Topics > People in History > William Walker Sampson. Illegitimate Tynemouth born lad goes on to head major art ring from Christie's auction rooms, London

William Walker Sampson. Illegitimate Tynemouth born lad goes on to head major art ring from Christie's auction rooms, London


Andy Ramus

January 2016

(This is an edited version, the full work in progress is here- )






            While researching my family tree, I discovered previously unknown links to a Sephardim Jewish heritage, interconnected with the art market of the late Victorian and Edwardian era. Through my Great Grandfather, Henry Ramus (1872 - 1911), I unearthed a story which emanates outward from Christie’s auctions room, and his business partner, one of their greatest art dealers, William Walker Sampson (1864-1929), which illuminated the practices among many established dealers of the time, known as the ‘Knockout’, and auction ‘Ring’. Through these dealers, we see connections from British Royalty, American oil, railway, and banking magnates, all the way down to the poorest streets of London, from which Dickens drew many of his tales.



Investigating other Christie’s dealers of the time revealed patterns of buying, and a concentration of certain artists and styles. Favoured artists such as J.W.Godward, T.S.Cooper, B.W.Leader, W.P.Frith, and others of the, mainly, British ‘Modern’ School, would be bought within the ring, and taken on tours of the provinces by dealers to publicise their acquisitions, promoting the lucrative market of reproductions. With the networks of dealers and commission agents providing outlets throughout the country, we can map the far reaching tentacles of the Ring via the railway lines of the United Kingdom, and luxury ocean liners around the world.


The Ring Explained


            A web article showed Henry Ramus had been in business with W. W. Sampson as fine art dealers during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.[2]  The same article named W. W. Sampson as being head of an art cartel, or, ‘Ring’ leader. Researching Sampson led me to a closer understanding of the mystery of the auction, “Ring”, and the “Knock-out,” (or ‘combination’ as it was also referred to). Further research in to other potential ring dealers brought striking results, highlighting extensive Jewish family connections, and Hampstead, London, as a hot bed for art dealers, many having migrated from the densely populated East End of London, and generally not far from a synagogue.


            The remit here, is not to discuss the morality of a dealer’s Ring (it wasn’t illegal at the time) but to demonstrate that there is compelling evidence pointing to Sampson being the “Ring Master” of the London auction scene at this time, and head of the most prolific Ring of this period, until his death in 1929 in Brighton.  Below are descriptions which give the reader an idea of what the Ring represented:


The aim of the ‘Ring,’ usually consisting of a group of dealers, is to reduce the competition and buy the intended work(s) for lower prices than would be achieved in a truly competitive marketplace; that is, beneath real market value. The members of the ring rather than the original vendor and auctioneer, therefore reap the financial benefits.[3]


Dealer V Connoisseur

A story in the Nottingham Evening Post, 1909, headed, 'DEALER V CONNOISSEUR, TESTATORS DESIRE TO DEFEAT DEALERS "RINGS"', tells of the effort to beat the ring by having a sale held at Derby, rather than London, where apparently, the rings reigned supreme. The deceased had stated this desire in his will. The article however, explains,

'The question affects all the classic sales in London of pictures, prints, silver, coins, and the like. The great dealers concerned with the traffic in these objects have and do, and probably will continue to control the market in them when any famous lot is to be sold'

Under the sub heading, 'HOW THE "RINGS" WORK', it explains:

 '"It means hundreds of thousands a year to someone or another," he said, "but I do not see how you can alter things. It is all business, and the machinations of the members of these rings do not alter the market prices, though they may lower the profits of a collector who sells. If Mr Bemrose’s executors think they are going to escape the "ring" by selling at Derby instead of London, they are very much mistaken. Why, I have seen many a knockout auction held in a railway carriage after a provincial sale'.

Finally, the expert tells his interviewer,

'The "ring" and the "knock out", it appears, are intimately connected. A member of the "ring" secures the object, cheaply', and then, 'In a tavern or railway carriage, or in a set of chambers, the confederates afterwards hold a "knock-out" auction, when the picture, or whatever it is, can be bought from the original buyer. Meanwhile the connoisseur, who really wants the object, is still waiting somewhere- anxious and ignorant'.[4]



The topic of knockouts and the Ring from R. Chichester-Clark’s perspective, as he debated the issue in the House of Commons in 1964, is enlightening:



There was the knockout graphically described by the Sunday Times as having taken place in the “hired snug” in a hotel. There, it is said the ring had a poor day because after the first round those who dropped out received only £1 apiece. However, it is accepted I think, that the first round of some knockouts can be very exciting indeed. Three or four dealers may still confront one another; they are the experts in their subjects; and the ultimate share-out in the would-be final round can be about £1,000 apiece. Small wonder the one of those who, I believe, has been engaged in this practice described the process as ‘twice as exciting as poker.’”[5]




W. W. Sampson, the Early Days


            William Walker Sampson was born illegitimately in Tynemouth on the 6th of September, 1865, to Margaret Walker.  On February 9, 1869, Margaret married Charles Sampson, both of them aged twenty-four, with Charles’ profession given as ‘Mariner.’ Charles and Margaret were married at the parish church of Tynemouth, Northumberland, a maritime and mining community, and by the 1871 census, they were living at Little Bedford Street, Chirton, Northumberland.  William then had the Sampson surname added to his full name.


            William became the adopted son of Charles Sampson, and was raised in Tynemouth and Newcastle.  According to his obituary in the London Times, one of William’s first jobs was as a newspaper boy on the streets outside the Newcastle-Upon-Tyne railway station. By the 1881 census, at the age of seventeen, and living at Beech Street, Newcastle, William was noted as being a ‘stationer’.


             A. C. R. Carter, who started writing for art trade journal, The Years Art, from 1887, wrote of Sampson in his book of reminiscences.  Having clearly known William as a friend, he recounts memories that W. W. had shared with him, beginning with the first time a young Sampson was captivated by art.  He saw his first art gallery on a school trip and how he skipped the feast laid-out for the boys to sneak a second glance at Sir John Everett Millais’ 1867 canvas of Jephthah’s Daughter.[6]



Although William Walker Sampson was merely a dealer, yet he grew up to be the auction champion of British art…

[He] “Vowed another vow that if ever he became a rich man (he was then selling newspapers in the streets), he would try to buy that picture by Millais.”[7] 


The picture, in essence sealed his fate as someone who must be surrounded by paintings.





            Around 1891, William and family head south to Harrogate[8] where he stayed with (Major) John Potts and his sister Fanny. They were from a wealthy coal owner’s family, of Wallsend, Newcastle.  John was a retired Major of the Northumberland Light Infantry Militia by this time, and was living at Bedford Lodge in Harrogate.  Sampson’s occupation interestingly is now stated as ‘solicitor’ an attorney.  His wife and son were staying as guests at Mortlake, Surrey, during this census, at the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Fife, where William’s aunt and sister, Mary Walker and Lizzie Sampson, were servants, as was his wife’s sister, Nellie. A curious, and very interesting fact, considering the value of ‘inside contacts’ when it came to aristocracy and their art collections.


Sometime after this he began his art and picture dealing career, employed by Mr Dyson Lister of No's 8 and 9 Montpelier Parade in Harrogate.[9] 


            When Major Potts died five years later in 1896 he named William Walker Sampson as one of the executors of his will, which amounted to just under £6,000, a small fortune at the time.  The Yorkshire Gazette reported:-


'A Yorkshire will:- By his will, dated Feb 10 1896, Major John Potts, of Bedford Lodge, Harrogate, who died on 14th Feb, bequeathed to the National Gallery, free of legacy duty, his picture of "Cleopatra going to meet Mark Antony";, to his sister Fanny £100, the furniture of his drawing room, and of her bedroom, and £4000; to Elizabeth Mary Deeley of Teddington, £50; and to Mr W. W. Sampson's son, John, £300. All residue of his property, the value of personalty being £5,884, 19s 7d, Major Potts left to Mr Wm. Walker Sampson of King Street, St James Square, (London), formerly of Harrogate, one of the Executors.'[10]



At the time of discovery, this was the earliest reference thus far of Sampson in London, and in Major Potts probate record, W. W. is stated as being a “Fine Art Dealer,” also the first reference to this fact. (It also provides a tantalizing clue as to the possible identity of Sampson’s actual father). Certainly sometime between the time he came to Harrogate in 1891 and his first buy at Christie’s in 1895, Sampson had made his move.  This elevation to a larger stage would have a monumental effect on the London art market, strengthening its hold as the auction capital of the world.


Sampson at Christie’s


            The earliest known account of W. W. at auction was from the London Times of July 22, 1895.  There he is recorded as having paid 150 Guineas at the Christie’s King Street sale on behalf of the late Coleridge J. Kennard, for Sheep Entering a Shed by the French Barbizon painter, Charles Emile Jacque (1813-1894). At this auction he was very much the new kid among the major established art dealers of the time, such as Thomas Agnew, Arthur Tooth, and James Theodore Vokins, as well as his former employer, Dyson Lister.  We must assume that Sampson’s finances were greatly assisted by Major Potts, as it would be doubtful in the extreme for him to have amassed the necessary funds to have firmly established himself in London on the wage of a junior solicitor.


            It was again in the London Times of March 23, 1896, a little over a month after the death of Major John Potts, that William began to flex his newly acquired financial muscle, picking up Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s A Roman Scribe Writing Dispatches for 325 Guineas.  In the auction room that day were, Arthur Tooth of No’s 5 and 6 Haymarket, and Thomas McLean of No.7 Haymarket, both art dealers with more than a passing interest in Tadema already.  This was the beginning of a taste for Alma-Tadema’s paintings that Sampson would continue to back for nearly the next thirty-five years, as well as Tadema’s younger protégé, John William Godward (1861-1922). 




The Synagogue connection


            A little after this time, recorded links between William and Henry Ramus begin to appear.  When Henry married May Simmons on the 21st of December 1899, their address was given as 21 Mecklenburgh Square, London, with Henry noted as being an “Art Dealer.”  In the 1901 census, W. W. Sampson, along with his wife and son, are also now living at 21 Mecklenburg Square.  Sampson’s occupation is given as “Fine Art Dealer.”  Living at the same address in 1891[11], was Henry’s Uncle Benjamin Ramus, whose second wife, Rose (Simmons nee Solomons) was the mother of Henry’s wife, May.


            Henry came from a Sephardim[12] Jewish family, arrived from Amsterdam in June 1793. He was related by marriage to art dealers, Nathan Mitchell, (1862-1945), Louis Wolff, (1859-1938), Isaac Simmons, (1869-1928), and Maurice Angel Isaacs, (1874-), (both of Lewis and Simmons), Isaac Percy Mendoza, (1846-1897), of James Street Galleries, King Street, and Joseph Nathan, (1838-1905), of the Burlington Gallery, all had become big players in the London art dealing world, and were followers of the Jewish faith. It’s no coincidence that they all lived around Hampstead, and not far from the Sephardim synagogue in Lauderdale road, having made their way out of the impoverished eat end of London. Each family had an extensive network of art dealers and commission agents, and a history in the business.





The Case of a Bankrupt Dealer


           By 1907 W. W. Sampson had become Britain’s leading wholesale fine art dealer “to the trade.”  His specialty was modern British and Continental pictures. By modern was meant art from about 1850 to that time of a realistic and representational manner.  Towards the end of his life, the kind of modern art he championed had become severely challenged by the new Modernist (avant-garde) paradigm.



            Here are a few extracts of a court case reported in 1907, giving a glimpse into the art dealing world which William Walker Sampson inhabited, as well as providing evidence of a business connection between Sampson and Nathan Mitchell, (related by marriage to Henry Ramus).


            During the case, which brings to the dock, artists, dealers, patrons, and commission agents, as witnesses, it is the evidence of Girling and son which shines a light on the activities of art dealers of the time, and both William Walker Sampson, and Nathan Mitchell are cited in the defendant’s evidence. During the giving of evidence, both the Girling's talk of Sampson and Mitchell in such a way as to suggest they saw no difference between one and the other, as if they were a partnership.


Under cross examination, Girling gives his account:-


(Friday, July 26.)


‘Between September, 1904, and then, (when he went bankrupt) I was helping Mr. W.W. Sampson in Air Street, Piccadilly.’

'I have sold "Green Leaves," Mr. Farquharson's picture, to Mr. N. Mitchell, a dealer, in Copthall Avenue; I believe for £130, part pictures and part cash. I could not tell you exactly; it may have been £20 or £30 cash. That money was laid out in other pictures. The pictures from Mr. Mitchell we exchanged for others. It is a recognised thing in the fine art trade that we do not sell for cash. Another picture which I bought from Mr. Farquharson for £16, I sold to Mr. Mitchell for £30 cash. I gave £10 to my son, the rest I kept. That was my own picture, which I had paid for. The one I bought for £45, "The Forest of Glenquoich," I did a deal with Mr. Sampson; no cash, but all pictures. The £16 picture was bought in July, 1906. Between November, 1904, and January, 1905, I went to Mr. Sampson's, buying for him on commission. When Mr. Sampson had sufficient pictures I was done with him. I had only a certain number to buy. I have paid Mr. Sampson over £30,000 in his time.'[13]

If the minor art dealer H.T.Girling had £30,000 worth of business with W.W.Sampson, and Sampson had commerce with a myriad of other art dealers, his slice of the art market must have been formidable.


1907-08 A Turning Point

               In the Daily Telegraph of Monday, Feb 3rd 1908, William Walker Sampson was proclaimed, 'The Champion of Modern Art'. This was almost certainly written by A.C.R. Carter, editor of, 'The Years Art', who also happened to write art reviews for the Daily Telegraph, and following the strongest yet showing by Sampson at Christie's that season. He had won bids on 161 paintings at Christie's for the 1907 season at the time this story went to press, and 75 in the first five weeks of 1908. His total haul at Christie's for the season between Nov 1907 and July 1908, was an astounding 619 lots of paintings and drawings, (no reproductions), more purchases than any other single dealer that season. As the leader of any auction ring, it makes sense that he would have been the most prolific buyer. The next highest buyers for this Christie’s season were, Agnew (495), Mitchell (280), Gooden and Fox (235), Leggatt Brothers (234), and Edwin Parsons and Sons (181).

'Art Price Current 1907-08'

January 18.
Ancient and modern pictures and drawings, the property of Mr Thomas Maclean, 7 Haymarket, S.W, sold owing to his retirement from business:-

                 33 of the pictures and drawings were knocked down to Sampson this day, and the point where he picked up the baton from Thomas Maclean as leading buyer of J.W.Godward paintings, with the winning bid for all six on offer, which were:-

An Egyptian Slave 36 & 1/2" circle  £32.11s
Thoughts Far Away 20" x 8 & 3/4"  £9.9s
Ethel  19" x 6&1/2"  £6.6s
A Pompeian Beauty 7&1/2" x 4&1/4" £9.9s
Reverie  10&1/2" x 5&1/2"   £9.9s
After the Bath 6&1/2"    £15.15s

Thoughts Far Away, by John William Godward 1892



1911 Court Case: The Ring Revealed


Sir Luke Fildes painting- 'Fair Sweet and Quiet Rest'

Here are extracts of a court case, tried at the Old Bailey, reported in the Times, January 24 1911. Giving a glimpse into the art dealing world in which William Walker Sampson, and Henry Ramus inhabited, including evidence of collusion within the auction rooms by dealers-


A Picture by Sir Luke Fildes'
Turner v Sampson
(Before Mr Justice Channell)

'In this case, Sir Montague Cornish Turner sued Mr W.W.Sampson, a fine art dealer, carrying on partnership with Mr Henry Ramus, at Air-street, Regent-street, for the recovery of a picture by Sir Luke Fildes, R.A, or its value, which the plaintiff alleged was wrongfully detained from him.'

'The picture in question, which was called, 'Fair, Sweet, and Quiet Rest', was painted by Sir Luke Fildes some 20 or 30 years ago, and was purchased from the artist for £871. In 1907 it was sold at Christies for £109, but on that occasion, counsel stated, the value of the picture was reduced owing to a combination between the dealers'

(This last sentence showing evidence of the 'Ring', which Sampson was already believed to be at the head of.) At one point, Justice Channell comments:-

“Pictures were notoriously things which one (art dealers) bought as cheaply as one could and got as much as one could for”

This illuminates what art historian, Vern Grosvenor Swanson, captioned, 'The Wild West', when explaining the art dealing world of the Edwardian era, and the anything goes attitude to buying and selling. If anything, research shows a profit of £50 to be quite conservative.  


Huntington V Lewis and Simmons: A Knockout Comment


In May 1917 Maurice Lewis, and Isaac Simmons, of Lewis & Simmons, fine art dealers, 74 South Audley Street, and 180 New Bond Street, were involved in a high profile court case with Henry Edwards Huntington. The American railway magnate brought an action against them over a painting, alleged to be of Mrs Siddons and her sister Miss Fanny Kemble, which for £20,000, they had sold him as having been painted by George Romney (1734-1802). It was eventually proved to have been a painting of the Waldegrave sisters, by Oziah Humphrey, (1742-1810), a lesser known portrait painter. During the trial, under examination Mr Lewis stated that the picture was bought at a 'Knockout', Mr Scott examining asked, "That means when the dealer gets a picture cheap?", "sometimes", answered Lewis. When Mr Justice Darling asked for clarification, Lewis explained that a knockout meant that the dealers did not bid against each other.


By 1920, Sampson would appear to be firmly established at the high table of Christie's auction room. At sales owing to the late Mr Hilton Philipson, and Mr Montague Stanley Napier[14], (another patron of J.W.Godward pictures), brought the headlines:- '£5,250 for a Meissonier.' and, 'High Prices for Modern Pictures'. W.W picked up the Meissonier, 'Le Guide', engraved by J.Jacquet, for 5000 guineas, a drawing by J.M.W.Turner, 'An Italian Scene' 11" x 15&1/2", 950 guineas, and a couple of drawings by Birket Foster, 'A cottage at Sandhills, Surrey, with peasant girl', 420 guineas, and, 'A view near Dalmally, with figures', 410 guineas, not forgetting John William Godward's, 'Dolce Far Niente' 30"x50", 300 guineas. £7434 for five pictures.  


The Rosenbach’s


            Sampson had been dealing with the Rosenbach’s of Philadelphia since the first decade of the 1900’s, crucially, they were a Sephardim Jewish practicing family, which would have aided their introductions from Philip Rosenbach’s first visit to London in 1903, to establish lines of credit[15]. Records show transactions between the companies from at least 1909[16], and almost certainly earlier than that. It was at the Burdett Coutts sale at Christie’s, May 15th 1922, that the Rosenbach’s used Sampson’s position as ring leader at the auction rooms to secure a Shakespeare portrait, by Felton on their behalf, for the American oil magnate Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930). In the biography of A.S.W.Rosenbach, it states,


‘The portraits would not be bought under the Rosenbach name, but under that of friend Bill Sampson, a major buyer at Christie’s, which would both eliminate his competition and keep Rosenbach’s name out of the limelight’[17]


In 1923 William Walker Sampson took over the gallery at 7 Haymarket, from Eugene Cremetti, which had been the McLean Galleries for over one hundred years. Cremetti had taken it over from Thomas Miller McLean in 1908, but was retiring from the business. Thomas McLean was one of the earliest patrons of John William Godward, a patronage which both Cremetti and Sampson continued



On April 22nd 1926, Sampson held a dinner party at the Embassy Club, Piccadilly, for A.S.W.Rosenbach, who was returning to Philadelphia after another successful European trip of rare book buying. Other guests were, A.C.R.Carter, editor of The Years Art, Alec Martin of Christie’s, and the famous hotelier, Harry Preston, (boxing adviser to the future King Edward the 8th).[18] With the future Sir Alec Martin, a director of Christie’s as friend, it would suggest that Sampson’s position as ring leader was not considered an issue with the auction establishment.


Lord Justice Darling: Bidding Agreement Bill 1926


            On the 1st July 1926, having dealt with many cases involving alleged knockouts, or combinations, between dealers to secure goods cheaper at auction, Lord Justice Darling introduced a bill to ‘render illegal certain agreements as to bidding at auctions, and move that it be read a first time’ in the House of Lords[19]. On the 29th July 1927 the ‘Auctions (Bidding Agreements) Act’ was passed in to law.


Death of the Ring Master


On the 31st October 1929, only two days after the Wall Street Crash, William Walker Sampson died of a heart attack at 122 Kings Road, Brighton. In his will he left just £10 to his son, Jack. One of the greatest dealers of his generation, Sampson, it turned out, had a gambling problem. As A.C.R. Carter wrote in his ‘Reminiscences’, “The sad part of the story is that this resolute man and bold speculator in the art market could not quench the temptation to gamble on the race course. In the end, therefore, it fell about that his losses on the Turf outweighed his gains in art dealing”[20]





[1]This image of William Walker Sampson, with his granddaughter, Joan, on his lap, and his son, Jack, next to him, was given to the author by Joan’s daughter, Gillian. Taken circa 1926.

[2] Art Renewal Center article by Dr. Vern G. Swanson, John William Godward: The Eclipse of Classicism (1996)


[3] Shireen Hulda, Pedigree and Panache: A History of the Art Auction in Australia (date?) p.13


[4] Nottingham Evening Post 5 Feb 1909. Dealer v Connoisseur. P.5

[5] Mr. R. Chichester-Clark, Londonderry, House of Commons Debate (23 December 1964) Vol. 704, cc1241- 59


[6] John Everett Millais, Jephthah (1867, oil on canvas, 127 x 162.7 cms; National  Museum of Wales, UK. Donated by Isidore Stone, a money lender friend of Sampson, who gave him the picture).


[7] A. C. R. Carter, Let Me Tell You (1940),p.67

[8]England census 1891

[9] Dyson Lister began as  an artist, portrait painter, (1881 census), and was established as an art dealer at 8 & 9 Montpelier Parade, Harrogate, (1891 census). He later opened premises at 26 King street, St James, close to Christie’s. His business was still active to at least 1926.

[10] Yorkshire Gazette, 25th April 1896

[11]1891 England census

[12]Sephardim Jews are Spanish/Portuguese Jews. They were considered an elite group among Jews at this time.

[13]Old Bailey Online. London’s Central Criminal Court. 22nd July 1907

[14]The London Times. 8th May 1920. Times Online Archive

[15]Rosenbach. Wolf and Fleming 1936. P.49

[16]Rosenbach Museum and Library. Delancey Place, Philadelphia

[17]Rosenbach. Wolf and Fleming 1936. P.157

[18]The London Times. Saturday 24th April 1926. Times Online Archive

[19]Hansard 1803-2005. Auctions (Bidding Agreements) Bill. [H.L] 1926

[20]Let Me Tell You. (1940) by A.C.R.Carter. P.70


People in History


Add a comment or share a memory.

Login to add a comment. Sign-up if you don't already have an account.


Co-Curate is a project which brings together online collections, museums, universities, schools and community groups to make and re-make stories and images from North East England and Cumbria. Co-Curate is a trans-disciplinary project that will open up 'official' museum and 'un-officia'l co-created community-based collections and archives through innovative collaborative approaches using social media and open archives/data.