Of war, roar and fore
Roger Field compiles a sublime assemblage of the latest lots to sell at auction, including a Colt .45 pistol from the Battle of the Little Bighorn
on 5 April, 25 Blythe Road Auctions in London’s W14 took sneaky marketing to a new level when it invited dogs and their owners to a special breakfast viewing of “Property from a private London club”; infuriatingly, they refuse to divulge which club. The result was that 15 pooches of various pedigrees arrived to sample dog treats from Pet Pavilion while their walkers snaffled “viennoiseries” (whatever they might be when they are at home) and checked out the sporty art as their canines duly sniffed bottoms and eye-balled each other. Despite there being a fine selection of dachshunds, labradors, multiple terriers and, even, an Australian cattle dog in close proximity, warfare did not break out. The result, from the auctioneer’s point of view, was a triumph as various owners – not dogs – left absentee bids and most lots were sold. Perhaps the Westies present insisted that their owners bid for the four Sir Edward Landseer engravings – one print complete with a cute-looking West Highland White – because on the day a barking contest broke out and this lot doubled its top £300 estimate to sell for £600.
We Brits may love our dogs but we revere our horses, as a splendid 18th-century oil painting of The Godolphin Arabian by Daniel Quigley, in an impressive 3ft x 4ft gilt frame, demonstrated when Bonhams sold some of Lord Harlech’s property at Glyn Cywarch in north Wales on 29 March; the money raised going back into repairing the house. This steed was said to have been given by the Bey of Tunis to King Louis XV of France in 1730 before being acquired and put to stud by Sir Edward Coke at Longford, Derbyshire. Even though it was, even back when it was painted, a copy of an already famous painting and perhaps not the most technically refined, it certainly holds its own and once held pride of place in Lord Harlech’s dining room. The painting is unusual in that it is heavily inscribed on both sides and at the bottom. The left-hand side reads: “ESTEEM’D one of the best foreign horses ever brought into England; Appearing so both from the country he came from, and from the performance of his posterity. They being Excel.nt both as Racers and Stallions, and Hitting with most other Pedigrees, and mending the Imperfections of their Shape.” This “advertising” does not lie and The Godolphin Arabian was a truly superb “Hitter” with other pedigrees. Along with the Byerley Turk and the Darley Arabian, he went on to become one of the three main progenitors of the modern thoroughbred. It was estimated at £15,000 to £20,000 but, given the subject and the provenance, should have been “must have” for any racing enthusiast. Unsurprisingly, it galloped on to sell for a worthy £80,000.
A very different type of picture was on sale at Sotheby’s on 5 April: artworks by viciously wonderful cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. He is now aged 80 but is still skewering those who come into his line of sight. My favourite, and oh so topical, was a 2015 cartoon first published in The Times of Her Majesty “handbagging” a fleeing Jeremy Corbyn while shouting: “Kneel you snivelling bastard”. Estimated at £4,000 to £6,000, it sold for a well deserved £8,000: a picture that will surely stand the test of time and become ever more valuable. Back at Glyn Cywarch there was, however, a reminder of
My favourite [Scarfe cartoon] was of Her Majesty “handbagging” a fleeing Jeremy Corbyn whilst shouting: ‘Kneel you snivelling bastard’
a time when defying your ruler resulted in something far sharper than Mulberry’s finest connecting with the back of your neck; a very rare – at least in this condition and style – Civil War sword that belonged to the Royalist Lord Capell of Hadham who was beheaded in 1649. The double-edged rapier blade bears a poignant etching that reads: “Lord Capel [sic] the day before his Execution presented this sword to Sir John Owen by whom he said he was convinced it would be worn with honour.” Owen was a fellow Royalist and did not disappoint as he continued to resist, almost following Capell to the executioner’s block. A later, hand-written label records that he must have stayed in fear of his life as the sword was found stored in a “cleft” in Owen’s bedstead, “supposed to have been kept there ready for a sudden attack”. Happily, he survived long enough to see the Restoration in 1660 and, unlike so many of his friends, died peacefully in 1666. Decorated with gold damascening, with a triple thickness of twisted silver wire forming its grip and retaining its velvet burgundy scabbard, it was not surprising that it more than doubled its top £7,000 estimate to sell for £15,000: an extraordinary piece of British history and a pointed reminder of just what happens when jaw-jaw turns to war-war.
Failed jaw-jaw is why a well-worn .45 calibre, 1874 Colt pistol was the star performer at James D Julia’s (Maine, USA) three-day April sale. Only in America – OK, perhaps in Iraq, too – could an auctioneer put together enough weapons and buyers to merit a threeday sale. The reason this weapon more than doubled its top $200,000 estimate to scoop an astonishing $460,000 is that it is the only Colt pistol in existence that can be proven to have been used at the disastrous – depending on your nationality and perspective, of course – Battle of the Little Bighorn on 25 June 1876. It has been traced to a Lt Reilly of Company E, 7th Cavalry, who met a grisly end during the final massacre as is related in an interview with his killer, included in the catalogue: “Runs-the-enemy, a Two-kettle Sioux, who participated throughout the entire Custer Massacre… he relates that he was following an Arapahoe named Waterman who killed a ‘horse soldier chief’ [any officer was referred to as a ‘chief’] who was pointing a 6-shooter at Waterman. Waterman cut off this soldier’s little finger with a tomahawk. He relates: ‘Horse soldier chief drop 6-shooter pistol. He hold hand and cry. Waterman shoot horse soldier chief with rifle. Waterman take horse soldier chief 6-shooter pistol. Waterman say hair too short to scalp. I scalp.’”
Having departed this earth in a very unhollywood but all too realistic way, Reilly’s pistol was gifted to a Cheyenne chief called Two Moons: his double dot mark is carved into one of the wooden pistol grips. A truly iconic item to Americans, deserving of a truly hair-raising price.
Just as the high prairies in summer once echoed to the war whoops of Indian braves, so do the A roads of this green and pleasant land echo to the screams and growls of myriad motorbike exhausts as bands of leather-clad warriors, many of an age when they should perhaps know better, strut their stuff of a sunny weekend. I only ever rode a Honda 50 at university – terrifying and near fatal – and am still jaundiced when it comes to the conflicting merits of Norton Commandos versus Ducatis. On 23 April, Bonhams tapped into that yearning for near-suicidal adolescence with a Motorbike sale. For £16,500 (just over bottom £15,000 estimate) you could have had a shiny, red, as new 2000 – that’s the year of manufacture – 996SPS “FR2” (yawn…) Ducati, with only 2km on the clock. Conversely, a 2011 Norton Commando – an imposing name for a bike, albeit a British marque with a sometimes troubled history – failed to make its bottom estimate £14,000, despite having the ability to blast its rider along the A272 after a pint of “Wife Beater” at more than 130mph. The real star of the show, however, was the 1949 Vincent-hrd 998CC White Shadow Seriesc Project (what is it with motorbike names?) in “barn-find” condition and ready for restoration. Back in the day, its 120mph performance made it just about the fastest thing on the road; this at a time when a normal family saloon was struggling to hit 70mph, which makes it highly desirable to our leather-clad brethren and explains why the Vincent smashed its top estimate £60,000 to sell for a sphincter tightening £145,000. Silence, apart from the occasional sotto
voce expletive when the small white ball miscues into the rough, is more the way of
golfers. On 12 May, Dominic Winter sold a rather wonderful silver golfing prize of a golf-playing devil presented to Second World War Battle of Britain ace Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader when he won the 1956 Spring Meeting. Founded in 1921, the Lucifer Club was named not for the fiendish exploits of its members but for the Lucifer matches many of them had once used to light their cigarettes in the trenches. Usually anything associated with Bader reaches for the financial sky (apologies for the pun) but, perhaps because this was golf as against aviation associated, it “only” fetched £1,900, just under its already Bader-inflated estimate.
Another devil at the same sale had no such inhibitions. Pre-war Mister Toads would mount a “Cock-a-snook” car mascot on the rear of their car to let their feelings be known to those who they had just overtaken or, I suppose, those following behind and unable to get past. Mounted on the back of a modern barouche, this particular gurning brass, cock-a-snook devil, with his two hands up to his nose in a gesture of contempt, would doubtless now give sufficient grounds for an accusation of an attempt to incite terminal road rage. It doubled its top estimate to sell for £200 and I look forward to seeing it on the back of the car in front of me some day soon.
Tethered friends at 25 Blythe Road Auctions’ special viewing of “Property from a private London club”
Pilot of the fairways: Dominic Winter sold this silver Lucifer Club golf trophy, presented to fighter ace Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader in 1956, for £1,900