Cash in the attic: Chatsworth House sale

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)

Usually during times of economic hardship all areas of life suffer as disposable income is held rather than spent.  However, paradoxically the art market is currently on something of a high which has produced record prices at recent auctions.  For the country house owner faced with ever higher bills there has rarely been a better time to re-evaluate collections and contents and see if they too can raise some much needed funds or, as in the case of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, to make space.

The Dukes of Devonshire have always enjoyed a privileged position as one of the UK’s premier aristocratic families.  Their fortune was set with the four advantageous marriages of Bess of Hardwick (b. 1527 – d. 1608) following the early deaths of her rich husbands. OF particular note was her second husband, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who in 1811 had inherited not only the title but eight major houses and estates including Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall (now National Trust), Devonshire House in London (demolished 1924), Chiswick House (now English Heritage), Lismore Castle (still owned by the Devonshires) and Bolton Abbey (owned by Devonshire family trust), Burlington House (now the Royal Academy of Arts), and Londesborough Hall in Yorkshire (demolished in 1819), totalling some 200,000 acres.  Chatsworth was considered her principal seat and has been for the Devonshire family ever since.  This meant that when earlier economically austere times led to the selling of other family properties such as Chiswick House and Devonshire House in London the contents of these houses were largely packed up and brought back to Chatsworth.

The current, 12th, Duke has now decided to follow the recently well-trodden path of the asset-rich aristocracy and clear out some of the accumulated contents of the storage areas and raise some welcome capital which will be ploughed back into the running of the estate.  The 20,000 items include a rare William Kent mantelpiece which is expected to go for around £300,000.  Recently up to £100m of art has been sold including an earlier sale by the Duke of Devonshire for £10m of a bronze statue, Ugolino Imprisoned with his Sons and Grandsons (around 1549), by Leonardo’s nephew Pierino da Vincia, a record-breaking Turner watercolour, Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino, from the Earl of Rosebury which made £29.7m, a 1.3-metre long, 81kg wine cooler from the Marquis of Lothian, a variety of works including a Rubens from Earl Spencer, and other sales by the Earl of Wemyss and March, the Earl of Jersey, and Lord Northbrook.

Whilst the current situation continues with rising costs not being met by investment income or from the revenue from opening up houses and estates it’s likely that we will continue to see a steady trickle of art flowing from the galleries of our stately homes into the private collections of the billionaires currently willing to pay record-breaking prices for the finest works.  Although this is in some respects regrettable, as long as the money is spent on the restoration and maintenance of our wonderful country houses then there is little cause for concern.  However, once the attics are empty or all the ‘non-core’ pictures have been sold then we may need to be worried as to what will be sold next. The worst outcome would be to have houses without estates or that we have a fine collection of stately homes in which visitor’s footsteps merely echo around empty state rooms.

More about the Chatsworth sale: ‘Chatsworth’s ‘lost’ treasures up for sale‘ [BBC News]

More about recent art sales: ‘Who is behind the great stately home art sell-off‘ [The Art Newspaper]

13 thoughts on “Cash in the attic: Chatsworth House sale

  1. Crownfolio July 14, 2010 / 21:51

    To be fair, Chatsworth is so stuffed full of things that they genuinely don’t know what they have.
    It was only a couple of years ago that they began to catalogue their kitchen equipment. This had been stuffed into boxes in preparation for the house’s use as a school at the outbreak of war, and then left there for almost fifty years.
    Now kitchenware might not seem that exciting, but the historian who was cataloguing it was finding seventeenth and eighteenth century items of such rarity that perhaps only one or two were known to have survived. Except six, or eight, or ten, would come out of the Chatsworth boxes.
    So who knows what else got bundled into the attics then.

  2. countryhouses July 15, 2010 / 17:54

    Thanks Crownfolio. I think that alongside the depths of the oceans one of the last truly unexplored areas of earth are the attics and outbuildings of our country houses. I read about the historian’s excitement when they were finally allowed into Calke Abbey following the public campaign for it’s rescue and they discovered two centuries of accumulated emphemera – which kept them happy for years. I suspect that there are many more treasures just waiting to be discovered – and perhaps one positive outcome of this age of austerity is that owners are prompted to take stock what they own leading to the discover of more delights.

  3. Andrew July 16, 2010 / 15:54

    I only wish the Victoria & Albert Museum had the funds to buy some of the former Devonshire House items and reconstruct a room (such as the Saloon, Ballroom or Dining Room), like they did with the panelled Music Room from Norfolk House (although a wood panelled room is easier to reconstruct than one with wallpaper, ceiling plaster and trompe l’oeil):

    Devonshire House interior photos (from Country Life magazine)

    V&A’s reconstructed Norfolk House Music Room:

    The Norfolk House Music Room in situ (from Country Life magazine)

  4. Crownfolio July 17, 2010 / 13:53

    It’s funny you should mention this, but I’ve been thinking about the London townhouses and just how little remains in comparison to their country cousins. Almost every last one has vanished, and no one seems to mind much at all. I can only come up with the Wallace Collection, Spencer House and Apsley House as remainders – are there any others?
    Is this just a function of land values, or is it another example of Britain seeing its culture and national identity as rural rather than metropolitan?

    • countryhouses July 19, 2010 / 01:20

      Hi Crownfolio – I actually think you’d be surprised as there are still quite a few, though it is true that we have also lost so many either through bombing or development. There is a superb book on the subject of those which have gone called ‘The Lost Mansions of Mayfair’ by Oliver Bradbury (pub 2008). It is by turns amazing and depressing but well worth a look – the photo of the picture gallery in Londonderry House is beautiful. Other houses that remain are Lancaster House (now mainly used by the Foreign Office), Burlington House (much altered), Home House (now a club), Albany (now apartments) to name a few.

      At the time of demolition it was a response to the sudden lack of need for an expensive London house as a base of political power following the Lords reform of 1911 as they no longer needed to have a large London house as a place for entertaining. With returns from their country estates still depressed I think many landowners took the opportunity to off-load the expensive house to concentrate on their rural holdings. This meant that the eager hotel and mansion block buildings had a choice of sites to build on and the choicest did fetch quite significant sums (plus the proceeds of the fixtures and fittings sales). So as always it’s a combination of factors that can sometimes come together at the wrong time.

      • Crownfolio July 20, 2010 / 09:53

        Ah, excellent, I shall track that down! Thank you. Interesting thoughts too. Was there much sadness at their passing?

  5. countryhouses July 20, 2010 / 13:24

    I’m not sure how much sadness there was at the time. I expect a few people were aware of what was being lost from an architectural perspective and the families to a certain extent – though I’m sure the loss was tempered by no longer having to pay for them and the money they would have received from the sale. I think context is an important factor; we’d recently come out of the horrors of the First World War which had in consequence dramatically curtailed the London social scene, but also society itself was facing economic and social hardships (the General Strike was in 1926, the fear of the rise of Communism) so the plight of a few grand houses of the aristocracy was probably not the big issue of the day.

    That said, I think people very quickly realised what had been lost – Evelyn Waugh features the loss of the Brideshead family townhouse at the end of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and there is a certain elegiac tone to it and that was published in 1945, less 20 years after many losses. By the time WWII came around people had been organised to photograph the houses which remained in case they were damaged in the war – which unfortunately so many were.

    It would be fascinating to speak to the older generation of the families who lived in the houses about the losses – was it keenly felt at the time? Was the sadness more at the loss of the social opportunities rather than the architectural losses? I’m not sure I have the connections to talk to those involved but perhaps someone out there would be able to.

  6. Andrew July 20, 2010 / 16:02

    Two other good books on London’s great mansions (both lost and remaining):

    – “The Great Houses of London”, by David Pearce, 2001, Vendome Press (first published 1986). Also known as “London’s Mansions: The Palatial Houses of the Nobility”.

    – “Private Palaces: Life in the Great London Houses” by Christopher Simon Sykes, 1985.

  7. Crownfolio July 21, 2010 / 14:05

    A reading list, brilliant. Thank you very much!

  8. Andrew September 27, 2010 / 10:13

    Next week will be an anxious time for two aristocratic country seat owners …

    The Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (, hopes to raise £2.5m at his on-site attic auction on 5-7 October by Sotheby’s (, with public viewing of the items on 1-4 October (video – No surprises how Sotheby’s got the job, as the Duke of Devonshire has been Sotheby’s Deputy Chairman since 1996. The video features Sotheby’s UK Deputy Chairman Lord Harry Dalmeny, son of the Earl of Rosebery, which leads us to the second owner … (although Sotheby’s and Christie’s seem to share honours in country house contents auctions – – with Orlando Rock of Burghley House as Christie’s European Deputy Chairman).

    The Earl of Rosebery at Dalmeny House near Edinburgh ( and until 1977 also at Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire ( will be eagerly awaiting the 7 October 2010 3-month export freeze deadline for the issuing of an export licence to the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for his JMW Turner 1839 painting “Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino” ( and sold on 7 July 2010 at Sotheby’s for a record £29.7m (less £3.7m auctioneers’ commission and £7.3m capital gains tax of 28%, being net £18.7m to the Earl). If serious interest is expressed by a UK buyer, then the sale/export may be delayed another 3-6 months. However, as the second highest auction bidder appears also to have been American, it seems unlikely that a UK white knight will come forward to match this huge price tag. The painting had been loaned by the Earl to the National Galleries of Scotland since 1978, who are already struggling to raise a second £50m to buy the Duke of Sutherland’s other Titian painting ( The Earl plans to use the proceeds to ‘divide family assets to secure the future of landed estates’ (i.e. the Rosebery, Dalmeny, Malleny and Leithenwater Estates around Edinburgh, which in the 19th century exceeded 21,000 acres – ).

  9. Andrew October 6, 2010 / 13:05

    The big money spinners on day 1 of the Chatsworth auction, which totalled £4,416,425 (including the buyer’s premium), were the Devonshire House marble chimneypieces from the Saloon and Ballroom (lots 82 and 109) which sold for a total of £1,022,500 (estimated £400,000 – £600,000). Now half way through day 2 and the total auction value is approaching £5m, twice the original total auction estimate.

    Online sale results shown throughout the day:
    Photo inside Sotheby’s 20,000sq ft marquee on auction day 1 (during lot 52 auction):

    Photo of Lord Harry Dalmeny auctioning the most expensive item, lot 82, which eventually sold for £565,250:
    Photo from the catalogue of Devonshire House’s Library (the Duke’s Room) in 1880 (lot 105):

  10. Andrew October 8, 2010 / 15:15

    After two years of effort, the 3-day Chatsworth Attic Sale final total reached £6,486,645 (including the buyer’s premium), with over 98% of the 1,416 lots sold. Sotheby’s buyer’s premium (i.e. their sales commission) was 25% of the hammer price on the first £25,000, 20% of the hammer price up to and including £500,000, and 12% thereafter on each lot. Sotheby’s do not appear to have yet released the total amount excluding buyer’s premium (i.e. the net proceeds to Chatsworth), but it would be around £5.3m, just over twice the original £2.5m estimate (which excluded buyer’s premium). The Sotheby’s press release which states “almost three times pre-sale expectations” is misleading, as it compares sales (including buyer’s premium) to the estimate (excluding buyer’s premium) – the usual auctioneers trick!

    Click to access 408149.pdf

    In the press release the Duke of Devonshire said that the funds raised “will allow us to accelerate a number of projects at Chatsworth and our other estates, including improvements to buildings, new visitor experiences and green initiatives”. The items sold were owned by the Chatsworth Settlement, a family trust established in 1946, although they were part of the house, contents and 1,822 acres leased to the Chatsworth House Trust charity for £1 per year the since 1981 (with 70 years remaining), although the Duke subleases back his private apartments at a market rental rate reviewed every 5 years. The 2010 Sunday Times Rich List estimates the total value of the Duke of Devonshire at £600m.

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