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Christies's New Hall Vault Sale of Kronheim Prints 1987

On the 23rd and 24th September 1987 the world famous auction house Christie's sold a vast collection of colour prints by Kronheim & Co printed circa 1860 by the Baxter process.

It attracted much major media attention as 16,750 uncut sheets of prints that, it was said, had been stored in the vaults of New Hall in Birmingham for over 60 years and had now become available as the family home had been sold to become a hotel. What is the background behind this sale and where did this vast collection of prints come from?

Alfred Ernest Owens was a collector of many things as was the 'norm' for the new wealthy industrialists of the early 20th century. In 1893 Owens had joined J T Rubery, a business that had started in 1884, to become Rubery Owen, by 1910 he had purchased his partner's interest. Rubery Owen was heavily involved in the growing motor and airplane industry and amongst many others things they made the first metal airplane propeller and the first pressed metal car chassis. Sir Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird, that held the land speed record, was created by the company in the 1950's.

Owens and his new wealth purchased New Hall in Birmingham in the early 20th century and started to fill it with his many collections.

From an archive or his purchase records we know that he started to purchase Baxter prints by at least 1908 and an entry for 9th July 1919 shows that a figure of £90 was paid to P F Bullivant, a Baxter dealer and member of the then Baxter society, for "commission on Kronheim print parcel purchased from John Dickinson Ltd of Hemel Hempstead". £90 in those days was a considerable sum, so how much must he have paid for the parcel? We know there was about 55,000 sheets of colours prints but how did John Dickinson Ltd get hold of them? 

An image of some of the sheets currently in our sale stock

Now move forward to Owens death at the age of 60 and his collections, including his now extensive Baxter collection, which included about 80 of Baxter's original steel printing plates, gets put into storage.

The 1970's was a major downturn in the fortunes of the Rubery Owen business. The main factory at Darleston, which at its height employed 5,000 of the companies 17,000 employees closed its doors in 1980/1. During the 1980/90's parts of Owens Baxter collection come up for sale including his printing plates and extensive collection of (sewing) needle boxes. New Hall, the family home was also put up for sale and the question of what to do with these sheets of prints must have given the family quite a 'problem'. A problem, as they must have taken up quite a vast amount of space and had to be stored in the right conditions. 

So these 55,000 sheets of prints now had to be found a new home, along comes Mr & Mrs Ralph Lury of Cambridge Fine Arts who purchases a total of 52,600 sheets from the family in February 1987. The company was, and still is a well known dealer in paintings and art and after putting 16,750 sheets into Christies later that year continued to sell, was must have been the balance of the prints themselves, on the back of the major advertising the Christies sale received. Their contemporary sale catalogue advertising the prints, now framed as singles, heavily using the Christies and New Hall Vault names and images to better publicise their prints even offering the specially printed Christies labels to signify they are from this collection.

I feel sure some sets of prints must have been held back by the family but we known that Owens also sold some sets or used them in part payment to purchase other Baxter items hence the declining numbers between the 1920's and 1987 from 55,000 to 52,600 sheets.

A newspaper cutting advertising the Christies sale from The Sunday Times 20th Sept 1987

The Christies sale was over two days and on the first day 3 of each of the sheets (sheets 26-28 - 2 sheets), now cut in singles and framed, were offered in lots of 3 or 4 followed by a complete sheet framed and then another unframed. The second day was obviously more tailored for dealers as after 2 sheets, also now cut and framed, they offered everything else as unframed complete sheets, usually initially 4 lots of 2 sheets then 5 lots of 5 sheets and them multiple batches of 10, 20, 50, 100 and even 150 sheets. Many of these full sheets must have now been cut and framed and can be regularly seen in antique shops, auctions, fairs and on EBay. Unfortunately the condition is usually faded as perhaps buyers didn't realise the effects of direct sunlight on these prints (just like similar prints or watercolours).

We have recorded all the details of the sale, sheet volumes etc and our research can be found here (a spreadsheet will open) and are referred to below.

The sheet numbers used by Christies seem to refer to Owens original numbers used in his records and appear to have nothing to do with Kronheim the company who numbered some of the sheets but on a completely different basis using 4 or 5 digits. Sheet 7 had very low numbers in the sale and all examples of sheet 5 included where sold as framed singles.

Some observations about some of the sheets:
 

Sheet 32, 16 Bird Studies, which only had 20 sheets in the sale is now thought it might not be by Kronheim. Since initially writing this I have now had an opportunity to look at this sheet with Prof Michael Twyman. We both agreed that it is printed by Chromolithography but the actual printer is still unknown.

Sheet 33 was said to be withdrawn from the sale. I find this unlikely as it was not included in the Christies sale catalogue, which must have been printed some time before the sale. The sheet quantity purchased by Lury was low at 20 but still the same amount as sheet 7, which was included. The New Baxter Society's summer meeting in July 2000 was a Kronheim exhibition and on that day an example of sheet no. 33 was shown and was identified as being by Thomas Nelson not Kronheim. Owens described the sheet as 4 views of Scarborough which would have been the sort of work Nelson was known for (Citation needed). Perhaps Lury also realised this and hence didn't enter this sheet in the sale.

Sheet 18 is 8 prints of ladies. Interestingly 5 of the 8 prints are marked 'G & Co'. I have never seen any other Kronheim prints so signed, or in fact, signed at all within the image. G & Co, could mean Charles Gregory, an apprentice of Baxter who had left Baxter circa 1843 and subsequently joined Kronheim in 1849, a year, or a few months before Kronheim took a licence from Baxter to print by his process. After leaving Baxter, Gregory operated as Gregory and Collins then Gregory, Collins and Reynolds and later just Gregory & Co. The G & Co could mean the later company listed as colour printers in the Waddleton Chronology of colour printed books, known publishing dates stated are 1846, 1852 and 1858. Could Gregory have intermittently worked for Kronheim (as an engraver) but also on his own behalf during that period before he becomes a partner of Kronheim in 1857? For more information please see his entry under Baxter Apprentices and also the full story of Gregory, Collins & Reynolds.

Sheet 27 - Le Pigeon Favori, translating to The Favourite Pigeon seems a strange title to me as although two pigeons are clearly seen on the ground the ladies 'favourite' bird is yellow, so unless my ornithology knowledge is not as good as I thought, this is obviously not a pigeon, or is this irony?

Sheet 29 - Le Retour De La Chasse, which translates to Returning from Hunting is stated in the Christie's catalogue as showing The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The first two seem a perfect description but the man shown in the foreground in Scottish dress and with a full beard is the most unlikely image of the Prince Consort I have ever seen and, to me, is more likely supposed to be John Brown. John Brown is first mentioned by Queen Victoria in 1849 and over the coming years become increasingly involved with The Queen and also Prince Albert until Albert's death in 1861, at which point he became Queen Victoria's personal assistant. If this is the Prince of Wales, to me, he looks about 12-14 years of age so would date the subject matter of this image to 1853 - 1855.

All the sheets (that I have had a chance to study) are complete sheets as the registration holes, used to give correct alignment of the colours can be seen on both sides of the sheet except two. Sheets 25 and 34 where only half sheets, the registration holes only being on one side and I believe initially they could have been on the same sheet.

 

Kronheim marked, with a number, on the face of many of his plates (of his Baxter process prints - lithographic stones are usually marked on the sides). This is thought to be for the simple ability to locate the plates and all the colour blocks but, he didn't mark them all. A study of all of Kronheim's plates numbers would be an interesting yet vast task.

With reference to sheets 25 and 34 above, one 'half' of the sheet is marked 4706 and the other is blank as expected, as, if my theory is correct, it would have been the top half of this sheet so not required to be marked.

Most plates were marked with a 4 and then later a 5 figure number engraved in the gutter although some of the New Hall single prints are marked just under the bottom of the print, so barely visible, on the right or left hand side. One interesting plate mark is on examples of sheet 16. On some sheets a blue '1' appears in the margin and the plate no 2110 is etched on edge of plate. Another has a blue '3' in the margin and now the plate number is engraved again but instead of being in the margin, as normal, it is strangely engraved 1/2" into the edge of Pepita, please see images (which like all images can be enlarged).

Of all the sheets seen that had titles (bar one, see below) they were all in French and obviously intended for the French market. I do not know who first offered the thought that these French sheets were intended for the Paris Exhibition of 1855. This was stated in Christie's catalogue and widely quoted from since. I have searched the catalogues of the British Section of the Exposition Universelle 1855 and also 1867 and Kronheim is not listed in either.

Sheet 16 - 6 Ballet Dancers have titles, but not in French, from my basic knowledge of languages (and with assistance from Google translate) the titles appear to be mainly Spanish with some Greek OR are these names of famous ballet dancers of the period? Although La Cachucha, a Spanish word that translate to The Cap, seems a strange name for a dancer. Or does it relate to the gentlemans head attire that she is looking at? Can anyone with ballet knowledge assist?

So where did these sheets come from? Why did Kronheim produce this quite vast amount of prints and then never did anything with them? The only reason I can think of is that this was a cancelled order, perhaps for the same customer. If these were specifically intended for the French market they might not have been able to be sold elsewhere, especially the ones with French titles. If any had been sold one of the many thousands of individual prints surely would have been found adorning some contemporary volume, which to date, hasn't happened.

If it was a canceled order, one of this size, would have meant a big financial loss for the company and could have been the catalyst for one the major changes in Kronheims fortunes, please see the full story of Kronheim for more information. Again if this was a cancelled order and produced specifically for the French market perhaps now Kronheim thought of them as worthless and unsaleable and were perhaps stored away in some far corner of the factory. We now move on to 1903. Kronheim advertises that on removing to new premises from Shoe Lane works, were they had been for 50 years, they have "discovered a few genuine old Baxter prints printed 40 years ago that the plates have been destroyed" - the print in question was the Village Schoolmaster.

With the growing interest in Baxter prints at that time, if they still had them, why didn't they also advertise these 'New Hall' prints?

 

Kronheim advertising recently discovered Baxter Prints in 'The Printseller' February 1903

Perhaps Kronheim, although happy to try and dispose of a relatively small number of copies of the Village Schoolmaster, thought that 50,000+ sheets, so circa 400,000 individual prints of what they considered, unsaleable was just too much to handle?

As stated in their advert in 1903 Kronheim moved to new premises at Fawley Road Tottenham Hale, one of their new neighbours was Millington & Sons, envelope manufacturers. There can be no way that the company would have moved this vast stock of, what they might have considered, useless old stock, just to be stored at the new factory so could they have sold them as 'scrap' to Millingtons to recycle back to envelopes. Why do I even consider this theory?

Millingtons was taken over by John Dickinson Ltd in 1918 just a few months before Dickinson sold them to Owens.

 

If Millingtons did see some future value in them and didn't scrap them at the time it is our good fortune.

 

I have contacted Dickinson's archive which is now the Apsley Papertrail Museum but unfortunately they couldn't help with any information and have nothing noted in their files for 'Kronheim'.

The whole story of the New Hall Vault is all very 'romantic' and created a lot of publicity at the time BUT we can now reveal it was (virtually) totally fictional. I heard the truth a number of years ago direct from a member of the Owens family but was asked, at that stage, not to repeat it. Talking to the same person recently, as time has now moved on, they are happy for the truth to be told.

This large stock of prints, purchased by Alfred Owens in 1919 was actually stored in the strong rooms at the factory in Darleston! It was only in the early 1980's when the factory was sold that they were then moved back to New Hall. There were no vaults there and the most suitable place to store this vast amount of prints was in large piles on top of the snooker table! That is where they stayed until they were sold to Ralph Lury.

No one knows, or will admit to, coming up with the idea of marketing these as the 'New Hall Vault' sale, it might have been the Owens family but perhaps more likely Lury or Christies themselves. I can see that the 'New Hall Snooker Table' sale might not have looked quite so good on the front of Christie's catalogue.

In the Christies sale single full uncut sheets sold for between £100 - £200 per sheet. 12 prints of Paris for example sold for £160 (+ buyers premium) one of these same sheets can be purchased from us today for just £20, please see listing here. Excellent value but perhaps not the investment the 1987 buyers were expecting? Currently we have 24 of the 34 Kronheim sheets available for sale on our website, please see the listings on 'Other Licencee Prints'