Q&A: Julia Armstrong-Totten discusses The Orléans Collection as a cultural phenomenon in 18th-century London

Julia Armstrong-Totten will be among the ten scholars speaking at The Orléans Collection Symposium on January 11 and 12. She spoke with NOMA Magazine about The Orléans Collection, on view through January 27, and how this famous cache of more than 500 paintings made its way from a Parisian palace to London auctions in the 1790s, from where the collection was ultimately dispersed across the world.  

Can you summarize for our readers how these sales, caused such a sensation in London? 

Up until the time of the French Revolution, the paintings in the collection of the Duke of Orléans were made available for public viewing in the Palais-Royal, and they had become a popular tourist attraction in Paris by the end of the eighteenth century. However, by 1790, the Duke’s great-grandson, Louis Philippe Joseph d’Orléans, had amassed crushing debts, which forced him to consider selling the collection, as he had already mortgaged his other tangible assets. This Duke of Orléans was in London at the time, and rumors began circulating in local newspapers about a potential sale, although this didn’t happen immediately. But this is the point when “Orléans mania”—as I like to call it—really took hold because the public was very excited about the possibility of the paintings finding a permanent home in Britain. 

Within a couple of years, the collection was divided into two portions and sold. One of the Duke’s creditors, a French banker, acquired the Italian, French, and Spanish paintings, while a London banking syndicate acquired the Dutch, Flemish, and German paintings. Later, three British noblemen would assume a loan involving the French banker’s paintings, so unexpectedly, both portions would end up in London and be put on display at events called private contract sales. The first one contained those paintings acquired by the London banking syndicate and was organized by their agent, the gentleman-dealer Thomas Moore Slade. These paintings went on view in April 1793, and this immediately became a blockbuster exhibition. Keep in mind that there was no venue regularly open to the public that featured top-notch Old Master paintings. The National Gallery in London would not open until 1824. Because the Orléans Collection was already internationally famous, the exhibition reportedly tempted visitors from all over the country to travel to the capital city and take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some of these legendary paintings. 

Why was the “private contract sale” such an innovation? 

While the expression “sale by private contract” existed throughout the eighteenth century, and referred to other types of transactions, especially those involving real estate, in 1786 an art speculator called Noel Desenfans adopted the idea of applying the phrase to long-term exhibitions in which some or all the works of art on display were privately for sale. A catalog or price list was typically printed as a guide for perspective buyers. Furthermore, an entrance fee was charged to give the event a feeling of exclusiveness, but it also provided additional income if sales lagged. 

The most successful of these types of events included works of art that attracted a paying crowd, like the paintings from the Orléans Collection. Since private contract sales did not have to be registered with the Excise Office, like auctions, the proprietor had complete control over all aspects of the events. They became extremely popular at a time when the art market was flooded with important paintings from the continent, because they allowed buyers time to contemplate a potentially expensive purchase.  

Julia Armstrong-Totten traced the present locations of paintings from the Orléans Collection. She contributed the appendix and an essay to the catalog, which is for sale in the Museum Shop or online.