“T he Flying Squad found all the good things in servants’ bedrooms, guest rooms and attics,” observed Jim Kiddell, perhaps Sotheby’s longest-serving specialist, as he neared retirement in the 1970s. Kiddell was looking back to the 1930s when he and two other young specialists were afforded the nickname “The Flying Squad” for their ability to zip out to country estates, put up a marquee and stage a sale – all at the drop of a hat.
The 1930s was the golden age of country house sales. British society was going through a seismic shift in the wake of the First World War. Many of the vast estates became untenable to fund for the families who had lived there for centuries. Families who had accrued vast collections. Sotheby’s honed the country house sale to cater to this trade.
The company staged some twenty on-site auctions at various country houses during the 1930s (there were seven in one year alone). The Flying Squad uncovered a treasure trove of items during their time on the road. In Sotheby’s: Portrait of an Auction House, historian Frank Herrman chronicles a litany of grand manors, eccentric owners, family secrets and extraordinary objects. “The quest for secret drawers in the furniture became almost a routine,” Herrmann notes.
The sales were colourful occasions. WP Way, an antique dealer from Bath, was just the kind of customer that Sotheby’s targeted. In his memoirs, Way recalls a typical auction of the time in the Cotswolds where he found a hidden masterpiece among the bulk of possessions. “I noticed a few country dealers were present,” Way writes, “but thank goodness, no one had arrived from London who would spotted my ‘dark lot’.”
Those early days of fast-turnaround auctions created the foundations for the grand events to follow – such as Sotheby’s 1977 landmark sale at Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire. On other occasions, spectacular house contents – including arms and armour from Hever Castle in 1984 – have been successfully sold at New Bond Street.
The variety of lots offered at a house sale always hooks the curious. This was ably illustrated in 2010 when Sotheby’s staged the sale of items from the attics and properties of the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. Among the items offered were a Russian sleigh and an American pinball machine.
Such auctions are a feat of organisation. “Real hard graft it was,” noted Jim Kiddell. “But it made our name in this line for years to come and established a model that other auctioneers tried to follow.”