Downton Abbey fever fuels bidding frenzy at Cowdray Park House auction

imageFamily heirlooms from Cowdray Park House fetched way over the estimated sale price today thanks to the public’s clamour for a take-away slice of the aristocracy, driven in part by the popularity of the ITV drama.

Christie’s auctioneers had thought the entire three-day sale would raise £5 million, but by the end of the first day today it had already taken £5.7 million.

Viscount Cowdray is putting 1,200 lots under the hammer at the auction of art, furniture and bric-a-brac where members of the public can pick up their own piece of country house history for as little as £50.

Lord Cowdray, 65, decided to clear out Cowdray Park House in West Sussex, which is known as the home of polo in Britain, after putting the house itself on the market to relieve his son of the burden of looking after it.

Telephone buyers from as far afield as California, Connecticut and China were among those bidding against collectors crammed into a marquee in the grounds of the house near Midhurst.

Among the first lots to go were a portrait of Francis Thynne, Lady Worsley, in a red dress and a blue ermine-lined mantle which sold for £65,000, while a Charles II oak dresser dating back to 1680 went for £4,800. A set of three mid-17th century Flemish tapestries which sold for £31,000.

For those on a more modest budget, a pair of mahogany commode seats were expected to sell for between £200 and £400 and bidding on a desk candelabrum in the shape of a bull was due to start at £300.

The most expensive lot so far was a portrait thought to be of Elizabeth I, but more probably of Catherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham, which fetched £325,250, while a rare north Italian helmet from the end of the 15th century, which was estimated at £3,000-£5,000, sold for £51,650 after a fierce bidding war.

The auction follows sales in July when nine works from Cowdray Park were sold for a total of £10,974,000, led by Thomas Gainsborough’s full-length portrait of Mrs William Villebois which sold for £6,537,250 – a world record price for the artist at auction.

Last year Earl Spencer sold items from his family home, Althorp, for more than £21m.

Many of the items on offer today were acquired by Weetman Dickinson Pearson, the first Viscount Cowdray, who died in 1927, and his son, Weetman Harold Miller Pearson, who built up their family firm, Pearson, into what would become the world’s biggest publisher.

More than 4,000 people have so far attended either the auction or the previews at the house, where potential buyers can see the items in situ.

Matthew Paton, of Christie’s, said: “Most of the items in the auction were collected between 1909 and 1929, which is during the exact period when Downton Abbey is set, so I think it does have an effect.

“The reason auctions like this are such a success is that people are fascinated by the history of the objects, the name that’s attached to them and the stories behind them.

“It can be very hard to predict – the lights that hung over the billiard table, for example, sold for more than the billiard table itself, because two people who really wanted them were bidding against each other.”

Among the more quirky antiques, which come from both Cowdray Park House and Dunecht House, the Scottish home of the Viscount’s brother, Charles Pearson, are a 500-year-old suit of armour, a set of 11 firemen’s helmets and fire axes, and a replica of an Elizabethan four-poster bed.

For those on a budget, a large linen flag bearing the Pearson family coat of arms, has an estimate of £50, three pairs of handcuffs are expected to fetch around £80, and a croquet set, around £100.

But the prices being commanded today showed that pre-sale estimates can be wildly surpassed, even for the most modest lots. Two pairs of spurs, which were expected to fetch £400 to £600, went for £21,250.

Last September Cowdray Park House, some surrounding property and parkland was put up for sale by the present Lord Cowdray for £25 million. So far he has not found a buyer.

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