International Art Market: Crowds flock to country house and palace sales

SOTHEBY'S opened the autumn auction season by mounting three hugely successful house sales last month.

In Britain two Victorian treasure houses, Stokesay Court in Shropshire and Crossrigg Hall in Penrith, had dealers and the general public falling over themselves to pay too much for moderately historic treasures, but the real sensation was in Florence, where the Corsini family emptied its storerooms in a three-day sale totalling pounds 2.7m.

The Corsinis began as bankers in the 13th century, set up an international postal service in the 16th and have villas and palaces all over Tuscany. It has taken the present prince and his five sisters 14 years to divide the family possessions following their father's death in 1980 and Sotheby's 1,718-lot sale represented the items none of them wanted.

The sale was conducted in the throne room of the family's 18th- century palace in Florence and was filled to overflowing. Italian furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries fetched the top prices - an extravagantly carved late 17th-century giltwood console table made 170.8m lire ( pounds 69,177) - but the real excitement lay in the lesser leftovers.

A pair of beautiful 18th-century embroidered gauze Italian curtains made 11.5m lire ( pounds 4,700), while a collection of emboidered silk gauze panels imported from China at the same period made 74.75m ( pounds 30,300).

There were quantities of giltwood architectural carvings and the Italians loved them. A set of four bare-breasted maidens with their arms over their heads which had once held draperies in place made 17.25m lire ( pounds 7,000).

The colourful oddments that had been hidden in the attics and cellars of Stokesay Court since the mansion was requisitioned by the Army in the Second World War were more down-to-earth. The house had been built by a rich glove maufacturer, John Derby Allcroft, in the 1890s and there had clearly been no connoisseurs in the family. However, the four-day sale made pounds 4.2m - pounds 1.7m more than expected - and just four of the 2,000-odd lots were unsold.

A section of dried turtle, supplied by Fortnum and Mason in 1943 for making soup, sold for pounds 207; a gentleman's all-weather motoring outfit of around 1910 made pounds 1,380, while a leopard-skin motoring rug made pounds 2,070.

Crossrigg Hall was viewed by 4,000 people compared with the 8,000 at Stokesay. But it was a single-day sale with lower expectations. The attraction was that its owners, the Tubbock brothers, who died last year, had changed almost nothing since 1919. Top prices were secured by family portraits, with a Philip van der Linden van Dyck at pounds 89,500.

(Photograph omitted)

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