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

The Field - - UNDER THE HAMMER -

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

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