In the modern world of auctioneering, house sales are now few and far between but when Fieldings Auctioneers were instructed to handle the contents of Wordsley Manor it was a sale not years in the making but decades.....Will Farmer tells the story of a sale that would end up giving Fieldings a new house record!
It was back in around 2005 that I was first invited to Wordsley Manor, a beautiful Grade II listed 18th Century Manor House with all the grandeur and elegance one would expect from a property of the period. Approaching the house via the tree lined drive it emerged as a solid, classically fronted property with two sweeping wings which would have once housed the coach house and the bakery. While the property was a little tired and clearly being restored it was without question, beautiful! The owners at the time Christopher & Joan Firmstone were as charming and welcoming as the property itself.
The house itself is situated in what would have once been the village of Wordsley, just outside of Stourbridge in the West Midlands and a few miles from our saleroom. The house was originally built in 1757 for the industrialist John Holt and would have been surrounded by parkland. It was acquired in the 1850s by Christophers great-great-grandfather – a member of the Hodgetts glass-making family.
His daughter Mary eventually inherited the house and her eldest son, George Firmstone, who hailed from a long line of Black Country ironmasters, took possession in 1924. His children, Cicely and Eldon, indulged their enthusiasm for the arts - and Eldon, a musician, installed a cinema organ in the house, made records and even built a 49-seat private cinema on the top floor with projection room, box office and waiting area.
In the 1990's after inheriting the four-storey house Christopher, an esteemed architect and artists in his own right set about breathing new life into it as a family home. But time took its toll and in recent years the six-bedroom property, which once housed a brewery, stables and forge, had been in much-need of restoration.
The original call back in the early 2000's was to discuss the value and sale of just one item, a rare electric driven wall clock. After the initial valuation this was consigned for sale and at auction performed fantastically well, sailing past its modest estimate of just £800 to £1200 to eventually sell for many times that. Importantly what arose from this initial meeting was a friendship. Over subsequent years The Firmstones regularly attended our auctions for a browse, often looking out for pieces relating to the house or their ancestors, each visit would result in a chat and catch up on progress with the restoration of Wordsley Manor.
In 2016 however I was once again invited up to the Manor where Christopher informed me of his intentions to call time on what had been a long and tiring process of maintaining and restoring Wordsley Manor. It was time to move on and sell the house and the contents, and so began many months of discussions ahead of what was to be a wonderful landmark sale for Fieldings, The Contents of Wordlsey Manor!
The house was literally filled from top to bottom, covering four floors and a cellar with decades of items from the obscure to the beautiful all telling their own part of the Wordsley Manor story. Christopher himself is a keen historian and not one to throw anything away, as such it meant that the contents of the house were in truth a time capsule of the generations who had lived their before him. From fine statues to paintings, ceramics and glass, half tester beds and endless ephemera.....there was even still the original cinema organ installed by eldon back in the 1920s! Everything was for sale!
We set about creating a sale which would do the house and its history justice, taking a wonderful collection of images of the contents in situ before they were removed for sale, obtaining a small biography on the family and the house to go along side each and every object before they would all go their separate ways to their new owners.
Amongst the vast array of objects was the star lot from the collection. As you entered the house through the front door you came into a long hallway which ran the whole depth of the house with the beautiful original 18th Century staircase before you. There in the hallway, as soon as you entered was the most breath taking marble sculpture I had ever seen outside of a museum or stately home.
A 19th Century Italian carved carrara marble sculpture of cupid taming a lion by Emanuele Caroni (1826 -76). Believed to have been in the house since the late 1800s, L’Amour Vainqueuer de la Force was one of three sculptures entered by Caroni into the Exposition Universelle at the Paris Salon in 1867, alongside Esclave au Marche and Ophelie. It was signed and dated 1867, L’Amour Vainqueuer de la Force was one of three sculptures shown by the Italian at the Exposition Universalle at the Paris Salon in 1867, alongside Esclave au Marche and Ophelie and stood 3ft 5" tall. Caroni was awarded a medal for these works under the category of ‘Sculpteurs et graveurs en medailles du sur pierres fines etrangers’. It was an internationally important piece of sculpture and an exciting find and from the family history we believed that this was the first time this has been seen since it was first exhibited in 1867. The statue is believed to have been acquired by the Firmstone family in the late 19th or early 20th century and with out question was the star lot of the sale.
The contents of the property were removed to our saleroom in Stourbridge, which itself was no small task, the Caroni marbel weighing in at just under three quarters of a ton! Thankfully we have the best team of removers any auction house could ask for so when we sent Bob and his team from U-Need-Us up to Wordsley Manor to see, well its fair to say he didn't even bat an eyelid!
After many days dressing the saleroom and presenting the lots, it did look wonderful! The sale which had taken years of work was finally upon us. The star lot on the day didn't disappoint either. After a huge number of enquiries the Caroni marble looked like it was going to perform and perform exceptionally well. Initially i had placed a pre-sale auction estimate of £20,000 to £30,000 however with 14 phone lines booked it became clear that the final selling price was going to be some way ahead of that.
In classic auction room drama, the lot came up for sale and the room was poised! You could hear a pin drop and we had called in every spare member of staff to handle the telephone lines.......opening at £18,000 the battle began and bid by bid the price rose steadily! Soon we were past the £30,000, then £40,000, then £50,000 came and went....one by one the telephone bidders dropped out and so began a battle of two telephone bidders! One located in Italy and the other here in the UK. The increments slowed and it was fought out in £1000 bids (every time we tried to increase the bidding increment the bidders would step back)....steadily past £70,000, then £80,000 and slowly we approached the £90,000 mark! One more bid came in, now at £91,000, the buyer in Italy stepped away, the UK bidder had won the day, the hammer fell and so Fieldings Auctioneers had a new house record!
On the day Christopher and Joan decided not to attend, choosing instead to distract themselves with a day out. On stepping down from the rostrum I called Christopher with the good news, not only had the Caroni smashed its pre-sale estimate but the rest of the contents had done equally well providing a spectacular sale for both vendor and auction house.
Christopher and Joan were both thrilled with the result and some days after the sale Christopher came to see me. He is himself an exhibited artist and i had much admired is work on the many times I'd visited.....as you can imagine, I was thrilled when he handed over a gift wrapped parcel. On opening it, there was one his own paintings given with thanks for our hard work. To this day it hangs on my wall as a memory of a truly great house sale and a wonderful client.
Posted on 22 April 2020