England's stately homes seemed set to disappear. But now, says Geraldine Norman, sales of their matchless contents are keeping many aristos afloat

Ever thought of selling the sofa to mend the roof? Probably not, since this kind of strategy is only available to those who own the right kind of sofa. Christie's are offering a pair of sofas for sale next week at pounds 700,000 to pounds 1m and they'll probably sell for more. They are the grandest British-made sofas known, designed by Robert Adam and made by Chippendale, and the aim of their sale is to prop up Aske Hall in north Yorkshire, described by its own publicity blurb as "a Georgian gem" which "nestles in Capability Brown parkland with lake, follies, meadows, woods and terraced garden." The Hall is "home" to the Marquess of Zetland and his family.

In the same Christie's sale, on 3 July, the Weller-Poley family of Suffolk are selling a suite of Chippendale chairs with matching tables and stools, estimated at pounds 500,000. And in this case the proceeds really will go towards mending the roof. The furniture has been at Boxted Hall, near Bury St Edmunds, the family's home from the 15th century, since it was made in 1750 or so. The house, which was refaced in the 18th century and remodelled in the 1890s, is a moated manor house, and a very modest affair compared to Aske, although the moat is thought to date back to Norman times. "When we take the roof off, we don't know what we're going to find in the way of decaying ancient beams and other problems," Toby Weller-Poley told me. The family hopes there'll be enough money to cover all eventualities.

The sales highlight the new, and substantially improved, situation of Britain's stately homeowners. Thanks to the avid appetite of Americans - who have recently made a killing on the stock market, or any other market for that matter - for very grand British furniture, a new strategy is available for keeping the family pile in order. Sell the sofa ...

Both sales have been organised through the same, very low key and discreet Savile Row agent - Robert Holden. He has a mini-stately himself and understands the problems of Britain's old families. He describes his firm, Robert Holden Ltd, as "fine art agents" and explains that his job is "to guide the sellers around an increasingly complex market place and try to achieve the highest possible price on their behalf". There are many different options. "Sometimes a painting is best sold with a full publicity platform at auction, but in other cases it can be better to take advantage of tax concessions in this country by making a sale by private treaty to a British institution or negotiate the item in lieu of tax."

The low point for stately home owners ran from the Second World War to around 1970, according to Holden. In-heritance tax was at an all time high, the art market and British farming were being squeezed by foreign competitors. But the art market boom of the intervening years has changed the balance of advantage. In 1960 a house and estate might be worth pounds 10m and the contents less than pounds 1m. Today, it is more than likely that a house and estate is worth pounds 10m and the historic contents some pounds 80m. The noble owner, his accountants and lawyers have a completely different and more advantageous set of options to juggle with. "The works of art have become an important part of the strategic planning of a great estate," says Holden.

The father of the present Marquess cut Aske Hall down to size in the post-war years, literally lopping off the main facade. Nikolaus Pevsner, whose county guide books chronicle the history of British architecture, sniffily comments that "the main south front of the mansion has recently assumed a new Georgian appearance at the hands of Claud Phillimore" (Phillimore was an architect fashionable in the 1960s). By contrast, the present Marquess, who inherited from his father in 1989, is extending the house, refacing the facade and adapting the front to give Phillimore's adjustment a more genuine look. The back sculleries and outhouses will become new living quarters for the family.

Aske is not normally open to the public, but it is rented out for functions, filming etc. The ingenious idea of the new Marquess is to have comfortable living quarters at the back which connect into the Morning Room of the main house, now hung with their best cabinet paintings, filled with good furniture and used as a drawing-room. From there the main house can either be closed off or opened up. When functions are in progress, the family can nestle undisturbed at the back of the house. When they want to be grand themselves, they can open up the state rooms for their own guests.

The payment of inheritance taxes and adjustment of the house - which goes hand in hand with an ambitious garden scheme for a series of terraces leading down to the lake - all requires money and therefore the services of Robert Holden. His first move was to negotiate the sale of a very beautiful Dutch 17th-century seascape, A Calm by Jan van de Cappelle, to the National Gallery of Wales for a net price of pounds 3.8m - a figure which incorporated a tax deal. Then he turned his attention to the sofas.

The suite of giltwood furniture, some of which is to be sold at Christie's next week, was originally made for the Lon-don home of Sir Lawrence Dundas in Arlington Street. Dundas had made an immense fortune from trading in scarce commodities during the 1745 Rebellion, and a second, larger one as Commissary-General of the army in Flanders during the Seven Years' War. He longed for a peerage but his money only got him as far as a baronetcy. His son, however, became a Baron, his grandson an Earl, and the Third Earl was made Marquess of Zetland in 1892. So the family got there in the end. When the third Marquess died in 1989, his son inherited pounds 27m.

Sir Lawrence, known as "the nabob of the north" - lavished money on his houses - Arlington Street, Aske Hall and Moor Park in Hertfordshire - employing all the greatest architects, designers and cabinetmakers of the day. For his house at 19 Arlington Street, he turned to Britain's greatest Neo-Classical architect, Robert Adam. And for the drawing-room Adam surpassed himself with his design of richly carved giltwood sofas and chairs to be covered in red damask. The best cabinetmaker of the day, Thomas Chip-pendale, was asked to execute the designs and the surviving bills suggest they were the most expensive chairs he ever made. He invoiced the frames at pounds 20 a time, exactly double the price he charged for the most expensive chairs in the State Rooms in Harewood House in 1773.

Some of the suite has already been sold - there is a chair in the V&A. The present Marquess thought at first that he would keep the remaining chairs and sofas in the State Rooms at Aske but the risk - and insurance charge - of keeping furniture of this quality in rooms used for public functions was unrealistic. So Holden has found an interestingly balanced answer instead. Two sofas and a pair of chairs are being sold at Christie's; the sofas are estimated at pounds 700,000 to pounds 1m and the chairs, also one lot, at pounds 800,000 to pounds 1.2m. Two more chairs and a sofa are currently on loan from the Marquess to the National Gallery of Scotland's outstation in Duff House, near Banff - another Robert Adam building. The family intend to retain ownership of the sofa that is at Duff, but the two chairs are to be offered to the nation in lieu of tax. If the deal goes through, the nation would get the chairs cheap while the Zetlands pay less tax. The scheme should also mean that the heritage lobby is appeased in advance of Christie's auction and Americans can bid without fearing that the export of their purchases from Britain will be banned - the heritage minister has the right to stop the export of national treasures.

Boxted Hall is like a yeoman echo of the Zetlands' noble drama. And both families are linked not just by their chairs but by a love of horses. The Marquess of Zetland has a large stud at Aske, has served as a Jockey Club steward, and is chairman of the race course at Redcar. Nancy Weller- Poley has run a small stud at Boxted Hall for the last 40 years, varying between four and seven mares.

The suite of furniture at Christie's belongs to a trust set up under the will of Mars Weller-Poley's late husband, John Weller-Poley, who died in 1976. Her children hope that the sale will enable the family to continue to live at Boxted in perpetuity. They have been there since 1450, the longest family occupancy of the same house on record in Britain.

The house has, of course, changed radically over the centuries. The present facade is Edwardian, while much of the interior space is of 17th-century design. This makes it impossible to identify which rooms the finely carved mahogany suite was originally intended to furnish. In this case, the design of the pieces closely follows illustrations in Thomas Chippendale's famous design book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, first published in 1754. Carved mahogany furniture of this kind is known as "Chippendale", though the actual furniture which can be firmly attributed to Thomas Chippendale's workshop is in the later, Neo-Classical style - a contradiction which gets novice furniture buyers extremely muddled.

The crisp and fluent carving of the rococo decoration on the Weller-Poley pieces indicates that they were made in one of the celebrated workshops which supplied all the noble houses of Britain. The workshops were clustered around St Martin's Lane in London in the mid-18th century. Christie's favour an attribution to the workshop of John Mayhew and William Ince, though there are other possibilities.

Their real oddity rests in the combination of 16 chairs - a very large number, as most sets don't run above 12 - with two card tables and four stools. The stools and card tables suggest the furniture was made for the parlour while the chairs suggest a dining-room. At this date dining tables were folded up and carried out of a room between meals and the chairs arranged around the walls. It may be that in the Weller-Poley home, one room was both parlour and dining-room. Only one similar suite is recorded, from a country house in Somerset.

The dispersal of the suite to several different homes would break up the historical curiosity of such a combination but Christie's have decided that it is better not to offer the whole set en bloc. The 16 chairs are to be sold together with a pre-sale estimate of pounds 300,000 to pounds 500,000, then two pairs of stools each estimated at pounds 20,000 to pounds 30,000 and finally the pair of card tables valued at pounds 40,000 to pounds 60,000. It is still possible, of course, that one determined bidder will turn up at the sale and buy them all. "I've heard that Christie's have had enquiries from people interested in buying the whole set," says Toby Weller-Poley. "I hope it stays together."

Tuesday's sale is going to be a block-buster. There are other great pieces which left their original homes at an earlier date - the Carlton House bookcase, for example, made for the Prince Regent in 1806, and estimated at pounds 120,000 to pounds 180,000; or the pair of mahogany chairs with carving picked out in gold from the Chinese Parlour at Grimsthorpe, estimated at pounds 60,000 to pounds 80,000. The Americans are going to have a field day. Very little of the furniture is likely to stay in Britain, but the sale will be good for Britain's "heritage" all the same.

Christie's `Important English Furniture' sale takes place on 3 July. Call Christie`s on 0171 839 9060 for viewing details

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