Price and provenance
A famous association can do wonders for prices in the auction room, says Roger Field – but can you be sure those tales are true?
A GOOD provenance is worth a fortune, as any auctioneer will tell you. And they are right – but only up to a point. Provenance – proof that something really is what someone says it is – is not always the magic price booster it is cracked up to be, especially if you are unfortunate enough to get it wrong. At its most obvious, a piece with a compelling provenance coming up for sale around a significant anniversary will command an even heftier premium than normal. Take the Battle of Waterloo and attendant celebrations back in 2015. Stuff that provably came from the battlefield (that is, something carrying a clearly contemporary label or inscription saying ‘captured at Waterloo’ or kept in the family of a known combatant) was selling for astonishing sums. Those desirous of ready cash were emptying their sock drawers and removing pieces from ancestral walls to catch the Waterloo tide while it was on the flood. Conversely, I wonder how many years, decades even, it will be before the market catches up once again with some of those giddy prices. Anyone with half-decent antiquities provably collected even halfway back into the past century is now sitting on something of a goldmine as lack of provenance in these days of terrorism and cultural looting means that anything without such a history is suspect and at risk of being heavily marked down. Meaning that items with a good provenance – even if not overly exciting in themselves – are fetching a premium as they are safe to own now and safe to sell in the future. Although, and that said, the less than scrupulous have long specialised in creating fake provenances and I am still to be convinced as to what ‘From a German/ Swiss/private collection formed before 19xx’ (the sort of ‘good provenance’ statement one often sees in catalogues and on price tickets these days) is really meant to prove, at least without all too rare accompanying photos and/or paperwork.
A tale of two swords shows just how complex this area can be. In the July issue, I wrote about an 1805 standard issue naval sword with an inscription on the scabbard that it had been ‘used by Lord Nelson’ and that I was amazed to report had failed to sell at Antony Cribb’s arms and militaria sale. Talking to
Cribb about cannons (as one does) long after the sale, I got the full story – do remember, it is the auctioneer’s job to get the best price for the vendor and that means he is not going to tell you, or me, anything he is not obliged to before the sale that might depress the price. The sword had been consigned by Lieutenant Edward Gascoine Palmer’s direct family – great provenance. Family legend was that it had been carried by the Admiral and given to their forebear, doubtless in recognition of some heroic deed. The engraving on the scabbard had been carefully checked by expert jewellers who confirmed it was 19th century but, perhaps, more towards the middle/end of the century. Palmer had provably fought and sailed with Nelson but, and it was a huge but, this was a full-length sword and, ‘as any fule kno’, the Admiral was something of a short-arse. So, unless he was planning on auditioning for Carry On Sailing, he would have been tripping all over it on the quarterdeck. Which means he never ‘used’ it. Cribb wondered if it might have been a wedding or a promotion present from the Admiral to his much-appreciated young officer. Family tradition had improved the legend and someone had proudly added the inscription to reflect what they believed and, in so doing, had damaged its value. Inscribed as a present from Nelson on the occasion of Palmer’s marriage/promotion it was worth every penny of its £5,000-£8,000 estimate, and then some. Had it truly been Nelson’s combat sword, then add a zero. At least. But as something that would not have been ‘used’ by him, and which therefore confused, it failed to sell. A real shame as it sounds as if there is a great fighting sword out there, which would most probably have been handled by Nelson, looking for a new owner.
Conversely, a highly decorative, circa 1620, Scottish, silver-mounted basket sword fetched a whopping £20,000 at Lyon & Turnbull on 15 August. Whilst some of the silver decoration on the hilt was circa 1620, other bits were later, probably dating to 1707 and the Acts of Union. This is a beauty of a ‘Stuart’ sword, of which this family was once also very proud, hence the subsequent ‘blinging up’. But unlike Palmer’s confusioninducing sword, it is obvious what happened here, hence the meaty price on the day.
Another Scottish gem at the sale was an 18th-century Jacobite baluster wine glass, engraved with a rose, foliage and bud, in gleaming condition. These glasses are sometimes ‘faked’ as the addition of these symbols can add a zero to the price. This was the real deal, however, and it didn’t disappoint, selling for a juicy bottom estimate £2,000.
Another collection with impeccable, if unpleasant, provenance was the death mask (and hands) and documents of Albert Pierrepoint, the last hangman in England. Grisly delights included his ‘gamebook’, his Execution Ledger, in which he recorded details of those for the drop, with particular emphasis on their necks: “strong neck, little flabby”, is one entry. Me? I’d pay good money to keep Pierrepoint out of my house and I was not surprised when it failed to make its £25,000 bottom estimate at Summers Place Auctions in June.
No such problems though on 1 August when The Canterbury Auction Galleries sold the death mask (complete with those weird, disembodied hands once again – the left one withered) of another mass killer, one Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, aka Stalin. However, unlike the doubtless dreary Pierrepoint, who would be eyeing your neck size and muscle tone as you swallowed
your tucker during dinner, it would be a gas to chuck buns at this deceased dictator over the port – he’s made of bronze, so no damage problems there – safe in the knowledge that you and your family would not be ‘disappeared’ overnight for your insolence. Estimated at £1,500-£2,000, there was international interest. It was finally knocked off (sorry – knocked down) for £13,500. Apparently it is heading to the US. A perfect Christmas present for ‘No collusion with Russia’ Trump, perhaps?
Also at Canterbury – and a statement on any large expanse of blank wall – was a First World War Bristol Scout propeller; a small, fast, circa 1914-16 recce/fighter that, in its first aggressive iteration, had two rifles fitted either side of the wooden prop as the technology was not there to fire through it. Captain Lanoe Hawker, RFC, was to win the first VC in a single-seater in a Scout in 1915, so the plane has proper fighting pedigree. Complete with registration numbers carved into the wood – its all-important provenance – it almost doubled its top £600 estimate to sell for a worthy £1,100.
At Bonhams Arms & Armour auction on 29 November there is a great selection of top-of-the-range ‘Winchester’ rifles coming up for sale. First up is a .44 rimfire – important as this makes it an obsolete calibre, meaning no licence is required – ‘Henry Model 1860’, lever-action rifle. This one is a fourth variant of the original design and was a game-changer at the time. That said, the .44 rimfire was a heavy, slow bullet and, despite the fact that the rear-sight
is graduated out to 900yd, the reality is that hitting anything more than 100yd out would have become increasingly unlikely as the trajectory of the round dropped off quickly thereafter. However, as it boasts a 16-round magazine, anyone sporting one of these tended to consider themselves the dog’s cojones when up against some poor sap with a muzzle loader, although it does once again give the lie to cowboy films in which they are forever killing each other at long ranges. This finely engraved rifle is estimated at £15,000-£20,000.
Just after Americans had finished killing each other on a near-industrial scale, the model 1860 evolved into the Model 1866, which then evolved into the Model 1873: ‘The gun that won the West’. The 1873, however, uses the .44/40 round that does require a S1 Firearms Certificate as it is still available. This is a much more powerful bullet that could be used in both a .44 pistol and rifle, its interchangeability making it the most popular round available in America for many years. This rifle is a British variant, with a ‘shotgun’ stock. It is engraved on the left of the action as being sold by ‘Wilkinson, 27 Pall Mall, London’. There is paperwork – fab provenance – showing it being received and then shipped from the warehouse in July 1875. It is estimated at £6,000-£8,000.
Over at Tennants’ Taxidermy & Natural History sale on 6 July they were selling longdead examples of what those Winchesters were killing. Top lot was a superb-quality, 5ft 1in glass-cased diorama of African birds. (Killed by Winchesters? Maybe, they were deemed excellent sporting rifles.) Estimated at £3,000-£5,000 and with a trade label for top London stuffer Ashmead & Co, Bishopsgate (provenance, dear boy, provenance) this riot of colour, which included two secretary birds standing over a coiled snake, sold for £12,500. At the other end of the price and evolutionary scale, a mid-estimate £80 would have hooked you a Victorian pike.
This picture and far right: this sword failed to find a buyer at Antony Cribb, despite an association to Nelson emblazoned on the scabbard
The real deal – an 18th-century Jacobite baluster with rose, foliage and bud engraving
Above and top: this early-17th-century basket sword sold for £20,000 at Lyon & Turnbull
Above and top right: the death mask, hands and notebooks of England’s last hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, failed to sell. Top: the bronze death mask and hands of Stalin, however, generated international interest
This large cased diorama of birds endemic to Africa, including two secretary birds, sold for £12,500 at Tennants in July