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

The Field - - Country Estate -

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

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