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Twentieth century dawns with record bid for brilliant filly

Tony Morris continues his look at the history of the famous auction house

An early photograph of Park Paddocks in the 1890s
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When Richard Tattersall, founder of the firm, died in February 1795, Edmund, his son and heir, was 37 years old. He had long been a full partner in the business, sharing rostrum duties with his father, and he was always going to represent a safe pair of hands when he took over.

Widely travelled, sophisticated, and as wealthy as many of his aristocratic land-owning clientele, he was never happier than when indulging his passion for hunting, but he was shrewd enough in business – smart enough to recognise that his first act on receiving his inheritance must be to dispose of the stud his father had developed.

Highflyer had bankrolled the breeding operation, but he was now dead and his successors were not delivering stock of comparable quality. Just three months after the death of Richard Tattersall, 57 lots he had bred went under his son’s hammer at Hyde Park Corner.

Edmund died in January 1810, aged only 51, an event which left the firm in the hands of his 25-year-old son Richard, who had been playing an active part since attaining his majority. The youngster acted quickly to reassure everyone it would be business as usual at Tattersalls. Within days of his father’s death he took an advertisement in the Morning Post to express the hope ‘the nobility, gentry and public at large’ would continue to bestow their favours on the new regime, adding the reminder that there were sales at the London premises every Monday and Thursday, and at Newmarket during race meetings there.

Napoleon keeps buyers at bay

Richard Tattersall II, who would eventually become familiarly known as Old Dick, remained at the helm for 45 years, steering the firm to total dominance of the British thoroughbred auction scene, while the breeding industry expanded and markets became ever more international.

He began in uncertain times, with an imminent invasion from French forces a constant fear, so that demand for cart and carriage horses was stronger than that for the luxury end of the equine trade; among the auctions conducted by Tatts in 1811, the intended dissolution of the Duke of York’s stud proved ineffective, only 13 of 35 lots changing hands, while even the proven quality of the late Duke of Grafton’s stock had only limited appeal; Whalebone, the previous year’s Derby winner, destined for notable success as a sire, fetched only 140gns.

Once the threat from Napoleon became history, there was confidence in the home industry again and every nation that had adopted thoroughbred racing wanted stock from the land where the breed had been founded and nurtured. Tattersalls sales represented the magnet that attracted buyers from around the globe.

A landmark transaction took place in 1829 with what was believed to be the first four-figure sale of an untried thoroughbred. That involved Priam, a two-year-old offered with numerous engagements; the hammer came down at 1,000gns and the colt went on to register a famous Derby victory, earning recognition as probably the best of his breed up to that time.

Sales at the Corner tended to be of the ‘bread and butter’ type, featuring every kind of horse, but Richard was prepared to travel anywhere for the jam that an auction restricted to thoroughbreds might yield.

In one particularly fruitful spell in 1837 he was at Hare Park, near Newmarket, to disperse the stud of the late Sir Mark Wood, some fancy prices including 1,010gns for the first-ever four-figure yearling, before he hotfooted it to Hampton Court to preside over the break-up of the royal stud. He bought the top-priced lot – 1828 St Leger hero The Colonel – himself for 1,050gns, but there was an ultimately much more significant deal over a filly foal who fetched only 62gns. She was Pocahontas, still revered as the most influential broodmare in the history of the breed.

Champions go under the hammer

Old Dick merited that appellation by 1855, when he was persuaded to retire and hand over the reins to his eldest son, the third Richard to run the business. It was Richard III who conducted the famous auction in 1860 which included Pocahontas’s son Stockwell and the first Triple Crown hero West Australian.

Stockwell, champion sire for the first of seven occasions that year, fetched 4,500gns, while West Australian found a French buyer for 4,000gns. And when the lease on Hyde Park Corner expired in 1865, it was he who negotiated the deal that secured a new HQ for the firm at Albert Gate in Knightsbridge, where nephew Edmund played an active role.

In that same year, at the sale of yearlings from Middle Park Stud, the nation’s top commercial nursery, Edmund elicited 1,000 guinea bids for consecutive lots through the makeshift ring at Eltham. Two years later the pair, Hermit and Marksman, finished first and second in the Derby. Also in 1867, he was charged with the responsibility of selling the late Marquis of Exeter’s stock, which included the aforementioned Pocahontas, 30 years old and barren for the last five seasons. Much to his credit, he accepted a bid of 10gns from the marquis’s heir and swiftly brought his hammer down.

The third Richard died in 1870, to be succeeded by the second Edmund, who would remain in charge until his own death in 1898. During the latter’s tenure bloodstock values increased appreciably. The highest price for an auction yearling, set at 2,500gns in 1866, lasted for ten years, then was shattered by a 4,100gns bid for a colt who was to prove very disappointing.

That sorry outcome acted as a discouragement for heavy expenditure on untried stock for a while, but in 1890 a filly from the Royal studs – now hugely successful in spite of Queen Victoria’s lack of interest – realised 5,500gns and was to prove a rare bargain at the price. She was La Fleche, winner of three Classics and an unlucky runner-up in the Derby, and her exploits served to stimulate markets to Tattersalls’ benefit.

Record prices achieved in new century

Meanwhile, the suicide of the great Victorian jockey Fred Archer in November 1886 had meant there was need for an early opportunity to dispose of his bloodstock interests. There was no sale scheduled, but the resourceful Edmund pitched for the job, and promptly announced a new sale to be staged in Newmarket. The success of what was originally envisaged as a one-off occasion led to the December Sales becoming a permanent fixture in the calendar, recognised as the world’s premier auction of breeding stock.

A third Edmund became senior partner in the firm on the death of his father, but it was as Somerville Tattersall – Sommy to his intimates – that he was known, and it was not just for his peerless skill on the rostrum that he was recognised. He was much more active as an owner and breeder than any of his predecessors, and from 1927 he shared ownership of the Manton estate with his business partner Gerald Deane.

Somerville Tattersall oversaw numerous famous occasions in the history of the firm, two of them at the dawn of the 20th century, when he conducted the auctions that dispersed the bloodstock interests of the late 1st Duke of Westminster. At Newmarket in July 1900 he accepted a record 10,000gns bid from colourful adventurer Bob Sievier for the yearling filly Sceptre, who was to earn renown as the only outright winner of four English Classics. No yearling would fetch more until 1919.

A few months earlier, at Kingsclere, he had been on the rostrum for the sale of the Westminster horses in training, whose number included the previous year’s Triple Crown victor, Flying Fox, knocked down for the fabulous sum of 37,500gns. I was present when that record was finally erased – 67 years later.

Continue reading Tales From Tattersalls . . .

Part 1: Founder owed his fortune to champion sire Highflyer

Part 3: Substantial growth in transatlantic business during Watt's tenure

Part 4: Vaguely Noble represented promise rather than celebrity

Once the threat from Napoleon became history, there was confidence in the home industry again and every nation that had adopted thoroughbred racing wa
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