What lies beneath
A coating of rust and dust does no sale item any favours, says Roger Field, although poor presentation could be disguising an auction-house gem
IT is human nature to prefer something that has “scrubbed up well”, as against something that looks, well, manky, be that members of the opposite sex or antiques. Visit any highend antique shop or auction and you will see how things that gently gleam and look as perfect as possible usually fetch the highest prices. The more damaged or shoddy something is the more it will be marked down.
“Hold it,” I hear you say. “What about semi-derelict houses and ancient, ‘barn find’ cars?” Yes, granted, when it comes to old cars and houses it seems that the more rot, weevil, rust and general mank, the higher the premium for the opportunity to bankrupt yourself renovating them and, in so doing, applying your personal stamp. And, yes again, over cleaning or unsympathetic restoration can be equally damaging. I was looking at a fine helmet the other day and was puzzled by its patina. Myfriendly expert whispered in my ear that it had once looked superb. The proud owner had put it in pride of place on a table. Enter zealous cleaner clutching cleaning fluid and scrubber. The traumatised owner had tried to have it recoloured but nothing could replace 400 years of growing old gracefully. Unable to look it in the eye any longer he was selling it, at a discount of about 50%.
All of which still leaves me wondering why sellers put objects into auction without at least giving them a sympathetic clean. Few would sell a car covered in mud. Most would spend a fiver (or whatever it costs these days) and put it through a wash. So why auction a gun or sword covered in surface rust and dirt without at least giving it a gentle rub to remove the worst of it; or wipe the dust off an oil painting, or the glass of a watercolour with a damp cloth so you can at least see the colours? It is not the auctioneer’s responsibility to tart things up to fetch top price and sellers only have themselves to blame if they look awful and are “sold for a song”.
Conversely, tatty-looking items can – as
well as hiding an even bigger host of horrors – be an opportunity for those willing
to look beneath the surface neglect. Sage advice I almost failed to follow. Those who follow this column will know that Ulrich, my still far from complete late-16th-century suit of German armour, is short a helmet; vaguely affordable battle bowlers of the requisite date and style not exactly being
usual auction fodder. Back in May, Bonhams arms and armour auction had a burgonet (an open-faced, light cavalry helmet) – still not a perfect match as it was perhaps made 10 to 20 years after the rest of my armour – but still a cracker of its type and something Ulrich might have worn. However, it came as part of a rather grotty looking, albeit absolutely “correct”, composite (put together) three-quarter suit of German armour, estimated at £3,500 to £4,500. Even in the photo it looked something of a mish mosh. The helmet (part of the neck was hanging loose) was made for a far larger man than the breastplate, ditto the back plate, and, in the flesh, it boasted no shortage of newish rust. I gave it a quick glance at the viewing and moved on. “Start me at £2,500,” said the auctioneer. Silence. “Not sold.” Surprised, I went back for a closer inspection. A call to my expert. He agreed, sold separately the parts were worth at least the low estimate most days of most weeks; hence that estimate. I cheekily offered £2,500. Phone calls were made. Deal. Ten minutes with a toffee hammer and a screwdriver and the neck was reattached. I’ve now started with gentle elbow grease and Pre-lim metal burnisher (recommended by museums, I gather) to remove the worst of the rust and begin to bring back its patina. Then it’s auf wiedersehn to the breastplate (rust removed first) and matching tassets (thigh pieces). If all goes to plan I may end up with Ulrich’s new tifter, plus some extra bits, for a relative song. We’ll see…
I have a cunning plan to introduce a weapon of mass death to the garden. We need a “something” in front of the house
to fill a gap – received wisdom currently being that a large, stone urn filled with flowers is the solution. Much more imposing, I realised in a moment of genius as I studied Antony Cribbs’ 24 July selection of arms and armour goodies, was a chunky, cast-iron, 18-pounder carronade – so called because these smoothbore, short-barrelled cannons were made by the Carron Company, based beside the River Carron near Falkirk, Scotland. Not only would this beastie add far more tone to the front of the house than a boring old urn, but also considerable flexibility: come the next war or zombie invasion (and not forgetting those pesky trick or treaters) I can load grapeshot and enfilade anyone, or thing, coming down the drive – it would also set off my pile of old cannon balls, which are desperate for a matching cannon. There were, however, a few hornets in this particularly tasty looking cookie jar. The cannons were a pair and I know that would be one too many (ok, probably two too many, but let’s move swiftly on…) to be smiled on at home. However, a chat to a fellow rod beside the River Tay and I had my partner in crime: hornet one squidged. Their carriages were rotten away – expensive to replace with a top-quality wooden replacement but, I happen to know having owned a cannon before, that it would still look great on a basic mount; stones even. A phone call to Antony Cribb revealed that each weighed a quarter of a ton, so a crane and a lorry would be required: more expense. Oh, and there was lots of interest. He guessed they would blow their top £1,200 estimate. They did: £2,600. A quick check of Summers Place’s last sale of garden statuary – they usually have plenty on offer – revealed that, on a sealed bid auction, £501 bought you a pair of imposing, modernish, composite urns 31in high whilst £420 secured you a smaller pair (17in high x 20in wide) of 19th-century Stiff & Sons urns (worth buying just for the name – I have a chum still known all these decades later as Stiff). Clearly a cheaper and “safer” choice than a cannon. But watch this space…
A man who certainly knew his cannons was Sir Francis Drake. On 4 July Bonhams sold a contemporary (1570s) portrait of him in his fighting armour (when he died he asked to be buried in his armour and perhaps this is the one that went into the Deep with him). He appears ready to start drumming those dratted “Dons” (Spaniards, for those who did not have Drake’s Drum drilled into them as children) back up the Channel. It went for £290,000, just under its bottom estimate £300,000. Bizarrely, the question of whether this really was the famous swashbuckler and sometime pirate was settled by the wart on his face; nevertheless, a painting to gladden the heart of any Englishman and Brexiteer.
Drake would doubtless have appreciated the use of a ship’s decanters, had they existed back then, as much as I treasure them today: don’t tell me a bottle of port doesn’t taste that bit better when poured from an elegant ship’s decanter. Invented some time in the later 1700s and popularised by Admiral Rodney – they were known as “Rodneys” in the 1780s – they have large bases and tend to be twice the weight of normal decanters; all the better to anchor them to the table in rough seas. Four neck rings made them easier to grasp and flat, vertical stoppers prevented them rolling around and falling off the table. In May, Charles Miller had two pairs of plain, 19th-century ship’s decanters with round, “mushroom” stoppers (more
likely to roll off the table and smash), both estimated £150 to £250. The first pair sold at an excellent value £190; the second went around the table once again to reach £550. Objects to grace any dinner party.
A rare killer sold at Thomas Del Mar in June: the 1884 Holland & Holland eight-bore, rotary-underlever, hammer “ball and shot” gun, signed on the nitro-reproofed barrels, “Winner of all the rifle trials 1883”. This was a short-lived but hugely popular type of gun known by Hollands as a “Paradox Gun”. It had broad, shallow rifling, which meant it could fire bullets and shot, making it perfect for supper against guinea fowl to something as huge, using this eight-bore variety (there were 10- and 12-bore versions right down to 28-bore) as elephant at up to 100yd. The 12-bore rifle version was deemed highly effective for short-range, large moggies. Also, being about 2lb to 3lb lighter than their rifle equivalents, they were seen as perfect, multipurpose jungle guns. It slotted its £4,000 top estimate to sell for £4,800.
Finally, a splash of pure petroleum porn at Bonhams’ “Goodwood Festival of Speed” sale: a “one owner from new”, 1957 BMW 507 High Performance Coupé. Its 0-60 in 11.1 secs and top speed of 122mph made it a boy-racer dream back then, but that one owner was the world motorbike champion John Surtees. On 13 July it scorched past its £2.5m top estimate, the chequered flag dropping at £3.4m.
Failing to sell at Mallams’ October sale, this 19th-century Japanese garden knife reappeared in April, where it severed its lower estimate to sell for £400
Top: the 1884 H&H “Paradox Gun” sold by Thomas Del Mar. Above: this rather grotty looking composite three-quarter suit of German armour attracted the writer. Left: Stiff & Sons urns at Summers Place
Above: the 1957 BMW 507 High Performance Coupé owned by world motorbike champion John Surtees Left: just the thing for the front garden
Charles Miller sold both pairsof these 19th-century ships’ decanters; one pair sold for £190and the other for £550
This contemporary (1570s) portrait of Sir Francis Drake fetched £290,000 at Bonhams in July