British Sales 1780–1800: The Rise of the London Art Market

A collaboration between the National Gallery and the Getty Research Institute

The National Gallery has completed a collaborative project with the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, to augment records about British art sales in the crucial decades from 1780 to 1800


The disruptions caused by the French Revolution had a huge effect on the redistribution of art throughout Europe during the late 18th century. Countless important art collections, including the famous Orléans collection, were dispersed in auction sales. Since many of these auctions took place in Britain’s capital city, London developed into a major import market and soon established itself as the hub of the international art trade.

The Getty Research Institute has been conducting research into European art sales for the past 25 years, notably in relation to art sales catalogues from major cities in Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia from 1650 to 1840. The Institute has been making its findings available on the Getty Provenance Index® [external link].

In relation to British art sales, it concentrated earlier research into early 19th-century British records. By comparison, little attention was ever focussed on late 18th-century British auction records. This big gap in knowledge prevented meaningful analysis into the art markets of Great Britain, into the continuing lives of dispersed French collections, and – due to the interconnectedness of national art markets – into the development of cultural networks throughout Europe. 

In order to rectify the situation, the National Gallery and the Getty Research Institute forged a collaboration from October 2009 to August 2012. The aim of this jointly-funded project was to discover all extant British sale catalogues – in London and across the UK – and to enter them into the Index, thus significantly augmenting the coverage of one of the most powerful and important tools for scholars researching art markets and collecting practices.

British art sales catalogues

The research project, ‘British Sales 1780-1800’, has successfully added over 67,000 records from 1,408 British art auction catalogues to the Getty database: 29,000 records from the 1780s and a further 38,000 records from the 1790s. The database now contains almost 80% of known British art sales catalogues in public collections for the period.

Explore British art sales on the Getty Provenance Index® [external link]

The research

The research team worked with many institutions in the UK and abroad to find and then consult and photograph relevant holdings of catalogues from the period. Among the important archives and libraries in London, data was input from annotated auction catalogues held by the Wallace Collection, the British Library, the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum,  the Courtauld Institute and the National Archives at Kew, as well as from the National Gallery’s own substantial holdings of historic sales catalogues.

In addition, the team sourced catalogues from numerous regional UK record offices, local archives and university collections, including the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham; the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; and the Ashmolean Museum and Bodleian Library, Oxford.  Furthermore, the researchers forged close links with various foreign institutions, notably the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.


The British Sales research project has resulted in expanded coverage of British materials in the Index®. These tools will allow researchers to track patterns of taste in order to understand better cultural transfers, and to explore more fully the power of art markets. Furthermore, generating new knowledge about the history of the art market will allow greater interdisciplinary exchange among scholars from a variety of fields, including art history, economics, and cultural studies.

To highlight some of the fruits of the collaboration between the National Gallery and the Getty Research Institute, as well as to promote further research in the field, the two institutions organised a scholarly symposium at the National Gallery on 21–22 June 2013: London and the Emergence of a European Art Market (c. 1780-1820). The theme of the conference was the European art market of the later 18th century, and in particular, the ways that the market operated at both national and international levels as well as its impact on the history of collecting and taste in public and private spheres.

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