House sales have always been among the things that the major auctioneers do best, especially when those sales involve dispersing collections amassed by 'great' families that have spent generations living in equally 'great' properties. In the halcyon years they happened on site, the viewing days giving the local proleteriat what might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to infiltrate 'the big house' in order to discover how the other half lived. And even if the way they lived wasn't especially interesting, the auctioneer could usually create the image of a charmed existence simply by dragging a few forgotten objects from dusty attics, applying liberal helpings of sweet-smelling beeswax to long neglected furnishings and generally 'dressing' often long-abandoned rooms to make them feel lived in.
With the contents of many such homes now scattered as far and wide as the families they once belonged to, really good house sales have become a rarity - but on March 24, Sotheby's will stage one that sits with the very best 'end of an era' auctions, both in terms of the diversity of the objects being offered and the people who amassed them.
Not happening on site but as a live, online sale conducted from the firm's New Bond Street rooms (for obvious reasons), the event will see 385 lots cross the block from the collection of the late Patricia, second Countess Mountbatten of Burma, who died in 2017 aged 93.
The eldest daughter of Louis, First Earl Mountbatten of Burma - famously beloved great uncle of Prince Charles and the last Viceroy of India (as recently portrayed by Hugh Bonneville in TV's The Viceroy's House) - Countess Mountbatten's family tree follows a direct line back to Queen Victoria, her great, great grandmother.
Combine that with the lineage of her husband, academy award-nominated film producer John Knatchbull, seventh Lord Brabourne (the man behind film versions of A Passage to India, Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express) and add-in a Kent estate owned by his family since 1485, and you have all the necessary ingredients for a blue-chip sale.
The pair enjoyed a varied and often glittering lifestyle as part of the highest echelon of British society (bridesmaids at their 1946 wedding including Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, with Prince Philip among the ushers) and were among few married couples in England to each hold peerages and to have each landed great inheritances. Among his was Mersham le Hatch, a Robert Adam house furnished by Thomas Chippendale and crammed with objects with links to a range of people as diverse as the explorer Sir Joseph Banks, writer Jane Austen and the Marquesses of Sligo.
Countess Mountbatten brought treasures handed down from her grandfather, the Edwardian financier Sir Ernest Cassell, and pieces formerly housed in her parent's Art Deco penthouse on London's Park Lane. They tastefully mingled them in Newhouse, the 18th century family home in the grounds of Mersham le Hatch which they shared for the best part of 60 years and where they raised their children, on whose behalf the objects are now being dispersed. Countess Mountbatten bore eight, but one, Anthony, died at birth in 1952 and another, Nicholas, died aged 14 in the 1979 IRA bomb blast that destroyed the family's fishing boat off the coast of Sligo, Ireland. It also killed Earl Mountbatten, 15-year-old crew member Paul Maxwell and Countes Mountbatten's mother-in-law, Lady Brabourne.
The Countess and Nicholas's twin, Timothy, were both seriously injured. Sotheby's has valued the lots to be sold at around £1.5m - but that is based on decidedly conservative estimates and, as is typical with such auctions, there will inevitably be some stellar prices. Here are a few of the more interesting items:
1. Pig-shaped evening bag. This gold mesh purse by Parisian maker Lacloche Freres belonged to Edwina Mountbatten (mother of the Countess). Its spine,tail and trotters are set with diamonds. Estimate: £2,000 - 3,000.
2. Tutti Frutti jewellery. Some of these items were inherited from Edwina, who was renowned as one of the world's best-dressed women and was famously photographed by Cecil Beaton wearing a Cartier Tutti Frutti tiara (not on sale here). Estimate £40,000 - 60,000.
3. Gold and enamel elephants. These elephants, made in Jaipur in 1946, recall Lord Mountbattens' time as Britain's last Viceroy of India and carry a hand-written dedication from him to his wife on the occasion of their 24th wedding anniversary. Estimate £2,000 - 4,000.
4. Faberge inkwell. Another anniversary gift, this Faberge inkwell was given by the Countess to her husband in 1966, 20 years after their marriage. Estmate £2,000 - 3,000.
5. Faberge table clock. Lord Mountbatten was closely related to Russian royalty and was the nephew of the last Tsarina. This late 19th/early20th century Faberge clock came from the Countess' bedroom at Newhouse. Estimate £15,000 - 25,000.
6. Japanese robot toy. This Masudaya Radicon Robot from 1957 retains its original box and was a gift from Lord Mountbatten to his grandchildren. Estimate £4,000 - 6,000
7. Bureau on Chippendale stand. This Indian laid miniature bureau was a Knatchbull heirloom - but the unique stand on which it sits is probably more noteworthy, having been specifically commissioned by the family from Thomas Chippendale (at a cost of £4). Estimate: £40,000 - 60,000.
8. Bronze Buddha. This two-foot tall bronze and parcel gilt Ming dynasty figure of a Buddha was inherited from the Countess' father-in-law, the Fifth Baron Brabourne, who served as temporary Viceroy of India for four months in 1938. Estimate £15,000 - 20,000
9. Sibyl, by Frederic, Lord Leighton. Lord Leighton is thought to have been inspired to paint this portrait of Sibyl, mythology's wise and powerful woman, having seen Michelangelo's depictions of five Sibyls from different cultures in Rome's Sistine Chapel. Estimate £20,000 - 30,000
10. Mills Bomb lighter. This solid silver cigar lighter dates from 1917 and was made by the Birmingham firm of Deakin & Francis. It takes the form of a WWI Mills No. 5 hand grenade, 75 million of which were manufactured. Estimate £200 - 300
11. Naval telescope. This George III Naval telescope dating from around 1760 belonged to the celebrated Admiral of the Fleet Sir Richard Howe, famed for his victory in the Battle of the Glorious First of June, 1794. Estimate £3,000 - 4,000
12. Lord Mountbatten maquette. This 72cm high maquette was a study for the nine foot five inch bronze sited at 'Mountbatten Green' off London's Horse Guard's Road. Created by Czech sculptor Franta Belsky and erected in 1983, its left leg hides a jam jar containing coins as well as press cuttings and details of the commission. Estimate £300 - 500.
13. Silver 'aeroplane' document case'. This elaborate case was made to hold the 1934 address to Lord Brabourne from the District Board of Bijapur asking for financial help to overcome economic problems in the district of Karnatak. The engine compartment is hinged, the propeller turns and the wings fold (manufacturer's instructions still present). Estimate £1,000 - 1,500
14. Toy trunks. This lot holds 34 different games dating from the late 20th century - but the larger of the two trunks in which they are contained has the distinction of being made by Asprey and appeared as a prop in the 1978 film Death on the Nile. It was used by actor Simon MacCorkindale in his role as Simon Doyle. Estimate £400 - 600
15. 1967 Jaguar 420. Ordered new by Lord Mountbatten and delivered to him in 1967, this Jaguar saloon was finished in a personalised paint colour called 'Special Mountbatten Blue'. He kept it for just two years, after which it had multiple owners before being re-acquired by the family in 2008. Estimate £10,000 - 20,000.