5 January 1766: Christie’s first auction

Bed sheets, pillow cases, or two ‘pre-loved’ chamber pots, anyone? It was on this rather humdrum assortment of household items that auctioneer James Christie first brought down his gavel on 5 January 1766 at his “Great Rooms” on Pall Mall.

True, it was not the most illustrious of beginnings. But by 1788, Christie’s auction house was doing what it’s best known for today – selling art to the world’s richest people. That year, Christie’s sold the collection of paintings that had belonged to Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, to Russia’s Catherine the Great for £40,000.

The move into art proved to have been a wise one. Not long afterwards, the French Revolution broke out; many of the aristocrats who came scurrying across the Channel found themselves short of a sou or two and turned to Christie’s to literally sell off the family silver.

In 1803, James Christie died, aged 73. The family business passed to his son, also named James, and Christie’s has been auctioning off masterpieces ever since, including works by Degas, Velazquez and Van Gogh.

Just last November, Christie’s in New York shifted a recording-breaking £540m in modern art in a single day. That figure included the £52m that one punter splashed out on a painting of three Elvises by Andy Warhol. Another painting by the artist, this time of Marlon Brando, went for £44m.

Clearly, there’s serious money to be made in finding the sought-after paintings of tomorrow. That’s if you know what to look for. Sarah Ryan of New Blood Art explained in a recent issue of MoneyWeek how the work of two rising artists could one day fetch big price tags. If you’re not already a MoneyWeek subscriber, sign up to get your first four issues free.