sitting at the table, quietly going through a catalogue, and all of a sudden you’ll hear, “Yes!”’
Provenance is more important than ever. It’s really come on a long way in the past 20 years. Interestingly, although the term has been around since the mid-19th century, the first time the word ‘provenance’ was published in a Christie’s catalogue was in 1969, in an Old Master Paintings sale.
Occasionally, clients or art dealers ask for our help. Two days a week, by appointment, we open the archives to researchers or curators looking to find out more about their own collections. It’s a bit like going to the British Library. If we know exactly what they’re looking for, we locate and prepare the materials for them to read on-site. They might have seen a number on the back of a painting, for example, and not know what it is. We can help clear that up.
It’s nice to be between the commercial world and academia. We spend a lot of time helping people with their catalogue raisonnés, and students with their PhDs.
I particularly love the 18th-century auctioneer’s books. The one I’m looking at (in the main picture, above), from 1795, records the sale of an exceptional collection that once belonged to Madame du Barry, who was the mistress of King Louis XV. Two years after her grizzly execution in Paris in 1793, James Christie was asked by the Revolutionary Tribunal to sell her jewels. In February 1795, 65 lots consisting of 1,681 individual pearls and brilliants fetched just shy of £9,000. The highest price was £910 for one oval white brilliant. During the French Revolution we had a large number of works of art that came over the Channel to London, brought by people fleeing Paris and not sure where they were going to end up.
Thinking laterally is so important. We have pieces of the jigsaw down here, and when you’re able to find them and connect them and put the picture together, it’s very rewarding. You’ve been asked a question you haven’t been able to answer, but then you start to come at it a bit differently, approach it from a new angle — and you find what you’re looking for.
It’s the lovely ‘eureka moments’ that keep you here. They happen all the time. We have researchers sitting at the table, quietly going through a catalogue, and all of a sudden you’ll hear, ‘Yes!’, when they’ve found that little golden nugget they’ve been searching for, sometimes for decades. And they’ve found it here — the link between one collection and another. Even talking about it makes the hairs on my arms stand on end.