Always the bridesmaid...
Roger Field had his eye on a “magnificent” piece for his dining-room wall, only to be thwarted in his quest by the subtle cut and thrust on the auction-room floor
I am not sure whether I’m feeling relieved or hacked off. Hacked off because I am once again the chief bridesmaid: the under bidder. Relieved because I do not have to explain to my long-suffering chief of interior design why the house needs a 6ft 4in tall, 16th-century, “wavy” bladed, two-handed sword. The fact that I have wanted one of these incredible looking weapons ever since I can remember was not, I knew, going to cut any stylistic mustard. I only get away with these forays into the underworld of arms and armour because, when man the hunter returns carrying ancient iron bravely won in the snake pit of the auction room, it can be banished in an instant to my study. Not this time, however, as prior research with a tape measure confirmed the blinking obvious. There is no space in my study, festooned as it already is with an array of ancient weapons and armour, for something so massive and just sticking it in a corner – itself a nonstarter as the hilt is also incredibly wide – would be an insult to so splendid an object. Plan B, sneaking down in the night and hanging it on a currently blank bit of wall in the dining room, would be seen as an act of territorial expansion that demanded a counter-strike: doubtless ending up with me “wearing” said sword in somewhere very painful. The fact that such a work of art would look particularly superb of an evening, candlelight gleaming off the blade, adding gravitas to the port and allowing me to impose my will as another dinner spirals out of control was just not going to wash, not least as port and enthusiasm is a known recipe for amputation: it’s almost happened before when the swords come out and the boys begin to play.
Bonhams had five of these swords in its 17 May Arms and Armour sale and that spelled opportunity. Good two-handers do come up for sale but not often and rarely in these numbers, so they might just flood the market and lead to lower than normal prices. Certainly, the bottom estimates looked to be on the “come hither” side, doubtless in case that happened. However, something else also happens in these situations. When there is only one of a thing in a sale – be it a sword, a sporting gun or a Meissen bowl – we humans tend to appreciate it for what it is. But when there are five we tend to compare like with like and an object that might look great on its own is diminished when stood alongside something clearly better. And so it was: sword one, a bit pug ugly but still huge and 16th-century, went for £1,100, just below its already low £1,200 bottom estimate. That had me hoping that things would turn out well. The next, better, disembowelled its top £1,800 estimate: still good value. However, each sword was better than the last and was selling for more than the last. I had done my research and was going for number five, the best of them by a country mile and with the highest £1,800 to £2,200 estimate. Number four was great but had a faded “red plush” covered handle and I was thinking of that dining room wall: “tatty” would have been my very own designer’s verdict but then you, too, would look a bit worn out after 400 years. It sold for £2,500. And now the writing, but sadly not the sword I wanted, was on the wall. I had consulted my expert, Nick, and we both agreed that £3,000 was a realistic top bid for number five: well over the estimate and yet still a good price were I to succeed. In retrospect, I should have bid for the previous one and hoped to get it at £2,600 but that faded handle held me back. The handle on five was as good as an ancient handle can be and it would have looked magnificent on my wall. No chance:
Plan B would be seen as an act of territorial expansion... ending with me ‘wearing’ said sword somewhere painful
Or was it some deeply dark and Freudian hint that they had been duly ‘downed’?
£3,200, and who knows how much higher it might have gone.
In the same auction there was an oddity: a First World War tank crew “splatter” mask in near-perfect condition. It had a steel “upper” with five slits for vision (not unlike a medieval visor) and a chain-mail lower part to cover the mouth and chin. As an ex-cavalryman it intrigued. The answer is that when these early tanks were hit by anything from small-arms fire to shells, the inside of the steel hull used to sheer off producing fine to large steel splinters that whizzed around the compartment lacerating anybody they hit and bits of flaked off paint that, at high speed, could blind and injure. Hence this rare and strange-looking face protection. It well beat its £1,000 top estimate to sell for £1,500.
Another sporting rarity was a howdah pistol. Now, a howdah is the seat that is used on an elephant and it follows that a howdah pistol is your, “Oh, b **** cks!” last line of defence when the large, stripy moggie with huge teeth and claws that you have just unloosed at decides to join you on the howdah. In these quite foreseeable and certainly fatal circumstances, a sportsman needed to give Tiddles the bad news about the travel arrangements in no uncertain fashion, hence a howdah pistol. This particular offering from Holland & Holland, dated circa 1890, is a short barrelled (6½in), percussion .577, double-barrelled sidelock pistol. It needed to be highly manoeuvrable given the close quarters within which the seating allocation would be debated. It also weighs a small ton; essential to absorb the recoil of such a large cartridge. It was a pistol of precision and beauty and it leapt over its top £5,000 estimate to sell for £7,500.
The Bonhams Modern Sporting Gun department held its shoot the following day. Another hefty beast, in fact the very gun you would have fired at Tiddles – or an elephant for that matter – was the doublebarrelled (25in) .500 (Nitro Express) Boxlock Ejector rifle by WJ Jeffrey & Co. Sighted to 150 yards, this would realistically only be used at between 25 yards to 50 yards. The recoil is as brutal as you would expect from something this heavy and muscular; the auctioneer told me that there is a blast zone even if you are standing directly behind the firer. In “little used” condition it hit its mid estimate at £14,000.
Finally, and before we leave the wonderful world of things that go bang – it is August, after all, and how we wish we were getting that big invite “oop north” – Gavin Gardiner has a “perfect” grouse gun in his 28 August, Modern and Vintage Sporting Guns sale at Gleneagles Hotel, Perthshire: a Purdey 12-bore, self-opening sidelock ejector with 28in barrels. Perfect for grouse because, although built in 1914, it was re-proofed in 2008 and fitted with Teague chokes, making them interchangeable and allowing the right barrel to fire the “further” choked shot, followed by the left at the “nearer” bird. Then, come the trip back south and the chokes swapped back, equally perfect for pheasants and partridges. It is estimated at £10,000 to £15,000.
Talking of game, I wonder what inspired someone to commission a diamond and gold pheasant and also a partridge brooch for their loved one? Was it so their other half could think of them while they were abandoned at home as their lord and master went off shooting? Or, was it some deeply dark and Freudian hint that they had been duly “downed”? (I’ll forebear to explore any further the subsequent plucking aspects of this thought process.) Anyway, when they were driven over the line at Chorley’s on 23 May with bottom estimates of £1,800 and £2,000, neither found a modern man brave, or foolish, enough to drop one on his own modern woman. However, Chorley’s brought home the birds with its silver. Given that we are these days terrorised by our children’s expectations of what constitutes a good wedding present, I reckon that silver is the perfect answer: really attractive and not overly expensive at auction. As someone who ended up with a load of modern “crockery” (all right, and, yes, they do look great on the table – you can tell who I am trying to appease here…) selected off the General Trading Co, Sloane Street and Peter Jones lists and none of the antiques I hankered for, I reckon that two
old silver hip flasks, which sold over their £150 top estimate for £180, would make a groom, newly discovering the infinite joys of Portmeirion plates and matching sheets, very happy indeed. Even better, split them and give them as two presents: great value.
More expensive, but great fun for the port connoisseur, was a “modern” (well, 1977) two decanter trolley on four wheels – a replica of an original made in 1826 and presented to His Grace the Duke of Wellington by His Majesty King George IV – and perfect for passing the port when lifting the bottle gets too energetic. It uncorked perfectly at a midestimate £700. Finally, and before leaving Gloucestershire, I would have loved to have taken home a gleaming, smooth and ever so alive, two-thirds size, bronze sculpture of a partridge by Geoffrey Dashwood, which fetched a just over top estimate £1,600.
And how best to see all these wonderful things? There’s no better way than in a gleaming, 1968 Aston Martin DB6 Vantage Volante drophead with only 38,833 miles on the clock. It burbled and roared to sell exactly on its bottom estimate £650,000 at Duke’s on 9 June. Oh to be out in the country in something as magnificent as this.
A selection of German, 16th-century, twohand swords sold at Bonhams on 17 May
Top and above: this Aston Martin DB6 Volante was one of only 29 built with the powerful Vantage engine
Above: vintage silver flasks and a plated cigarette box exceeded their top estimate at Chorley’s