1772, the sale of Choiseul art collection

Disgraced by the King Louis XV because of political affairs and Court intrigues, the Duke of Choiseul
[1] was ordered to retire to his estate at Chanteloup (nearby Amboise) from 1770. Thus, with no more income from the King and to keep up with his princely lifestyle, Choiseul had not but the choice to sell the major part of his prized paintings in 1772, seen as a “sacrifice” (by his wife[2]) after ten years collecting according to the leading taste.  

The analysis of this 1772 sale will help us to consider the reality of the art marketing at that time. Studying the auction catalogue, written by the painter J. F. Boileau[3], raises some questions: first of all, the layout and its meaning at the time of the birth of the art marketing; and secondly, the taste of the owner and the ones of the buyers, in view of the financial report. There are thus two main topics to tackle: the marketing side and the financial one, both very characteristic of this well-known auction.



An auction is always organized to make profits, especially when the collector is in need for money. In fact, Choiseul was in economic failure at the end of his life and needed more income to maintain his luxurious way of life. Editing a catalogue was thus necessary to attract more clients and advertise the sale. Hence, such a publication are hidden many intentions aimed at promoting the sale. Nothing was done arbitrarily: from the front page, to the overall layout, every single aspect of the catalogue was studied carefully to influence the client and persuade the amateur to buy. That is the very idea of marketing. Henceforth, we will apply this marketing theory to the 1772 catalogue and see how it worked for a painting sale. We may wonder how eighteenth century advertising worked and developed. Furthermore, what were the dealers’ methods of persuasion? In other words, how did the commercialisation of art developed?

First of all, the look, design, structure and layout of the catalogue was part of a successful advertising scheme. A series of engraving of Choiseul paintings was done by Basan
[4] a year before the sale and can be considered as a promoting instrument as well as the sale catalogue. At a time of newspaper expansion and trade card development, graphic display proved to be more and more important to advertise the public[5]. It is thus obvious that the layout of our catalogue was consciously organized. The listing classifies the different schools of painting, and is, then, subdivided with the name of each artist. The name of the painter is written in large capital letter and “separated from the main body of the text by a blank space, which helps them to stand out”[6]. Then, at the beginning of each line, appears the lot number, followed by the subject of the painting. The description is often embroidered with many adjectives such as “riche”, “précieux”, “étonnant”, “belle execution”… and sometimes almost poetic explanations. Lot 13 and 14 are the most significant ones, and justify very well the statement of K. Pomian: “the longer the description the greater the status of the painting”[7]. In fact, the 34 lines description for Gerard Dou couple of paintings was such a eulogy that the price went up to 19153 and 17300 livres. Then there is often an aesthetic commentary, which consists of the remarks and observation of the dealer who organize the sale (Boileau for instance). At the time of Gersaint, “the aesthetic commentary on a painting was more important that the actual description. This was in general not the case for later writers, who always devoted more space to the purely descriptive part than to any eventual commentary”[8]. Afterwards the dealer announces the size of the paintings in feet, which is another proof of the very methodical and systematic presentation of the work of art. Eventually, the capital letter specifies the medium used (B. for wood, C. copper, T. canvas). Even though the lot number, the size of the canvas and the medium used, are specific elements, the way picture are described and the commentaries are still creative writing more than methodical approach. However, we may wonder of this literary style was not part of a marketing technique, a way to convince and persuade the buyer. “This new layout made for added clarity and readability, but it was not simply the style of presentation which changed.”[9] This evolution revealed a genuine choice for a new methodical approach, although we are still far from a totally objective description. Considering XVIIIth century catalogues and the very novelty of advertising for a sale, it is obvious that the marketing process was very close to an “art du discourse”, a kind of literary genre. In other words, promoting the auction houses reflected an ability to sell, but also the talent of discourse and communication. Thus, marketing is becoming at this point a genuine economy of persuasion. Observing the rise of marketing in the XVIII century is furthermore investigating “psychology of desire and the economy of persuasion”[10]. The same author quotes the idea of “the economy as a conversation”. Boileau’s descriptions in our catalogue are exactly a conversation in order to promote paintings.


Regarding Boileau’s catalogue, we can define advertising as a way of selling culture by making it desirable. In other words, the catalogue is aimed to create desire for paintings. “Thus new merchandising and advertising techniques of the eighteenth century displayed goods to convey messages of discriminating taste”[11] Advertising is becoming an art on its own. And, in Boileau’s catalogue there are two ways of selling this culture: the aesthetic commentary, which is part of the description, and is always there; but more convincingly, and less present is the interpretation of the picture. For instance, lot 13 (sold for the high price of 19152 livres), has got a long description, but we can read: “son caractère de tête exprime le chagrin & l’inquiètude”. Neither a regular description of the illustration, neither a purely aesthetic eulogy, this very account is an interpretation, a kind of analysis, showing to the client a deepest meaning of the painting. And, not surprisingly, each time this kind of comprehensive interpretation is given in the description of a lot, the price went higher!

Another worth noticing remark is for lot 33, the top lot of the all sale (37400 livres). There, Boileau basically said that the painting is so famous that he will not do an eulogy: “le mérite de ces deux tableaux est assez connu des Amateurs pour se dispenser de faire l’éloge de leur touché & de leur belle couleur”. In other words, if this couple of painting was sold for a very high price, it is not due to the dealer’s explanation, nor the description, but only thanks to its own fame! Again, this proves the lack of professionalism of the dealer.

Another technique used by Boileau is to start by the aesthetic commentary, rather than the description. It is the case for lot 50. Starting by “ce riche tableau, d’une grande composition d’un site agréable & d’une belle couleur, représente…”  disturb the usual order. As well, instead of giving the size « il porte… », he dare say “sa grandeur extraordinaire..”. Thus interrupting the usual and methodical order of lot description, Boileau is trying to emphasize the specificity of the painting. The idea worked, Philippe Wouvermans painting was sold for the very high price of 20700 livres. This is also the case for lot 71 ( a hunting scene sold for 27400 livres), where the description starts by “ce précieux tableau”. It is worth noticing that almost all the high price lots, were starting by “ce précieux tableau” (lot 71), or “ce beau tableau” (lot 42) instead of  “Ce tableau”. However, this concern for advertising and promoting the paintings hide an important deficiency: the content of the descriptions and the quality of the explanations seem barely convincing; there is thus an obvious lack of connoisseurship.

Boileau[12], although he supervised this very famous sale, was not a professional dealer. He did not take charge of any other auction at that time in Paris. He was primarily a painter himself and also the main supplier and advisor of the Duke. Not surprisingly, the account he gave of each painting lack of knowledge. This is more obvious when one read his aesthetic commentaries: the works “beau fini”, “agréable”, “bel effet”, are repeated for every lot. These accounts are thus not at all specific, neither particular. The only thing Boileau is doing is describing what he sees, giving an eulogy of the painting (in order to sell it), measuring the size, and noticing the medium used. There is nothing professional in his account. Art dealer, at that time, are not surprisingly not expert yet, neither specialized in any way!

Having studied the marketing aspect and see the rise of advertising at that time, we will now consider the financial aspect of the sale. Thus, we will take into consideration the price made by each painting and assume the leading taste of that time in Paris.  

 The financial aspect of the sale seems as important as the marketing characteristics. And if the auction was so successful and gathered the phenomenal sum of 403960 livres, it is first of all thanks to the renown of the collector and his very fashionable collection.  Six paintings were negotiated between 10000 and 20000 livres, eleven between 5000 and 10000 and fifty-nine between 1000 and 5000 livres: the auction was an exceptional success.

Choiseul’s paintings were very celebrated and his aesthetic tastes were considered as exemplary[13]. That is the main reason for the success of the sale. In facts, it is obvious with the catalogue that the leading taste of that time went for Dutch and Flemish paintings (78% of the paintings). The following scheme emphasizes this importance of Northern school, compared to Italian, Spanish, French and German paintings.  


Even if there were only five Italian paintings, there were very fine ones, amongst which were to be found a Titan and two Salvator Rosa, The 23 French paintings reflect as well the taste and consumption of that time. French Great Masters Paintings were very appreciated by collectors and, in 1772, sold for more than 43400 livres (10% of the total benefit of the sale), amongst which the contemporary painters: Greuze (four paintings, 16 950 livres) and Hubert Robert (three paintings, 2121 livres).

But, what is the most sticking is the high proportion of Northern school painting, epitomizing the taste of that time. 113 paintings out of 147 are Flemish and Dutch. Northern painters such as Van Dyck, Jordaens, Rembrandt and Gérard Dou (to be found amongst the first lots of the sale, for marketing purpose) were very sought-after by collectors. Furthermore, the top lots of the sale were the paintings by David Teniers (lots 31 to 40) and Philips Wouwerman (lots 50 to 58). For instance, the hunting scene by Wouwerman (Chasse au cerf) which was one of the most renowned painting of that time by its quality, subject and style, sold for 20700 livres. The third higher price went for a Paul Potter hunting scene: 27400 livres. We can infer from this last example, that sometimes the subject was more important than the renown of the painter or the size of the picture (3,9 x 2,7 pieds).

Moreover, genre scenes as well as landscapes were very fashionable, and were the higher prices. 70 paintings of landscape (from countryside views, to seascapes) were sold and 56 genre scenes; respectively 47% and 38% of all paintings. In facts, 1770’s amateurs had a known predilection for fijnschilder (fine manner painting), and Italian style painting[14]. Genre scenes were very well reprewsented in his collection: he sold six paintings by Metzu, five by Gerard Terburg and four remarkable pictures of Adrien Van Ostade.


XVIIIth century collectors and the Duke were also keen on Northern landscape depicted with an Italian manner (payasage nordique italianisant) which were represented by a painting by Cornelis Peolembourg, three by Bartolomeus Breemberg and Flemish masters such as Nicolas Berghem (six paintings) and Carle Dujardin (five). Flemish landscapes composed another important part of the collection: Ruisdael, Paul Potter and Adriaen Van de Velde.

Having said that, the size of the painting was seemingly also important in the Duke’s choices. In facts, most of the valuable lots are small paintings. According to Véronique Moreau, contemporary collectors were displaying their paintings in their houses and lived amongst their collection[15]. Small size paintings were thus more eligible to decorate one’s living room!




            Choiseul 1772 sale was therefore both a marketing and a financial event. Having considered the catalogue of the sale, some obvious characteristics come out: first of all, eighteenth century advertisement relied very much on text, and thus on an “economy of persuasion”. Furthermore, this marketing advance is very much corresponding with the contemporary development of eye-catching shop front, and trade cards. Striking for the contemporary eye is also the fact that the aesthetic quality overtakes the provenance. Regarding the evolution of the catalogues, XVIIIth century ones gained in precision and classification, while the art market became a real business. In Choiseul catalogue, each painting is classified very accurately, according to a very specific scheme and hierarchy. 

Furthermore, Choiseul’s collection was perfectly reflecting XVIIIth century Parisian taste, with his predilection for Northern landscape, genre scene and small size paintings. Also striking is the change of taste: in XVIIIIth century collection, Italian mythological and historical life-size paintings, allegorical representations became less fashionable than landscape and small genre scenes.

[1] Under Louis XV, he was successively, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1758 – 1761); Secretary of State for War (1761–1770); Secretary of State for the Navy (1761 – 1766); Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1766 – 1770).

[2] “Le sacrifice de ses tableaux est un sacrifice énorme, mais il le fait de bonne grâce ». Mme de Choiseul letter adressed to the Duke de Gontaut. Published in G. Maugras, 1903, P.174.

[3] Apparently anonymous, he did not supervise any other sale at that time. He is only described as a “Peintre de S. A. S. Monseigneur le Duc d’Orléans ». 

[4] Recueil d’estampes gravées d’après les tableaux du cabinet de Mgr le duc e Choiseul par les oins du Sr Basan, Paris, chez l’auteur, rue et hotêl Serpente, 1771.

[5] For further details about this phenomenon in England, see the article ‘Art and its markets’, in Art market in Europe, 1400 - 1800, eds Michael North & David Ormond (Ashgate, 1998) p188.

[6] Krzysztof Pomian (Polity Press, 1990) p.142

[7] Krzysztof Pomian (1990), p.141

[8] Ibid, p.142

[9] Ibid., p.142

[10] Art market in Europe, 1400 - 1800 (1998), p.188

[11] Art market in Europe, 1400 – 1800 (1998), p.189

[12] Nicolas-François-Jacques BOILEAU (1720 – 1785).

[13] Chanteloup, un moment de grâce autour du Duc de Choiseul (Paris, 2007) p.217

[14] Véronique Moreau. Chanteloup, un moment de grâce autour du Duc de Choiseul (Somogy, édition d’art. Paris, 2007) pp 213 – 223

[15] Ibid., (2007) p218.