William Walker Sampson's Art Auction Ring
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While researching my family tree, I discovered a great deal of unexpected links to the art world through the late Victorian, and Edwardian era. Through my Great Grandfather, Henry Ramus, I have unearthed a story which emanated outwards from the artist, John William Godward, via Christies auction rooms, and one of the greatest art dealers, William Walker Sampson (1), (Henry’s business partner), then on to some of the biggest names in the world of art, literature, entertainment, and industry.
Among some of William's friends, were Harry Preston, A.S.W.Rosenbach, and A.C.R Carter, all of whom had written biographies. From these books, come recollections of Sampson, and the era they lived in, and along the way, a man worthy of having had his life documented in print form. There are other characters of whom you may not have heard, such as art dealers, Lockett Agnew, Arthur Tooth, or the Duveen brothers, and antiquarian book seller, Bernard Quaritch, among many others, but in their day, you would likely have known of them. Through this research, I met the art historian, Vern Grosvenor Swanson, who, after many useful exchanges of information, asked me if I would be interested in writing a piece for the ArtRenewalCentre's website, explaining the ‘art ring’ that William Walker Sampson ran from about 1900 to his death in 1929, what follows is a beginning.
W.W. Sampson, who had been born illegitimately in Gardner street, Chirton, Tynemouth, on 6th September 1864, adopted son of a seaman, brought up in a mining and mariners community, sold newspapers on the streets outside Newcastle railway station, saw his first gallery on a school trip to Cragside, Northumberland, there he skipped the feast laid out for the boys to sneak a second glance at Sir John Millais’s, Jephthah. Later heading south to Harrogate where he stayed with John and Fanny Potts, of the Wallsend coal owner. While there, he began his art dealing career with Dyson Lister, before making his way to the art capital of the Empire, London, and rising to head, from Christie's, the biggest art cartel of his time.
The Ring explained
While researching my great grand father, Henry Ramus, I discovered, (courtesy of an ArtRenewal website article on the Victorian artist, John William Godward by Vern Grosvenor Swanson), that he had been in business with William Walker Sampson, as fine art dealers during the late 1800′s and early 1900′s. That same article names W.W.Sampson as being head of an art cartel, or, ‘Ring’ leader. Researching Sampson led me in to a world that involved some of the most eminent people in the country at the time, and to a closer understanding of the mystery of the Auction ‘Ring’, the ‘Knockout’, and the, ‘Knockback’.
My remit here, is not to discuss the morality of a dealers ‘Ring’, (it wasn’t illegal at the time), but to demonstrate that there was compelling evidence pointing to William Walker Sampson being the ‘Ring Master’ of the London auction world at this time, and head of the most prolific Ring of this period, until his death in 1929 in Brighton.
Below are two more descriptions I’ve found which should give the reader an idea of what the Ring represents:-
” The aim of the ‘Ring’, usually consisting of a group of dealers, is to reduce the competition and buy the intended work(s) for lower prices than would be achieved in a truly competetive marketplace; that is, beneath real market value. The members of the ring, rather than the original vendor and auctioneer, therefore reap the financial benefits. “
(1):- ‘Pedigree and Panache: A History of the Art Auction in Australia’ (page 13)
By Shireen Huda
“I am grateful for this opportunity of raising once again in the House the shabby practice of the ‘knockout’.”
“After recent revelations concerning this form of commercial brigandry, which is really what it is, I think that the House is fairly familiar with how these rings operate, but to get it on the record perhaps I may quote something which I have borrowed from elsewhere and which I have somewhat adapted. It describes fairly well and succinctly the operations of the ring. It says: A group of antique dealers decide to apportion the lots at a given sale, in advance, so that no underbidder may bid against the party chiefly interested. The antiques, therefore, change hands at a price much below their market value. This value is established at a second sale outside the auction room and the difference between the two prices is divided between the antique dealers concerned as a dividend offered in exchange for forbearance. That fairly well sums up the method. But I should perhaps add that in some cases—this is especially true in the provinces—it is not necessary to reach agreement or apportionment beforehand. This is because one member of the ring in given areas knows another and because in many cases, after many incidents, practice has made perfect.”
“There was the knockout graphically described by the Sunday Times as having taken place in the “hired snug” in a hotel. There, it is said, the ring had a poor day because after the first round those who dropped out received only £1 apiece. However, it is accepted I think, that the final round of some knockouts can be very exciting indeed. Three or four dealers may still confront one another; they are the experts in their subjects; and the ultimate shareout in the would-be final round can be about £1,000 apiece. Small wonder that one of those who, I believe, had been engaged in this practice described the process as ‘twice as exciting as poker’.”
(2):- Hansard House of Commons records:-
ANTIQUE DEALERS (RINGS)
House of Commons Debate 23 December 1964 vol 704 cc1241-59 1241
Mr. R. Chichester-Clark (Londonderry)
William Walker Sampson
William was born illegitimately on 6th September 1864, to Margaret Walker, (eldest daughter of John Walker, and Mary Ann). On February 9th, 1869, Margaret married Charles Sampson, both of them aged 24 at the time, with Charles profession given as, ‘Mariner’, his father named as, Henry, whose profession was listed as, ‘Grocer’, while Margarets father, John, is listed as being a, ‘Waterman’. Charles and Margaret were married at the parish church of Tynemouth, Northumberland, a maritime and mining community, and by the 1871 census, living at Little Bedford Street, Chirton, Northumberland, William then had the Sampson surname added to his full name.
According to his obituary in the Times, one of William's first jobs was as a newspaper boy at the railway bookstall at Newcastle Upon Tyne. By the time of the 1881 census, at the age of 17, and living at Beech Street, Newcastle, William was stated as being a 'Stationer', perhaps with W.H.Smiths?. Smiths were by this time firmly established on virtually all main line stations around the United Kingdom, William Henry Smith having seen the potential of railway passenger custom very early.
A.C.R. Carter, who started writing for, 'The Years Art', from 1887, becoming editor by 1894, wrote of Sampson in his book of reminiscences, 'Let Me Tell You' (1940). Having clearly known William as a friend, he shares the memories that W.W had shared with him, beginning with the first time a young Sampson was captivated by art:- (pages 66 and 67)
'Although William Walker Sampson was merely a dealer, yet he grew up to be the auction champion of British art.'
He goes on:-
'He used to tell the story to me with some pathos how he had been taken on a school treat to visit Lord Armstrong's house and park at Cragside. He had never seen a picture collection before, and the boys were hurried through the gallery in order to have a high tea in the grounds. As young Bill passed that tragic picture by Millais of Jephthah, he was fascinated by the figure of the Prophet 'who had been brought very low.' He was plucked away from it by a soulless teacher.'
'Young Bill also vowed a vow. Half-way through the high tea he escaped unnoticed, and returned to the gallery. When dusk set in, the roll-call revealed that young Bill was missing. His mates remembered that he had disappeared to their surprise when the bon bouche of the high tea had been placed upon the table.'
After a search failed to find the missing boy, the 'soulless teacher' suggested trying the gallery where he had earlier been, 'plucked away', , and sure enough, there in front of Millais's 'Jephthah', was an entranced young Bill Sampson, who, as A.C.R. Carter recalls:-
'vowed another vow that if ever he became a rich man (he was then selling newspapers in the streets), he would try to buy that picture by Millais'.
The photo below was sent to me by W.W.Sampson's Great Grand Daughter, Gillian Harrison. Given that their son, John(Jack), was born on 28th September,1890, and the child looks about 18 months to two years old, this should date it around 1891/2. The photographer, Walter Davey, born in Worthing, Sussex, 1848, was listed as a photographer by the 1871 census, while living in Portslade, Sussex, and as a photographic artist by 1891 in Harrogate. His address at 10 James sreet is just a six minute walk from Dyson Lister's shop at 8&9 Montpelier Parade, where Sampson is said in his obituary to have begun his art dealing career.
On the 7th August 1887, William Walker Sampson married Elizabeth Colston, daughter of James and Elizabeth Colston, a Scottish family from Dunse, Berwickshire. They both give their ages as 22, while William names his father as, Charles Sampson, profession- Ship Captain, Elizabeths father is named, James Colston, profession- Painter. They were married at the parish church of Jesmond, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Elizabeths younger sister, Helen (Nellie) Colston is a witness on the certificate. Williams profession is given as, ‘Clerk’. On 28th September 1890, William and Elizabeth had a son, John (Jack), born Newcastle Upon Tyne, Northumberland., Williams occupation here given as, ‘Commercial Clerk’. Just a few months later, by the time of the 1891 census, William is staying with (Major) John and Fanny Potts, at Bedford Lodge, Harrogate, his occupation now stated as, 'Solicitor'.
Also mentioned in his obituary, W.W began his career in art dealing with Dyson Lister, picture dealers of Harrogate, in 1894. Given that Major Potts left his painting of 'Cleopatra going to meet Mark Antony' to the National Gallery, is it possible that he influenced, or encouraged, William with his love of art?
John Potts and his sister, Fanny, were from a wealthy coal owners family from Wallsend, Newcastle. John was a retired Major, of the Northumberland Light Infantry Militia, by this time, and when he died five years later, in 1896, he named William Walker Sampson as one of the 'Executors' of his will, leaving him a half share in just under £6,000, a small fortune at the time.
In the Yorkshire Gazette, dated 25th April 1896, it read:-
'A Yorkshire will:- By his will, dated Feb 10 1896, Major John Potts, of Bedford Lodge, Harrogate, who died on 14th Feb, bequeathed to the National Gallery, free of legacy duty, his picture of "Cleopatra going to meet Mark Antony";, to his sister Fanny £100, the furniture of his drawing room, and of her bedroom, and £4000; to Elizabeth Mary Deeley of Teddington, £50; and to Mr W. W. Sampson's son, John, £300. All residue of his property, the value of personalty being £5,884, 19s 7d, Major Potts left to Mr Wm. Walker Sampson of King Street, St James Square, (London), formerly of Harrogate, one of the Executors.'
At the time of discovery, this was the earliest reference thus far of Sampson in London, and in Major Potts probate record, W.W is stated as being a 'Fine Art Dealer', also a first reference to the fact at that point. Below is a picture, believed to be of Major John Potts, supplied by Sampson's Great Grand Daughter, Gillian Harrison. It has occurred to both Gillian and I that Potts may actually have been Sampson's father, it can't be ignored as a possibility, even leaving £300 to John Sampson. It may be worth noting here, that on his second marriage, William named his father as, 'John' Sampson, but when first married, he named Charles Sampson as his father, though I feel sure he would have known he wasn't. So without giving the game away, I believe he gives a nod to John Potts when he marries Simeta Sampson, his long time mistress.
Sampson at Christies
The earliest account of W.W at auction, was from the Times, 22nd July 1895, where he is recorded as having paid 150 Guineas at the Christie's sale on behalf of the late Coleridge J. Kennard, for 'Sheep Entering a Shed', by Charles Emile Jacque, (1813-1894). At this auction he was very much the, 'new kid on the block', among the big art dealing guns of the time, in Agnew, Tooth, and Vokins, as well as his former employer, Dyson Lister. I'm guessing that Sampsons finances were assisted by Major Potts, as it seems doubtful he could have amassed the necessary funds to bid at Christie's on the wage of a junior solicitor.
It was in the Times of 23rd of March 1896, a little over a month after the death of Major John Potts, that William is recorded, beginning to flex his newly acquired financial muscle, picking up Lawrence Alma Tadema's, 'A Roman Scribe Writing Despatches', for 325 Guineas, in the company of Arthur Tooth, (of No's 5 and 6 Haymarket), and Thomas McClean, (No 7 Haymarket), in the auction room that day, both of whom had a more than passing interest in Tadema already. This was the beginning of a taste for L.A.Tadema's paintings that Sampson would continue to back at Christies well in to the next century, as well as Tadema's younger protege, John William Godward's.
Returning to A.C.R. Carter's book, 'Let Me Tell You', he talks of W.W arriving in London:-
'When Sampson came to London in 1896 he opened a shop quite near Christie's, and showed his sure flair by purchasing a few flower pieces by Fantin-Latour, and exhibiting them in his shop window Those were the days when a magnificent flower picture by the French artist could be picked up for a ten-pound note. Sampson had paid £50 for the five. He marked them up at 25 guineas each. Nobody wanted them, so he took them home. He afterwards turned them over at cost price, and, years later, he saw one of them bring nearly 2000 guineas. After the Agnews had ceased to deal largely in modern British art, Sampson became the chief operator in the Victorian market, especially when Birket Foster's delightful water-colour drawings came up. He must have bought many hundreds of them, and re-bought them '
A little after this time, the links between William and Henry Ramus, begin to appear. When Henry married May Simmons on the 21st December 1899, their address was given as, 21 Mecklenburgh Square, London, Henry stated as being an Art Dealer. In the 1901 census, William Walker Sampson, along with his wife and son, are now living at 21 Mecklenburgh Square, Williams occupation given as, ‘Fine Art Dealer’. Living at that same address in the 1891 census, was Henry’s Uncle, Benjamin Ramus, whose, by then wife, Rose(Solomons), was the mother of Henry’s wife, May. In the Post Office Directory of 1902, Henry Ramus is listed as, ‘Henry Ramus &Co, Fine Art Dealers’, at 68 Wardour Street, whereas, in the 1898 Electoral Registers for London, William Walker Sampson is listed as living at 67 Wardour Street. To show further the strength of the bond between William and Henry, when Henry and May have their second child, he is named, Neville Walker Simon Ramus (4th Feb 1905), giving him Sampson's middle name. My Grand Father, Reginald, kept the name Walker in the family, when he gave it to my Uncle, Michael Harry Walker Ramus, born 23-12-1931, Willesden, two years after W.W died. I think it's a fair guess that William would have continued to take an interest in Henry's sons throughout their lives, and that when Reg gave his second son the middle name of Walker, it was recognition of that fact.
The Case of a Bankrupt Dealer
HENRY THOMAS JOHN JONES, Deception > bankrupcy, 22nd July 1907.
The British courts in the early 1900's seem to have had a good amount of their time taken up settling disputes between dealers, commission agents, and buyers, of art works, which has revealed valuable evidence describing the goings on of the art dealing world. In July 1907, Henry Thomas John Jones, alias Henry Thomas Girling, was up before the Old Bailey for carrying on business while an undischarged bankrupt, in conjunction with his son, Robert Henry Girling
During the case, which brings to the dock, artists, dealers, patrons, and commission agents, as witnesses. Joseph Farquharson A.R.A, Frank Markham Skipworth, and Henry Bowser Wimbush were the artists brought to give evidence against H.T.Girling, as they had known him, all having supplied pictures to him on account, only to for him to abscond without paying. But it is the evidence of Girling and son which shines a light on the unscrupulous nature of art dealers of the time, and both William Walker Sampson, and Nathan Mitchell are cited in the defendants evidence. Notice how during the giving of evidence, both the Girling's talk of Sampson and Mitchell in such a way as to suggest they saw no difference between one and the other, as if they were a partnership perhaps.
Under cross examination, Girling gives this account:-
BEFORE MR. JUSTICE DARLING.
(Friday, July 26.)
'When I became bankrupt I was trading as the Southall Brick, Lime and Cement Company. Four of my customers went bankrupt before the time was due for payment I was in that business about a year, in conjunction with another firm. My son was not connected with me there. In 1904 I believe my son was at Chelsea in an oil and colour or provision business. My son suggested starting in the picture business; he was out of business at the time. I believe he had some money; I do not know how much. I was to look after the business till he got in the running; then I would leave him to it. About £80 was laid out on the shop; his money. He also stocked it; from Winsor and Newton among others. I had nothing to do with the stocking. The shop was opened last Christmas. Between September, 1904, and then I was helping Mr. W.W. Sampson in Air Street, Piccadilly. I was to be paid 25 per cent. of the profits of my son's business. There was no agreement in writing. I had been living since Christmas at 28, Chestnut Gardens, Acton. My son was living close to the shop. He kept books, and my commission account would be in them, but I do not know where they are. Probably I have been paid about £10 by my son since Christmas. I drew £25 from Mr. Sampson, and I have lived on that, with the help of my wife's income. She has about £200 a year when the property is all let. The pictures that were bought were sold in the ordinary way, sometimes by my son when I was away.'
'I have sold "Green Leaves," Mr. Farquharson's picture, to Mr. N. Mitchell, a dealer, in Copthall Avenue; I believe for £130, part pictures and part cash. I could not tell you exactly; it may have been £20 or £30 cash. That money was laid out in other pictures. The pictures from Mr. Mitchell we exchanged for others. It is a recognised thing in the fine art trade that we do not sell for cash. Another picture which I bought from Mr. Farquharson for £16 I sold to Mr. Mitchell for £30 cash. I gave £10 to my son, the rest I kept. That was my own picture, which I had paid for. The one I bought for £45, "The Forest of Glenquoich," I did a deal with Mr. Sampson; no cash, but all pictures. The £16 picture was bought in July, 1906. Between November, 1904, and January, 1905, I went to Mr. Sampson's, buying for him on commission. When Mr. Sampson had sufficient pictures I was done with him. I had only a certain number to buy. Then I went on my own and afterwards joined my son. With regard to the small picture I sold to Mr. Mitchell, he sent me to Mr. Farquharson to see if I could buy one, and gave me the £16. I do not know much about the bankruptcy law. I did not know the meaning of the word at that time about not getting credit. I had no idea of getting credit again. Two of the pictures from Mr. Skipworth we have got now. They were at 64, Fore Street up to a week or two ago, at Mr. George Knight's, whom I was partner with once. I do not know where the pictures are now. The ones you are asking about have been paid for. The ones not paid for were sold by me for £20 to Mr. Barnsley, of Sheffield. I used the money to buy pictures and fresh stock. Mr. Sampson could corroborate that. He is not here. I did not think it was necessary. I have paid Mr. Sampson over £30,000 in his time.'
Girlings son, giving evidence:-
'ROBERT HENRY THOMAS GIRLING , Hurst Street, Horne Hill. I am. After my father's (the prisoner's) bankruptcy in 1904, I proposed to him that I should go into business for myself, and that he should assist me with his advice as manager. I am an artist, but not a buyer. I started business first at my father's residence at Ealing. Later on I took 88, Haverstock Hill, and stocked it from Messrs. Winsor and Newton. My father simply advised me as to what I should do, and gave me his opinion as to buying the pictures. I wrote the letters to Mr. Farquharson. My father might have written one on my behalf. The two pictures, "Green Leaves" and "The Forest of Glenquoich", came into my possession. In regard to Mr Skipworth, there were several little pictures bought for cash. I went to Mr Wimbush personally, bringing away 12 pictures, which came to my shop, and were for sale in my business. With regard to the pictures bought from Mr Morton, they were for me. I have not disputed and do not dispute my debts to these people. The letter to Mr Morton giving three references is signed by me. When I started the shop I had about £200. I have lost that and £150 besides.
I have not yet paid any money to the four gentlemen from whom the pictures had been obtained; I have not been pressed or asked for it yet. I have not disposed of all these pictures; I cannot say how many, for a minute. Those I have left are at 11, Hurst Street, Horne Hill; some of them are Mr. Wimbush's. I could not say how many of these pictures altogether I have left. The books of the business were mislaid; left in the office at Haverstock Hill, and I do not know what became of them. The shop was closed because it did not pay. There was no rent owing. I was allowed so much for doing the shop up, and that covered the cost of the rent while I was there. The people upstairs (my lodgers) knew my address when I left. They might be there still. The first picture bought from Mr. Farquharson was for £120; I did not sell it at the time. When it was sold I think part was taken in cash, and part went off an account that was owing. I think it was sold to Mr. Sampson—Sampson or Mitchell. I think we got £80 for it; I forget now; there was a debt owing, which was covered by the balance. There was a debt due both to Mr. Sampson and to Mr. Mitchell. My father collected the money for me, and gave it me in cash—coin. There may have been two or three £5 notes. He gave it me at one time. I think there was another picture in it as well, of Mr. Farquharson's. The money was spent in buying other pictures and necessaries. I cannot remember now whether Mr. Farquharson's picture was sold for £30 and the balance in pictures. If my father said so, he might have done so. Before I was in this business I was an artist, and I was also in partnership in an oil and colour business in Chelsea. I got £75 for that business; my father got half. That was five years ago. The £200 which I had when I started this last business I got by my painting. I owed Mr. Skipworth £17. I did not pay him, because he was to paint another picture and did not. I gave him a bill for £40, which my father got from Mr. Knight. I do not know who drew the bill, and do not remember what my father had to do with it, bar giving it to Mr. Skipworth. My father showed me the bill, and said he had asked Knight for it. The writing on the bill (produced) is similar to my fathers. The signature is "H. T. Girling." I have not taken any steps to see that the bill was paid I told Mr. Skipworth I would pay him as soon as I could. The pictures of Mr. Skipworth that were not returned were sold; I think at the same price as they were bought for, £17. I do not remember to whom. I left it to my father to sell them; and he gave me the balance. Some of Mr. Wimbush's pictures were sold. I got some of the money and spent it. I did not pay him because he made a muddle over the transaction. The agreement was that part payment was to be made. I bought 18 old masters from Mr. Morton. I could not sell any of them, and I have some of them at home. I swear that Mr. Morton's pictures are there; also some of Mr. Wimbush's; none of Mr. Farquharson's, nor Mr. Skipworth's. Some of Mr. Morton's pictures did go into a sale £a broker's sale, to pay the taxes at Haverstock Hill. They went at about 1s. 6d. each. I do not know what sale room they were in. I sold a few of them myself, but I do not remember how many, nor for how much. I should object to a police officer going to my house and taking the pictures.
Re-examined. The result of all these transactions has not been at all profitable. My father would know most of the details of the buying and selling. I left it mostly to him.
Verdict, Guilty. Sentence, Four months' imprisonment, second division.
If the minor art dealer H.T.Girling had £30,000 worth of business with W.W.Sampson, and Sampson had commerce with a myriad of other art dealers, his slice of the art market must have been formidable.
1907-08 A Turning Point?
In the Daily Telegraph of Monday, Feb 3rd 1908, William Walker Sampson was proclaimed, 'The Champion of Modern Art'. This was almost certainly written by A.C.R. Carter, of, 'The Years Art', who also happened to write art reviews for the Daily Telegraph, and following the strongest yet showing by Sampson at Christie's that season. He had won bids on 161 paintings at Christie's for the 1907 season at the time this story went to press, and 75 in the first five weeks of 1908. His total haul at Christie's for the season between Nov 1907 and July 1908, was an astounding 619 lots of paintings and drawings, more purchases than any other single dealer that season.
'Art Price Current 1907-08'
Ancient and modern pictures and drawings, the property of Mr Thomas Maclean, 7 Haymarket, S.W, sold owing to his retirement from business:-
33 of the pictures and drawings were knocked down to Sampson this day, and the point where he picked up the baton from Thomas Maclean as leading buyer of J.W.Godward paintings, with the winning bid for all six on offer, which were:-
An Egyptian Slave 36 & 1/2" circle £32.11s
Thoughts Far Away 20" x 8 & 3/4" £9.9s
Ethel 19" x 6&1/2" £6.6s
A Pompeian Beauty 7&1/2" x 4&1/4" £9.9s
Reverie 10&1/2" x 5&1/2" £9.9s
After the Bath 6&1/2" £15.15s
'The Armstrong Picture Sale'
'Messrs. Christie's, Manson, and Woods sold yesterday the collection of modern pictures and water-colour drawings removed from Craigside, Rothbury, and forming a portion of the Armstrong heirlooms, the sale being held by order of Lord Armstrong'
The Times, June 25 1910
As often occurs, pictures find their way to the auction rooms that were once coveted, A.C.R. Carter recalls the sale in his book, reminded of young William Walker Sampson's vow:-
'At length the opportunity came. In 1910 Lord Armstrong decided to disperse part of his collection. The Jephthah, accompanied by Millais' famous 'Chill October', duly appeared at Christie's. On the morning of the sale Sampson told Lockett Agnew that he intended to compete for both pictures. He revealed that he had an especial personal longing to win the Jephthah, without telling Lockett the reason for his hankering. Agnew said to Sampson, "I, too, am very wishful to buy the Jephthah, because a very old friend of mine desires to have it".
Without saying to Agnew that he would not compete strongly against him Sampson did not make a bid beyond 1150 guineas. As the picture had fetched 3800 guineas in 1875 Sampson imagined that it would bring another high price, but Lockett Agnew won it at 1200 guineas, and it joined the collection of Agnew's friend, the well known authority on art, Fairfax Murray'.
So there you had it, despite having been proclaimed, 'The Champion of Modern Art' in the Daily Telegraph, 3rd Feb 1908, W.W still had some way to go before taking the true mantle. On a day when, 'the 102 lots of the Armstrong sale realized the considerable total of £29,032.' as the following days Times had reported, Lockett Agnew had 27 lots knocked down to him at a total cost of £13,818. 6s. Clearly the heavyweight dealers still had pockets too deep for Sampson to seriously challenge, yet. His vow to own the Jephthah picture was back on hold.
A Court Case 1911- The Ring revealed
Here are a few extracts of a court case reported in the Times, January 24 1911. Giving a glimpse into the art dealing world in which William Walker Sampson, and Henry Ramus inhabited, including possible evidence of collusion within the auction rooms by dealers-
'A Picture by Sir Luke Fildes'
Turner v Sampson
(Before Mr Justice Channell)
'In this case, Sir Montague Cornish Turner sued Mr W.W.Sampson, a fine art dealer, carrying on partnership with Mr Henry Ramus, at Air-street, Regent-street, for the recovery of a picture by Sir Luke Fildes, R.A, or its value, which the plaintiff alleged was wrongfully detained from him.'
Sir Montague Cornish Turner, examined by Mr Foote, said that he was chairman of the Chartered Bank of England and Australia. He began collecting pictures in 1903-04. He became acquainted with Wall at that time. His premises consisted of a small gallery and an office in Pall-Mall-place. Wall brought pictures to him for sale on behalf of clients. He bought about 50 or 60 pictures from Wall to the value of about £4000. He first heard of the picture in dispute in a letter from Wall. He went to Wall's gallery and saw the picture and bought it for £400. At that time he did not know that Wall owned the picture. It was sent to his house, and after nine or ten months he became dissatisfied with it and wished to sell it. Wall came to his house and removed it. He (Wall) said it ought to fetch £1000. He instructed Wall to acquaint him with any offers he might get for the picture. Wall had no authority to sell it until he had submitted any offers received, and he (the witness) had accepted it. That was in 1909. He never heard of any definite offer for the picture. He did not hear of the sale of the picture to the defendant until after Wall had disappeared. Wall wrote a letter saying he had accepted an appointment abroad. He made enquiries as to where his pictures were, and found that the one in question was in the possession of the defendant. He wrote to the latter, claiming the picture, and was informed by the defendant that he had purchased it from Wall.
Mr Louis Edwards, examined by Mr Ricketts, said that he kept a boarding house at 5 Oxford terrace, and also bought pictures for customers on commission. He had a large number of clients, and, among others, his late Majesty. About October last he went to the defendants place of business and had a conversation about the picture. The defendant told him he had bought the picture outright direct from the owner, and he could do what he liked with it. He asked what was the lowest net price they would accept, and received a letter saying it was £600.
'The picture in question, which was called, 'Fair, Sweet, and Quiet Rest', was painted by Sir Luke Fildes some 20 or 30 years ago, and was purchased from the artist for £871. In 1907 it was sold at Christies for £109, but on that occasion, counsel stated, the value of the picture was reduced owing to a combination between the dealers'
(This last sentence would appear to be early evidence of an alleged 'Ring', of which, later, or possibly already at this point, Sampson was believed to be at the head of.) It continues:-
'Subsequently the picture was bought by a Mr F.J.Wall for £280. He was a fine art dealer, and had a small gallery in Pall Mall. Wall had done business for the plaintiff for three or four years, and had been employed to buy and sell pictures for him on a commission basis.' (The plaintiff being Sir Montague Cornish Turner.)
The case centered on whether Sampson had right of ownership, having, he believed, bought the picture from Wall in good faith. Turner asserting that he had not given Wall permission to make the sale. Other dealers and commission agents were brought in to give evidence, Louis Edwards a commission agent, who had dealt with Sampsons business partner, Henry Ramus. It goes on:-
'Mr H. Ramus, the partner of the last witness, (Sampson), gave corroborative evidence. He said he remembered having a conversation with the witness Edwards. He subsequently sent a letter to him saying that the lowest price for the picture was £350.'
Within his judgement, Justice Channell is stated as saying:-
'Upon the evidence, he was of the opinion that the defendant had acted in good faith in the matter. Pictures were notoriously things which one bought as cheaply as one could and got as much as one could for, and he could not hold that because a man paid £300 for a picture and asked £350 for it the purchase was not a bona fide one'
This last paragraph illuminates what art historian, Vern Grosvenor Swanson, captioned, 'The Wild West', when explaining the art dealing world of the Edwardian era, and the anything goes attitude to buying and selling. And if anything, my research shows a profit of £50 to be conservative at best. Finalising, Justice Channell is stated as having declared:-
'For the reasons he had given he must hold that the present case came within the Factors Act, 1889, and there must be judgement for the defendant (Sampson) with costs'
However murky this world of art dealing may have been, they still had a legal framework which they could use as a cloak of security when being accused of allegedly sharp practices, which would seem to have occurred quite often.
Henry Joseph Ramus (14 June 1872 – 20 July 1911)
The Ramus family were Sephardim Jews, Isaac and Rosa Ramos, and their four sons having arrived in England from Amsterdam on the 23rd June 1793. Like many Jews of the time, they began life in England in the Jewish heartland of London, around Whitechapel, Aldgate, and Mile End, a short step from St Katherines docks.
Henry was the second son born to Joseph, (Great grandson of Isaac and Rosa), and Harriet Ramus, (after Alfred 1870), in Waterford, Ireland, his father named as a ‘Comedian’ on the birth certificate, he would later progress to Theatre Manager by the birth of their daughter, Louisa Martha in 1874. By the time of the 1881 census, Joseph and his family were back in England, living in Manchester, with Joseph's profession given as, ‘Picture Dealer’. They had moved close to where the Manchester Regional College of Art building was, which dates back to 1880, with art dealing already synonomous with the Ramus name in the former, and following years. Joseph's cousin, Isaac Ramus was by 1882 already established at 74 and 75 Piccadilly, London, as 'Ramus Brothers, Dealers in Works of Art', and before that, at 494 Oxford street, London from 1865.
On the 1891 Scottish census, the family are now living at 137 Renfrew street, Glasgow, just along the road from the Glasgow School of Art at 167 Renfrew street. On the census report, Joseph’s ‘profession or occupation’, is given as, ‘Picture Dealer’, as is Alfred’s, while Henry is listed as, ‘Artist (painting)’. Louisa Martha has by now flown the coop, and living at 136 Sauchiehall street, Glasgow, married at the tender age of 16, to Sigmund Stern, a ‘Working Jeweller’ born 1863 Austria. Their eldest daughter, Sophie, was born 1893 in Scotland, and their next eldest, Doris, born four years laters in Manchester, so I assume Louisa Martha followed her Father, Joseph, away from Glasgow sometime between ’93 and ’97.
This record from the London Gazette tells us where and what Henry was up to by 1894:-
THE LONDON GAZETTE, JANUARY 9, 1894. 195
“NOTICE is hereby given, that the Partnership heretofore subsisting between us the undersigned,
Henry Ramus and Alfred Ramus, carrying on business
as Carvers, Gilders, and Picture Frame Makers and
Dealers, at 5, Withy-grove, Manchester, in the county
of Lancaster, under the style or firm of Ramus Bros.,
has been dissolved, by mutual consent, as and from the
31st December. 1893. All debts due to and owing by
the said late firm will be received and paid by the said
Henry Ramus, who will in future carry on the business
under the above “style.—Dated this 2nd day of January,
In the1895 Kelly’s Directory of Manchester , Henry is listed as a, ‘Picture Frame Maker’, at 51 Hyde Grove, Chorlton on Medlock, then in 1899 he married May Simmons, their address on the certificate given as ’21 Mecklenburgh Square’, and his occupation now, ‘Fine Art Dealer’. With William Walker Sampson and his wife and son living at 21 Mecklenburgh Square on the 1901 census, his occupation given as, ‘Fine Art Dealer’, it might be fair to guess it wasn’t far from this time that they formed their partnership. With the connections of other dealers and family members to Manchester, Harrogate, Newcastle, and Glasgow, Scotland, one can’t help but think that William and Henry quite likely met sometime earlier.
When Henry died at the young age of 39, he left his wife, May, £8,317, 8 shillings, 8 pence. Using an online, ‘measuring worth’ calculator, it estimates that this amount could be worth between £692,700 and £5,631,000, today, depending which criteria are used, not at all bad in such a relatively short time, even more so when you consider the money that would also come from the auction of assets.
Henry died as result of an infection following some dental work, one of the leading surgeons of his time, Sir Victor Horsley, was brought in to try and save him, but to no avail. On further investigation, it was discovered that Sir Victor's father happened to be John Calcott Horsley, RA, and that Sampson had bought a few of his pictures at Christie's. Does it stretch the imagination to presume Henry was a friend of Sir Victor?, certainly the art community often displayed familial tendencies.
In order to disentangle the estate of the two partners, there were two sales at Christies as a result of Henry’s death, on the 18th and 20th November 1911, selling:- 'Modern pictures and drawings, portion of the stock of Mr W.W.Sampson, 13 Air Street, Regent Street,W...' as described in the 'Art Price Current' of 1911-12.
There was another auction two years later, held at Capes, Dunn, and Co, on October 21st 1913, at 12 o’clock at The Gallery, No 8 Clarence street, Albert Square, Manchester. The advert in the Manchester Courier reads:- ” On View. The Gallery. Sale of a valuable collection of oil paintings and water colour drawings, being the last portion of the stock of Mr W.W.Sampson, of 13 Air Street, London, W, owing to the death of Mr Henry Ramus, a partner in the firm, and comprising examples of the highest importance by leading deceased and living members of the Royal Academy and other distinguished painters of the English school”
Having missed his chance to own Sir John Millais's, 'Jephthah' at the Lord Armstrong sale, Christies 1910, W.W saw his second chance come on Friday, December 14, 1917, at Christie's again, owing to Fairfax Murray letting some of his collection go at auction. As A.C.R recalls:-
'Sampson never forgot his lost opportunity, but bided his time. Just before Christmas, 1917, after the death of Fairfax Murray (*), the picture was again for sale. Lockett Agnew was then a sick man (he died in the following February), and the field was clear for Sampson, who succeeded in buying the prize for just one thousand guineas.'
The boyhood vow had come to fruition.
(*) Although A.C.R states that Fairfax Murray had died, according to records, and the Times obituary, he died in January 1919. Given that he wrote his memoirs in 1940, his usual accuracy must have been dimmed over time.
By 1920, Sampson would appear to be firmly established at the high table of Christie's auction room. On May 8th in the Times, the previous days sales, (owing to the death of Mr Hilton Philipson, and Mr Montague Stanley Napier dispersing his collection), brought the headlines:- '£5,250 for a Meissonier.' and, 'High Prices for Modern Pictures'. W.W picked up the Meissonier, 'Le Guide', engraved by J.Jacquet, for 5000 guineas, a drawing by J.M.W.Turner, 'An Italian Scene' 11" x 15&1/2", 950 guineas, and a couple of drawings by Birket Foster, 'A cottage at Sandhills, Surrey, with peasant girl', 420 guineas, and, 'A view near Dalmally, with figures', 410 guineas, not forgetting John William Godward's, 'Dolce Far Niente' 30"x50", 300 guineas. £7434 for five pictures.
It was a marriage certificate for Sampson, to his second wife, Simeta Sampson, on the 3rd July 1924, that led me to the names of Harry Preston, and Philip Rosenbach, who were named as witnesses. Researching their names brought up, firstly, the Rosenbach Museum and Library, of Philadelphia, who checked, then confirmed, that they had records of transactions between Sampson and the Rosenbachs. They also informed me of a biography, long since out of print, for Philips brother, A.S.W. Rosenbach, in which was the name, W.W.Sampson, the link was proved beyond doubt, and now I had reference books with which to research deeper into the world that W.W inhabited. Soon after, I went to the Brighton History Centre, at the Royal Pavilion and discovered that Harry Preston had also written a couple of books of his memories, and sure enough, W.W. Sampson is there too.
When I received copies of the transactions between Sampson and the Rosenbachs, they were on headed note paper, showing for the first time, the names of W.W.Sampson, and Henry Ramus, under the banner of ‘The British Galleries’, earliest date, 1909. On one of these dockets, a certain, ‘J.W. Godward’, was one of the artists named on the transaction, the very painter that Vern Swanson had written so extensively about, which resulted in me finding out about my Great Grandfathers business partner in the first place. Unfortunately the record didn’t mention the name of the Godward painting that the Rosenbachs had bought from William and Henry, but I could hazard a guess that it may have been, 'An Egyptian Slave', as the shipping record shows a charge of £38, and William got the picture at £32.11shillings at the Thomas Maclean sale at Christie's. Vern Swansons records also state since Sampson bought the picture, it's location is unknown.
The transaction slips also detail a great deal of other prominent artists of the time, whose works they were sending across the Atlantic, among them, Sir Edward John Poynter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Mc Neil Whistler, Sir Edward Burne Jones, to name but a few, and most of them either Pre Raphaelite, or loosely associated with. Virtually all the artists named seem to be of the classic school.
The Other Godward Dealers
As a result of the new found information from the Rosenbach Museum and Library, (which I sent along to Mr Swanson, having spotted the name of Godward), he kindly sent me back his record of the paintings by Godward, which Sampson had bought or sold at Christies. There were 48 Godward paintings in total. I also noticed the names of the other dealers coming up more than once, Nathan Mitchell, Francis Michael Evans, Henry Joseph Mullen, and William Lawson Peacock. After a quick search, it turns out that Henry Jospeh Mullen, like William Walker Sampson, grew up in Tynemouth, in the North East of England, no more than a couple of miles apart, they were also both employed as, ‘Stationers’, and ‘Commercial Clerks’, on their early census reports. They were even married at the same parish church of Jesmond, Newcastle, just one year apart, although Mullen is 9 years senior.
By 1891, I find W.W.Sampson living in South Park road, Harrogate, listed as a, ‘Solicitor’, staying with John and Fanny Potts, son and daughter of John Potts, a ‘Coal Owner’, from Wallsend, (which is within a couple of miles of where Sampson and Mullen grew up), and by coincidence, he happens to be just a five minute walk from Francis Michael Evans, who has his, ‘Art Galleries’, at 68 Parliament Street. (I wondered at this point, whether the Potts might be financial backers for this potential Ring)
Henry Joseph Mullen and his wife, Isabella, have a child, Arnold, in August 1896 at Whitley Bay, Tynemouth, and Henry gives his occupation on the certificate as, ‘Fine Art Dealer’.
When I check further in time on Mullen, he has also set up in Harrogate by at least 1916, listed in the phone book as, ‘Fine Art Dealer, 44 Parliament Street’. After a further bit of delving, I find that Henry Ramus’ cousin, Jacob Alfred Ramus, has moved up to Harrogate now, first at 23 Park Drive in the 1911 census, (occupation- Fine Art Dealer), and then at James Street, which spurs off Parliament Street, listed in the 1916 phone book as, ‘Fine Art Dealer’, continuing from his fathers business, Isaac Ramus, which had operated out of 87, & 186, Piccadilly, Mayfair, London, trading as, ‘Ramus brothers, Dealers in Works of Art’, just around the corner from Sampsons ‘British Galleries’ in Air street, and opposite the Royal Academy. When you consider the geographical differences of Tynemouth, Newcastle, Harrogate, and London, it stretches the imagination somewhat to consider these facts as one big coincidence, but that in itself is not concrete proof of some conspiracy, however, if as is more than plausible, Sampson were running an auction Ring, these characters must be prime suspects for membership.
Harrogate is a spa town in North Yorkshire, England, the town is a tourist destination and its visitor attractions include its spa waters and RHS Harlow Carr gardens. The town became known as ‘The English Spa’ in the Georgian Era, after its waters were discovered in the 16th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries the ‘chalybeate’ waters (i.e. containing iron) were a popular health treatment, and the influx of rich, and often sickly visitors contributed significantly to the wealth of the town. One of the results of this situation, was an opportunity for ‘art dealers’, ‘fine art dealers’, or ‘dealers in items of virtu’, to exploit these well heeled tourists, setting up art gallery shops around Parliament street, and surrounding roads, and bringing up their auction acquisitions from the London auction houses, possibly especially chosen for this elite clientelle.
Nathan Mitchell (1862-1945)
As a potential member of William Walker Sampson's art 'Ring', Nathan Mitchell ticks a lot of boxes, but perhaps the most significant fact could be that his family were Jews, coming from the same poverty stricken area of Whitechapel, and Aldgate, East London as all of Henry Ramus' extended family had at the same time, from at least the 1840's, probably much earlier.
While Nathan Mitchell was born in 1862, his family links to the art trade began through his Aunt, Sarah Mitchell's marriage to Michael Nathan (1834-1908), whose father, Samuel Nathan (1803-69), was a picture dealer (1). Having married in 1854, Michael and Sarah were living with Samuel by the 1861 census, both, (Michael and Samuel), listed as 'Artists', then by the 1871 census they were living at 315 Mile End Road, Michael listed as a 'Picture Dealer', Samuel died in 1869. Two of Michael and Sarah's boys, Benjamin(1854), and Asher(1857), were also listed as Picture Dealers in this census. Michaels brother, (Nathan Mitchell's Uncle by marriage), Joseph Nathan (1838), was also a picture dealer, going on to be 'Proprietor of Burlington Gallery' (2).
By 1881, Michael and Sarah had moved out of Aldgate, and were now living at 21 Bedford Square, (3). Sarah's parents and nephew, Nathan Mitchell are living with them, and this is the first recording of Nathan as a 'Picture Dealer', aged 19. Michael and Sarah's son, Asher, 24, is also listed in this census as a Picture Dealer.
After marrying Eva Isaacs (1869), in 1887, Nathan was living at 15 Rochester Terrace, St Pancras, now a 'Fine Art Dealer'. On the electoral roles for London 1898, he is listed as occupier of 52 Copthall Avenue, and 18 Regents Park Road, so it would be fair to say Nathan was already making a success of his art dealing business (4).
Although Mitchell had bought a great deal of Godward paintings, it wasn't until I sifted through the Art Price Current catalogues of Christies sales from 1907 - 1916, that I came to see a striking pattern. Mitchell, Sampson, Evans, and Mullen were nearly always bidding at the same time, with Sampson and Mitchell accounting for the majority of the sales. Other candidates for ring members are Cooling, Gooden & Fox, and Louis Woolf. I'm still in the early stages of unravelling this potential revelation, Sampson, Mitchell, Mullen, and Evans are definitely in league together, as well as Jacob Alfred Ramus, and Albert Isaac Ramus, cousins of Henry Ramus, Sampson's business partner. I strongly suspect Sampson and Mitchell to be the main players, with Mullen, Evans and Jacob Alfred Ramus, based up in Harrogate, a prime place to move on the auction room acquisitions, as the second tier in this cartel, and Albert Isaac Ramus, based down in Eastbourne, a seaside resort popular with well heeled elderly residents, equally useful for punting on works of art in the High Street galleries.
A Jewish family, Nathan's Uncle, Michael Mitchell, was a Picture Dealer too, and his Grandfather, Hyam, had been a General Dealer, coming out of Whitechapel, Aldgate, Mile End, and St George in the East, the same areas that the Ramus family had come through, and at the same period of time, as well as the families following the same occupations. Given the geographic, occupational, and Jewish connections, I think it's fair to say the Ramus, and Mitchell families would at the very least have been aware of each other, and given the Christies sales records evidence, quite plausible to believe Nathan, Henry, and William, were major players in a potential London auction Ring.
While most of the auction ring descriptions describe a 'Ring Leader', doing most of the bidding, and dividing up the spoils later, I believe it highly possible that this happened pre-auction, and not post. With the auction catalogues giving all the lots in advance, surely it made more sense to decide who would bid for what prior to the sale, thus making it less likely for any collusion to be detected.
(1)- in the 1851 census at 73 Ellison street, Aldgate
(2)-by the 1891 census
(3)-about a mile North West of the Drury Lane Theatre Royal
(4)-I have found no record for him on the 1901 census. By 1911, he and Eva are now at 175 Sutherland Avenue, Maida Vale, a 3 minute walk from the Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation Synagogue in Lauderdale road. Nathan is listed as a, 'Fine Art Dealer', in this census.
Louis Wolff (1859-1938)
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, 1859, Louis Wolff arrived in England by 1880. On the 1881 census, he is staying at 4 Lawford road, St Pancras, London, as a boarder, his occupation given as 'Picture Frame Maker'. By 1890 he is listed in the phone book as, 'Louis Wolff and co', 31 Francis street, Tottenham Court road, London, and on the 1891 census, he is now a 'Fine Art Dealer', lodging in Kentish Town, London.
In 1895, Louis marries Helena Flatau, (1870), according to the rites of the Jewish religion, and Adolph Tuck (1854), is a witness on the marriage certificate, he was married to one of Helena's elder sisters, Jeanette Flatau (1859). Adolph Tuck was one of the sons of Raphael Tuck, (1821), the founder of 'Tuck and sons', and would go on to head the Tuck and sons empire, a global business selling postcards and greetings cards. Raphael had started off as a 'Picture Dealer' in Bishopsgate, 1866, shortly after arriving in Britain, but soon saw the potential of greetings cards, and postcards, the latter proving to be the most profitable.
When Adolph launched a competition for Christmas card designs, apparently there were over five thousand entries, and in later years, many artists earned their crust by painting for Tuck and sons cards, one such artist was Henry Bowser Wimbush, mentioned in the court case against H.T.Girling here. Wimbush also disclosed in that court case how he sold the copyright to his pictures for three guineas each to Tuck and sons. This is an important factor between the dealers and artists, as once the copyright is owned, they can then reproduce these images via print editions, making vastly more than the painting on its own could ever realise.
The youngest Flatau daughter, Florence (1873), married Isaac Davis(1830), a widower, feather dealer, and philanthropist, in 1904, according to the rites of the Jewish religion at the home of Adolph Tuck, who is again a witness to the marriage on the certificate. John Ramus, Uncle to Henry Ramus, died this year, and by some coincidence, Florence and Isaac Davis are living at his old address, 5 Vale Court, Maida Vale, by at least 1909. Isaac Davis and John Ramus were both successful feather dealers, members of the Jewish faith, and related to plenty of people in the art trade. This address is .2 of a mile from the Sephardim Synagogue in Lauderdale road, Maida Vale.
By 1891, Louis and Helena are now living at 94 Regents Park Road, London, and Louis is listed as a Fine Art Dealer. This is a very prestigious address, so clearly he has been doing well with his business, Louis Wolff and co., listed in the 1908 phone book at 245 Tottenham Court Road, London. On the 1911 census, their home at 94 Regents Park Road is declared as having 15 rooms, and they have three servants, a housemaid, parlour maid, and cook. When Sir Adolph Tuck dies in 1926, he leaves his estate to Louis, and his son, Desmond Tuck, the considerable sum of £321,639.8s, and Louis is referred to as a 'Publisher' in the probate record.
Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach
Researching the Rosenbach brothers, Philip, and Abraham, has given this article an important view into the auction rooms of the time, and the world that these auction room bidders occupied, as well as the people behind them, the money men that have the financial wherewithal, but not the time to spend it themselves.(It may be worth noting that the Rosenbachs practiced as Sephardim Jews, despite being of Ashkenazi descent, and quite possibly, it was their Jewish connections which set them up on Philip's first trip to London).
With the books written by, and about, Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, as well as the online archives of immigration and census reports, I soon built up a picture of events surrounding Abraham, (Abe to his friends), and his brother, Philip. The earliest trip across to England for Philip, that I have a record for, is in 1903, when he sailed to England with Clarence Bement, (a shareholder in the newly formed Rosenbach Company), to, “establish lines of Credit”. Abraham’s first trip was in March, 1907, between them, they shuttled back and forth, first class, across the Atlantic numerous times over a thirty, odd, year period, attending major auction room sales. Abraham came for rare books, folios, and manuscripts, while Philip came to London for art, and the high life, (although in fairness his younger brother later surprised Philip in the high living stakes).
When in London, Abe had bids in his pocket from the industrial might of America, the likes of Henry E Huntington, the railway magnate, J. P. Morgan, financier and banker, Henry C Folger, an oil business man, and the Widener family of Philadelphia, among many others. In those heady days of stock market fluctuation, coupled with the emergence of America as the new financial heavyweight of global affairs, rare books, or ‘Incunabula’, were not just an expensive hobby for these extremely rich men, these books also represented a safe haven for their money, apparently unaffected by the markets ebbs and flows, and Dr Rosenbach, or 'Rosy' to his friends, had an almost unparalleled knowledge of these old books. From 1907 to 1930, the Rosenbach’s sailed between Europe and America relentlessly, gradually transferring the balance of literary power to the newly forming American libraries, paid for by the new business elite. These same men of industry, were also building art collections, seemingly competing with each other in their bid to later achieve immortality by their beneficence to the New Worlds institutions as they sought to create some meaning for their existence.
It was on the Doctor's first trip across the Atlantic on the White Star Line's 'Oceanic' to England in 1907, holding a substantial commission from the Widener's, to secure a Shakespeare First Folio at Sotheby's sale of William C Antwerp's collection, that he introduced himself to Bernard Alfred Quaritch, the recognised king of book sellers at that time. In one of his literary offerings, 'Books and Bidders', the Doctor recalls how he managed to get Quaritch to do his bidding for him, pages 84/5:-
'I crossed on the Oceanic with Alfred Quaritch, who occupied a commanding position in the book world. I was but one of the small fry, out of college only a few years. Quaritch and I had been drawn to each other by the magnet of books. On the way over we talked of the sale, and I dwelt with especial emphasis on the fine first folio of Shakespeare in Van's collection. In a way I was sounding out Quaritch, for I knew instinctively that it would be useless to bid against this giant of the auction room if he wanted the folio himself. I grew very nervous as we sat in the smoking room one evening when we were five days out. I decided I had hemmed and hawed long enough.
Finally I worked up the courage to ask him to execute a bid for me on the folio. He seemed surprised, and did not answer for some moments. Then he asked me, "How much do you intend to bid? I warn you, if it's too low I'll buy it myself." I answered weakly, "Five thousand pounds." He opened his eyes wide. "That is a bid," he said, "and I'll get it for you."
Good as his word, Quaritch won the folio for Rosy, bidding up to £3,600 at the Sotheby's auction room. In Books and Bidders (p85), the Dr writes:-
"I recall, too, Harry Elkins Widener's pleasure when this folio finally passed into his possession. I think of all the books of his fine collection, he valued this one the most"
Art writer, A.C.R. Carter, was also there that day, he recalls in 'Let Me Tell You' (p156)
'in the Van Antwerp sale, 1907, Dr Rosenbach, making his debut at Sotheby's, persuaded Alfred Quaritch to bid on his behalf for the folio which had once belonged to that dear dilettante, Frederick Locker-Lampson. Winning it at £3600, Quaritch passed it to Rosenbach, who desiring to make himself known to me handed his card inscribed Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, Philadelphia.'
With this coming up to Sampson's most prolific year yet at the auction room, and that two years hence, quite probably earlier, he was doing steady business with the Rosenbach's, I should think it quite possible that the pair would have made each others acquaintance at this time, especially given that Philip Rosenbach had made his first trip to establish lines of credit in 1903. With the Ramus, and Rosenbach, families both having Sephardim roots, (indeed their ancestors left the shores of Amsterdam within a few years of each other in the late 1700's), it's quite possible the link had been made before A.S.W. Rosenbach even arrived in England.
In January 1922, the Doctor came to London for the Britwell Library sale, a collection of rare books the like of which seldom come to auction. Over the five days of the sale, bringing £80,259, the Doctor had paid £64,697 for his lots, £16,618 was for himself, the rest on behalf of his wealthy book hound customers in the U.S. To give some idea of the amounts being bid by todays values, using a price comparison calculator, the £64,697 that the Doctor bid, would be worth between £3,190,000, and £21,200,000 now.
‘At the end of February, 1922, just before Dr. Rosenbach left for home, he gave a victory dinner at the Carlton. The small but distinguished company included E.V.Lucas, Arnold Bennett, Hugh Walpole, John Drinkwater, and William Sampson, the Doctors London crony.’.... (1)
‘With one important sale following after another in London with such frequency, the Rosenbach brothers literally shuttled across the Atlantic. No sooner did Dr Rosenbach reach home than preparations had to be made for Philip’s trip over. It had been announced that the fine First Folios which had belonged to the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, in her day the richest heiress of England, were to be sold at Christies. While he was still in London, the Doctor had suggested to Folger that they might be bought by private treaty if he were willing to offer a high enough price for them. Dr. R got back his answer in three cables spaced a day apart: “£12000 FOR TWO FOLIOS SEEMS EXCESSIVE,” “IF NECESSARY PAY £12000 USE SECOND MESSAGE IF DESIRABLE,” and “WISH FOLIOS.” The heirs of the baroness-banker felt that the disappearance of the two principle items would hurt the sale and decided to take their chance under the hammer.
The sale included portraits and relics as well as books. Sensing that publicly shown Rosenbach interest in anything might raise prices, the Doctor advised Henry Folger, who was determined to get the folios in competition which he had failed to buy privately, that he would play an unusual, unobtrusive role. The portraits would not be bought under the Rosenbach name, but under that of friend Bill Sampson, a major buyer at Christie’s, which would eliminate his competition and keep Rosenbach’s name out of the limelight:’ (2)
It is a telling comment in the Rosenbach biography, “friend Bill Sampson, a major buyer at Christie’s, which would eliminate his competition”, as strong an indication as I’ve seen so far to back up the theory that Sampson may indeed have been at the head of a dealers ring, otherwise by what method might he be able to eliminate opposition in the auction room?
When Dr. Rosenbach sailed for home aboard the Majestic from Southampton on the 23rd May 1928, William Walker Sampson, and his wife, Simeta, were also both aboard. (3)
(1)& (2)-Excerpts from Edwin Wolf, and John Fleming’s biography of A.S.W. Rosenbach, which gives a little flavour of the time, (as well as giving a contemporary mention of William Walker Sampson), pages 155/6/7.
(3)- It is on this ships passenger lists that we get a description of William, 5’7″ tall, with fair complexion, dark hair, and blue eyes. W.W names Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, 1320 Chestnut street, Philadelphia, as the friend he would be staying with, the Book King, and the Lord of the Ring.
The Knockout Judge
John Charles Darling (1849-1936) had been a lawyer and politician before becoming a High Court Judge in 1897, during which time he had gained a reputation for being erudite, impeccably dressed, and bitingly witty.
The knockout rings had long been a bone of contention for many judges of the courts before Lord Justice Darling introduced the bill to make it illegal in 1926. These auction rings, or combinations, as they were also known, were rife throughout Britain, and in Europe, covering the sales of just about anything of value. In 1872, there was a story in the Belfast Newsletter regarding a ‘knockout swindle’, exposed by ‘The Bookseller’. It stated:-
‘A first folio of Shakespeare, one of the finest copies, if not the finest copy extant, was knocked down for a little over £20. There was a combination amongst the second hand book buyers present to get it into their own hands at their own price. The confederates afterwards disposed of their treasure for £525’
In May 1903, Mr Justice Darling launched a scathing attack on the whole ring business, with the headline, ‘Saleroom Brigands- Mr Justice Darling Denounces The Ring’. The story follows:-
‘Mr Justice Darling has made an onslaught on the secret system of ‘rings’ which obtains at all kinds of auctions in this country, and especially at horse sales. The ‘ring’ system is said to be employed chiefly at auctions, where half a dozen or a dozen men can control the bidding. They have a tacit understanding among themselves that they shall not bid against each other to such an extent as to give the market price of whatever is offered for sale. After the sale the member of the ‘ring’ who has secured the article for less than its real value pays to his fellow conspirators a ransom which they divide among themselves as the price of their co-operation.
It was a horse sale in this case, that Justice Darling was bringing attention to, decrying the fact that a buyer had paid £50 for pair of horses, but also had to pay another £50 to a ring to be allowed to get it at that price. The news article finishes with one of Justice darlings comments:-
‘His Lordship added that the auction room was something like Sherwood Forest in the days of Robin Hood’
I think it fair to say that a reading of this article by ordinary working folk at the time would elicit little if any sympathy towards the sellers, especially given Justice Darling’s last comment, but these were different times, where class divisions were written in stone. These days it might even be interpreted as a rightful redistribution of wealth from the top down.
In May 1917, the art dealing partnership of Lewis and Simmons were involved in a widely reported high profile court case, presided over by Justice Darling, with Henry Edwards Huntington, the American railway magnate bringing an action against them over a painting, alleged to be of Mrs Siddons and her sister Miss Fanny Kemble, which they had sold him as having been painted by George Romney (1734-1802). It was eventually proved to have been a painting of the Waldegrave sisters, by Oziah Humphrey, (1742-1810), a lesser known portrait painter. The £20,000 which Huntington had paid Lewis and Simmons for the painting, was reimbursed with costs and interest. Maurice Lewis then publicly offered the Humphrey painting to the National Portrait Gallery. During the trial, under examination Mr Lewis stated that the picture was bought at a 'Knockout', Mr Scott examining asked, "That means when the dealer gets a picture cheap?", "sometimes", answered Lewis. When Mr Justice Darling asked for clarification, Lewis explained that a knockout meant that the dealers did not bid against each other.
In July 1926, Lord Darling introduced in the House of Lords a Bill to render illegal agreements as to bidding at auctions. And as if to prove how widespread the ‘ring’ was, the Dundee Evening Telegraph, while reporting on the proposed Bill, stated,
‘Once upon a time the “knock-out” was quite a popular game in this quarter. In Dundee there were some well known places where the participators in the “knock-out” met for the squaring of accounts and distribution of purchases’
The knock-out rings had become prevalent the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, covering every form of auction, from horses or cattle, to paintings and porcelain, and anything of value in between.
On the 29th July 1927, Lord Darling’s proposed Bill was passed in to law, making it illegal to form combinations of dealers in order to force down prices at auction.
The Death of William Walker Sampson.
Before William died on the 31st October 1929, it would seem his business must already have been suffering, as he only left ten pounds in his will, although he may have had properties. Given the time though, just two days after the, ‘Black Tuesday’, stock market crash of Wall Street, as well as the movement in the art world away from the classic realist style, to Modernism, it’s possible to see that for someone that had spent the majority of his art dealing career collecting the work of Academic and Salon Naturalist style artists, this two pronged attack would have been difficult to take. His death certificate states that he died of a heart attack, and although the symptoms of this attack can apparently often be the result of heavy drinking, A.C.R. Carter's book suggests this would be unlikely, as Carter writes of W.W:-
"Stories of his boundless hospitality are still remembered. At the beginning of the Great War, however, he made another vow- not to touch alcohol until peace was declared. He not only adhered to this adamantine resolution, but kept it right up to his death in 1929. When peace was declared he invited over one hundred friends to dine with him. It was a feast worthy of Lucullus. Everybody expected the host to join them in a glass of wine. He sat resolutely throughout, supported only by a little ginger ale. He explained that one of the thrills of life was to sit through a dinner where the wine was unstinted, and to watch the effects on the various members of the company. He said that, during the war, he had seen so many funny sights, as the only truly sober member of a convivial company, that he intended to continue this particular form of pleasure for the rest of his life.'
'The sad part of the story is that this resolute man and bold speculator in the art market could not quench the temptation to gamble on the race-course. In the end therefore, it fell about that his losses on the Turf outweighed his gains in art dealing. It is doubtful indeed whether he could have composed his affairs, and his sudden death at Brighton on October 31, 1929, at the age of sixty-five, caused many of his old admirers to reflect that he was felix opportunitate mortis.(1) As one affectionate cynic put it: "perhaps Bill Sampson had reached the point when we had not ceased to love him, but could no longer quite look up to him"
William Walker Sampson's obituary in the Times, Saturday, November 2nd, 1929:-
'Mr W.W. Sampson
Dealer in Victorian Art
The fine art trade, and more particularly picture dealers, will suffer a great loss in the death of Mr William W. Sampson, which occurred almost suddenly at his flat at Brighton on Thursday night. He was at his galleries, 7, Haymarket, London, in the afternoon and left for Brighton by the 5.35 train, apparently in good health and spirits.
Mr Sampson's career was one of the romances of the trade in picture dealing. He was born on September 6, 1864, and among his first employments was that of newspaper boy at the railway bookstall at Newcastle Upon Tyne.
As a young man he entered the employment of Dyson Lister, the old established firm of picture dealers at Harrogate, and here he remained until some 35 years ago, when he came to London and started on his own account, first in Kings street, St James's square,, then in Wardour street, in Air street, and finally in the Haymarket. With rare exceptions, "Bill" Sampson, as he was affectionately known to all his colleagues, dealt only in modern pictures, and by these are meant pictures of the Victorian period. While other dealers have more or less followed the dictates of fashion in picture collecting, Mr Sampson was always the champion of Victorian art, and the remarkable fact is he always succeeded. He probably handled more Birket Foster drawings than any other half a dozen firms in the last score of years; and his turnover in these alone must have meant a large fortune. At Christie's alone he must have spent from first to last many hundreds of thousands of pounds, and his presence there at a sale meant the success of the sale.
Mr Sampson's generosity was boundless, both private and public, and no "down and out" member of the picture trade ever appealed to him in vain for help. He was a Trustee and Vice President of the Fine Arts Provident Institution, to which on one occasion he presented 500 guineas as a thank offering for a successful business life; and in all matters of charity concerning picture dealing he was always responsive and sympathetic. His two chief hobbies were watching horse racing and Brighton: it was nearly always at Brighton that he spent his weekends. Some years ago he took into partnership his son Captain Jack Sampson, the title of the firm becoming W.W.Sampson and Son; the occasion was celebrated by a splendid banquet, to which nearly every London picture dealer was invited. He was a member of several London clubs, and a man with few, if any, enemies.
If he could have been prevailed upon to commit them to paper, his anecdotes of picture buying and selling would have formed a fascinating volume, and they were not always a matter of profits.'
In the end, it was changing fashions as much as anything else which brought the curtain down on the whole, 'Imperial Brits in Togas' market of subject painting, by which time Tadema, Godward, and the rest of the classicists, had, as Carter writes, fallen 'under a cloud of cubism'(p39).
Talking of Edwin Long, A.C.R. explains:-
'Indeed Nemesis came to Long's art when his studio remainders were sold in 1908 after the death of his widow. Just before Long died in 1891 he had completed his maximum opus, 'The Parable of the Sower', on a canvas 17 feet long and nearly 9 feet high, showing Christ preaching on the shores of Galilee.'
'Long had refused 5000 guineas for it, and so the picture remained on his widows hands. Mark the sequel. After a contest lasting exactly thirty-five seconds the late W.W.Sampson, then known as the champion of British art, won it at 125 guineas.'
This was just one early example of prices plummeting, so many others would follow as a tidal wave of modernism was sweeping away the old guard.
(1)- Happy opportunity of death. He faced ruin had he lived.
Below is a photograph of William Walker Sampson, courtesy of his Great Grand daughter, Gillian Harrison. I believe the aunt would have been Mary Ann Walker, who had come down to work at Mortlake by the 1891 census, with her own boarding house by the 1911 census.
Born John Sampson, 29th September 1890, in Newcastle, Jack, as William and Elizabeth called him, had both a privileged, and heart breaking life. By the time he was ten years old, William, in business with Henry Ramus, as 'The British Galleries', was establishing himself in the art dealing capital of the world. By the time Jack was 20, he was a Fine Art Dealer himself, probably working for William and Henry from 13 Air Street.
A few years after the death of Henry Ramus in July 1911, William renamed the company, W.W.Sampson and Son, and as his obituary states, 'the occasion was celebrated by a splendid banquet, to which nearly every London picture dealer was invited'. Jack married Dorothy Bourjeaurd in June 1915, and they had a daughter, Joan, the following year. It's difficult to imagine what Jack's relationship would have been with William's mistress, Simeta, but when his mother, Elizabeth, died in 1924, and William married Simeta the following month, I expect his focus would have been sharpened somewhat. Fast forward to 1929, and William's death, leaving Jack to clear up the mess of debts left behind, and then the death of his wife in 1930, and a fourteen year old daughter to raise alone now. In a letter from Simeta Sampson to Philip Rosenbach, dated May 4, 1932, clearly William's death, and financial problems, are still having repurcussions, it reads:-
22 Warwick Sq.
'My Dear Phil,
a thousand thanks for your great generosity. I am looking for a place where I can save some of my home and as soon as I find it I will give Charlie my address, if you come over he will be able to tell you.
You know of course Bury street is finished but, Jack and his daughter are provided for by his Great Aunt Mary (Wills Aunt). I know how you are making a great sacrifice in helping me. I cannot tell you how much it is appreciated.
Give my love to all, Nettie, Abe, Carrie
All my kindest thoughts,
So the pot wasn't empty when William died, it appears to have been filled with I.O.U's, leaving his wife, Simeta, to beg the Rosenbachs for financial support, and his son, Jack, to move in with his Great Aunt Mary, (Mary Ann Walker), having finally lost everything.
Nettie, Abe, and Carrie, were, Nettie Raines, Philip's young girlfriend, 38 years his junior, Abe Rosenbach, and his long time partner, Carrie Price.
The correspondence between Simeta and the Rosenbachs continued until 1946, through pretty harrowing times, not least of which being the second world war. I may start another page for these letters, as they tell quite a story. This letter was written on headed note paper, giving the address she shared with William, 25 Putney Hill, London.S.W.15, the address crossed out now.