“It is odd to think that just 100 years ago you could bid for Stonehenge,” said curator Heather Sebire. “Who knows what would have happened to it if someone else had bought it? It was in a pretty perilous condition at the time and it appears that Chubb stepped in to make sure Stonehenge stayed in local ownership. Now it’s under the guardianship of English Heritage and is safe forever.”
Stonehenge had been a popular attraction since the Middle Ages but by the late 19th century tourists were regularly chipping away at the monument for souvenirs.
In 1900, one of the upright sarsen stones fell and the massive horizontal lintel it held in place snapped in two. There was an outcry, leading to the monument being fenced in and an admission charge introduced towards its upkeep. But the stones remained in a worrying condition.
Stonehenge had been owned by the Antrobus family since the early 1800s but when the heir to the Antrobus baronetcy was killed in the opening months of the first world war, the Amesbury Abbey estate was divided into lots and put up for sale.
The auction catalogue described Stonehenge as a “place of sanctity dedicated to the observation or adoration of the sun” and dated it to around 1800BC (actually it is now thought that the first phase was constructed as long ago as 3000BC).
At 2pm on 21 September 1915, the New Theatre in Salisbury was full. According to a report in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal: “Interest quickened when the auctioneer announced lot 15.” Auctioneer Sir Howard Frank began bidding at £5,000. It quickly reached £6,000 but then stalled.
Frank was not impressed. “Gentlemen,” he said, “it is impossible to value Stonehenge. Surely £6,000 is poor bidding, but if no one bids me any more, I shall set it at this price. Will no one give me any more than £6,000 for Stonehenge?”
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