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November 3, 2014
Moments in Art
The Lady Vanishes
by Lawrence Jeppson

The 200-year span of Thomas Agnew’s art business became assured when he took in his two sons, William and Thomas Junior, as partners.

William was already making frequent sales trips to London. Although the firm was still located in Manchester, it was consistently outmaneuvering its better-located London competitors. In a brilliant move William, then 32, shifted the entire focus of the British collecting community to the cotton city by the organization of the Art Treasures Exhibition, 1857.

Nothing like it had ever been seen anywhere in England.

From all corners of the United Kingdom, William culled the very finest treasures. Only consummate skill in handling collectors, cautious owners, artists, and distinguished officials enabled the firm to bring the unimaginable collection together.

The trust that was engendered played squarely into Agnews' hands, for many of the pieces eventually came to market, often more than once, and when they did they were offered to and through Agnews'.

The Art Treasures exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria. Agnew promptly commissioned Louis Haghe to paint a huge watercolor of the inauguration ceremony. Overnight this was hung in the Louis XV reception room, where Victoria's action had taken place, accentuating the unprecedented importance of the exhibition.

Throughout Europe the new rich, who did not relish people who might contradict them, shied from direct dealing with artists, who were, after all, unstable, querulous bohemians. So the rich bought at exhibitions or through dealers and usually preferred work by dead and unconfrontable artists.

“In England,” says von Holst, “the new class of 1857 gazed in wonder at the colossal Exhibition of Art Treasures and saw what they lacked.”

William lost out in his attempt for two auctioned Raphael drawings in 1856, but after the Art Treasures Exhibition he dared not let himself be bested. No matter how generally admirable and comprehensive an art dealer's stock, he must pull off the occasional coup to keep his image exciting.

The official Lancaster guide for 1857-58 observed that, "The first manufactories, and the various ateliers, of the continent of Sevres, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, Milan, are constantly searched by this enterprising firm for works of art.

Strangers to Manchester should not fail to visit Messrs. Agnew and Sons if they wish to carry away any idea of the wealth that must exist in Lancashire to support an establishment so extensive as this. We believe it frequently occurs, that property to the amount of £150,000 is at one time in Messrs. Agnews' establishment.”

At this point there could be no more losing out on important pieces.

In an aggressive search for new business the firm began a southward expansion: in 1859, a new branch was opened on Dale Street in Liverpool, and finally in 1860, another at 5 Waterloo Place, London. This move was masterminded by Thomas Junior, the younger (by two years) of the brothers.

In gallery matters, William was the more “enterprising" of the pair, an organizer, a creator of projects, such as the Crimean expedition (see last week’s column) and the 1857 exhibition, an adroit buyer of art, and, like his father, a committed participant in politics and cultural affairs. But he would have been content to stay in Manchester.

Thomas Junior was interested in nothing except business, and his only hobbies were making money. In the gallery he was a conspicuously successful salesman, but he evidently did well with his hobbies too, for when he died he left an estate in excess of £500,000-£2,500,000 — only a small part of which, the family says today, could have come from art.

It was his idea to crack the London market with a frontal assault.

It is not likely that the brothers decided to make the move without considerable debate and perhaps some friction, and the deciding vote may have been cast by Thomas Senior, who was, after all, still something more than the titular head of the firm. But with the opening of London, time had come for the founder to retire and turn the business lock, stock, and barrel over to his sons.

The father's share — his capital — was tied up in the firm's inventory, and in order to pay off the old gentleman, an enormous auction was organized under Christie's hammers. Over 2000 lots were put on the block, 950 of them from the Zanetti-type stock: furniture, clocks, glass, marbles, bronzes, china, a complete set of horse warrior’s armor. No old masters of consequence were included.

The sale required ten days in Manchester and two more in Liverpool.

One successful bidder was a peripatetic, energetic textile merchant of German birth, Sam Mendel.

Mendel built a mansion, Manley Hall, and furnished it with a splendor that left even the rich of Manchester agog. For two decades he was one of Agnews' most assiduous clients. He was incessantly upgrading his collection, disposing of something which had fallen out of his favor and replacing it with something much better.

The American Civil War, with the Union blockade of Confederate ocean commerce, put heavy uncertainties on England's cotton industry, which relied critically on cheap American cotton. With slave labor gone, Southern fields did not spring back into immediate full production, and in a miscalculation of the cotton supply, Mendel overbought and ran into financial straits.

Agnews' spent £50,000 buying back Mendel's watercolor collection. Then 100 of the most important paintings were sold off. But it was not enough, and an auction was ordered in 1875. The wine cellar sale in itself took five days, and 16 more were needed for the art, which produced over £100,000. This was at a time when a pound was worth a lot of money.

Mendel had endorsed his life insurance policies over to William to cover some of his debts to Agnews, and William took over paying the premiums to keep the policies in force. Unfortunately for Wil1iam the agreement had not been properly drawn up, and after Mendel's death the executors pried through fine print, found a loophole, sued, and won their claim for £12,000.

This led to a sensational libel suit filed against a Mr. Brooke, who publicly stated, probably for political reasons, since William was a member of Parliament, that William had (deviously) tried to sell off everything in Manley Hall during Mendel's last and tragic years.

William won.

In the marketplace, as rival London dealers painfully learned, no one could stand up to William Agnew. He had, to begin with, an exuberance and taste for fine paintings. His taste often ran ahead of the times. This is not a bad gift if it enables a dealer to buy soon before prices catch fire.

William had a never-doubting self confidence, a sense of the dramatic, a flair for acting, and courage.

On May 6, 1876 Christie's auctioned the collection of Wynn Ellis, a London silk magnate who had offered his 402 old masters to the National Gallery; 44 had been accepted. Many of Ellis's English pictures, however, were designated for public sale, and among them was Gainsborough's Duchess of Devonshire.

The painting had disappeared from the noble family ‘s Chatsworth House. It was rediscovered in the 1830s in possession of an elderly schoolmistress. In1841 she sold it to a picture dealer for £56. He gave it to a friend, collector Ellis. A century after it was painted, it went up for auction.

Said The Times: "Anyone passing the neighbourhood of St. James's Square might well have supposed that some great lady was holding a reception and this, in fact, was pretty much what was going on within the gallery in King Street. All the world had come to see a beautiful duchess created by Gainsborough and, so far as we could observe, they all came, saw, and were conquered by her fascinating beauty."

While some observers openly questioned its authenticity, William decided to buy, perhaps to call attention to the fact that the London branch had just moved to larger quarters on Old Bond Street (where a century later I met Geoffrey Agnew).

"One thousand guineas," the first bid came.

"Three thousand,” William shot back.

Two more quick bids and then a third from the hall: "Five thousand."

“Five thousand five hundred," Agnew answered.

“Six thousand."

Agnew came in again. "Seven thousand!" Gasps.

"Seven thousand five hundred.”


"Eight five.”


“Nine five," Agnew countered.

"Ten thousand guineas!" Lord Dudley had instructed the auctioneers to bid on his behalf. This was his bid and his secret limit. Said The Times, "There was a serious pause for breath between the combatants."

Then, "Ten thousand one hundred guineas!”

There was no reply. Calls of “Bravo! Bravo!” came from the densely packed audience, which broke out stamping and clapping.

William Agnew had just bid the highest price ever for a picture at auction.

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1875. She made large black hats fashionable.

Those two or three minutes brought the picture instantaneous fame, and everyone wanted to gawk at it. It was put on exhibit in Thos. Agnew & Sons’ new gallery. William offered to sell it back to Lord Dudley, who, miffed at being beaten, refused it.

American Junius Morgan, the father of John Pierpont Morgan, thought of buying it, but his arrival in London to pay a first-person call to inspect it was delayed, and the uncommitted portrait remained on public view--temporarily.

Among the less savory curiosity seekers who crowded into Agnew’s to see it were an American Civil War deserter, Adam Worth, alias Henry J. (Harry) Raymond, the “Napoleon of Crime,” and a friend, Jack Phillips, alias Junka. The jam of luxury carriages corking up Bond Street attracted their attention, and they purchased two admissions at half a crown each.

Worth's London apartment was mission control for four decades of bank thefts, highway holdups, mailcar robberies, forgeries, and steamer heists amounting to four million dollars. While he had been caught and had served time in America, he never saw the insides of a British jail. He lived luxuriously as bon vivant Harry Raymond, not that Scotland Yard didn't know who he was--they could just never prove anything and, in fact, failed to intimidate him when they stationed men to report on all who came to his flat.

Worth and two confederates stole $700,000 in diamonds from a safe in a South African mining town, smuggled them back to London, set up a crony as a diamond broker and sold them off to Amsterdam dealers for a few cents per carat under the market.

Worth's brother, John, had been arrested in Paris and extradited to London, and he wanted to be released on bond. Because Worth had served time, he could not offer the bond, though he could easily afford it.

As Worth and Phillips followed the crowd in Agnew’s, a new scheme twinkled in Worth's brain: he would steal the picture and force the very reputable Agnew people to post his brother's bond in order to get the picture back.

On the thick foggy night of May 25 the diminutive Worth climbed onto Phillip's powerful shoulders and wiggled through a gallery window while another accomplice, Joe Elliott, notorious thief, served as lookout for the night watchman and patrolling bobbies. Picking his way cat-like through the obscure interior, Worth found The Duchess and cut her off her stretcher. Than he proved he was not a complete dunderhead: using the tassel of the velvet cord which served to keep visitors from getting too close to the picture, he smeared the face of the painting with glue (many contemporary picture handlers would have preferred honey), layered paper over the paste, and rolled the canvas image side out. Assured by Elliott that the coast was clear, he lowered the picture to Phillips and scrambled out.

"A public outrage more than a private calamity!" William thundered. In the next breath he offered £1,000 reward for information leading to recovery. Worth lost his reason for the theft when his brother's solicitor established that John should have been extradited from France not as a principal in a forgery but as an accessory after the fact. John was released on a technicality and told to be out of Great Britain within 30 days. Worth gave his brother a generous slice of the take from the diamond heist for John's promise to go straight--but he was stuck with a piece of hot merchandise he couldn't fence. For awhile he kept The Duchess of Devonshire under his mattress. Then he constructed a Saratoga trunk and smuggled her to Boston.

In mid-December, more than half a year later, William Agnew received the first of nine letters, which are still in the firm's archives:

"Gentlemen: We beg to inform you of the safe arrival of your picture in America, and enclose a small portion to satisfy you that we are the bona fide holders of your picture and consequently, the only parties you have to treat with. The portion we send you is cut from the upper right hand corner looking at it from the front, which you will find matches if you try it with the remnant on the frame. From time to time as we negotiate with you we will enclose pieces which will match the piece we now send you so that you can have the whole length of the frame.

“The picture is uninjured. There being no extradition between this country and England at present, we can treat with you with impunity. This communication must be strictly confidential and if you will decide to treat for the return of the picture you must keep faith with us, as once the first intimation we have of any police interference, we will immediately destroy the picture. You must be convinced by this time of the uselessness of the police in this matter. The picture being on this side of the water, almost any lawyer can negotiate with you without being liable to prosecution for compounding a felony. We would like to impress you with our determination which is NO MONEY, NO PICTURE as sooner than return or take any great risk in returning it we would destroy it. Now as to terms, we must look on this as a commercial transaction, it represents to you a money value of £10,000 sterling, the extraordinary advertisement has certainly added to its value (as if it were again exhibited in London) thousands would come to see it, that never would have thought of going before the elopement of the Duchess. If we come to terms, you can exhibit it here and will certainly clear two-thirds of the money you pay for the recovery of it. We want £3,000 or $15,000 in gold. No other money will be taken but English sovereigns. Insert an advertisement in the London Times, you will treat on these terms, via New York letter received etc. etc. (whatever you have to say) as we have the Times by every mail the rest is simply a matter of detail and can be arranged by letter hereafter, it lays entirely with you whether you have it back or not. If this letter is shown to the police we will know that you are not inclined to keep faith with us and will act accordingly; for obvious reasons you will be careful in wording the advertisement, New York. Under which name we will carry on our correspondence."

Subsequent letters, which were of two different penmanships, were posted from New York and London, and although Agnews' solicitors, Lewis J. Lewis, after consultation with the Yard, cautiously responded through The Times' personal columns, neither side trusted the other. The thieves were afraid to send someone to London to negotiate, lest the agent be arrested for compounding a felony. One letter which was posted in London said that “. . . our solicitor in New York . . . has withdrawn, but is willing to negotiate in New York". But Agnews was chary of sending anyone to New York with the ransom to pass judgment on whatever painting might be put forth.

Negotiations fizzled out.

Unsurprisingly Agnews’ was deluged with letters and calls from informants, self-appointed detectives, penny ante crooks, mystics, and nuts. During ensuing years the painting was discovered at least 11 times in places as diverse as Vienna and Chelsea, only it was never the real picture.

William could only try to put The Duchess out of mind, go on with his work and interests, and hope that someday either Scotland Yard would find her or the thief would relent.

In 1877, lookout Joe Elliott went to America, but his new start was only geographical, not professional. He landed in Sing-Sing, from which he tried to negotiate a deal through Robert Pinkerton, to whom he recounted the whole affair. But since Elliott could not produce the painting he could make no deal. Subsequently Worth was questioned by William Pinkerton in London.

Every false alarm which came to light gave a field day to the newspapers, and the Agnew name never disappeared from view.

In 1901, negotiating through Pinkerton’s, Worth returned the Duchess to Agnew’s for $25,000. Back in London, the painting was put up for sale. J.P. Morgan claimed he paid $150,000 for it. In 1994 the Morgan family put it up for auction at Sotheby’s. The Eleventh Duke of Devonshire got it back–200 years after it had been painted for his ancestor. The price: $408,870.

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