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?

The Field - - Country Estate -

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

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