True value revealed at auction
If there were multiple bidders for your lot and you didn’t get tempted into a crazy bidding war, then you can be fairly sure you haven’t paid too much, says Roger Field
Accepted wisdom is that an auction is the best forum for discovering the true value of an object. Shop owners can ask whatever they hope to get away with but while most folk are not fools and overpriced pieces usually remain collecting dust, on the right day who knows what someone will pay? conversely, if it was you who flashed your plastic in that emporium, you may end up fretting that you were the only mug in the world willing to pay that price for that piece.
At least with an auction, especially if there were multiple bidders, as long as you and the under-bidder did not get into a crazy twoperson bidding battle – it happens! – you have the consolation of knowing that others wanted it at near the winning bid, which, surely, means you cannot be that bonkers? Or, if yours is the only bid on bottom estimate (or lower) then, given the auction ‘expert’ set a
sensible estimate, you should not have gone too far wrong. You may even have snagged a bargain.
Not necessarily, however, because what is any antique actually worth? property has a base value: we need somewhere to live. cars: something to drive. Furniture, even: somewhere to put stuff and something to sit on. But – and ask the female contingent in this house – do I really ‘need’ a suit of 16th-century european armour or an ancient Japanese sword?
though we clearly need decent guns in good working order that fit us properly to shoot safely and straight, fashions for guns change and with them their perceived value. Meaning that most of this wonderful stuff I tell you about each month is only worth what someone is willing to pay on the day. In fact, some areas of collecting are so esoteric that it only needs two competi- tive obsessives for them, probably without realising it, to become the market. So, while the trade papers trumpet a meteoric rise in value of whatever these collectors are furiously fighting over – in the 1980s early wheel-lock firearms were highly soughtafter until some collectors went AWOL, and we are only now back to those long-ago prices – it might take just one of them to stop buying for whatever reason – death, divorce, a new passion – for prices to collapse. What value those objects then?
Or, Government policy changes. It looks as if the Ivory Bill, which will ban the sale of most ivory (see Ivory owners: a criminal class?, October issue), will become law circa April 2019. Sworders are reported as saying
that ivory objects are now fetching between 33% and 50% of what they were before the ban was announced. The situation is stark. If you may need to sell your ivory heirlooms, do so now, while dealers can still buy them and ship them abroad, because after that date, unless an object is properly registered under an exemption, it will have no monetary value. Conversely, it is possible that registered and thus tradeable ivory may end up being worth even more because of its rarity.
Whether the ‘exceptional’ pair of 12-bore J Purdey & Sons, Wez Tallett engraved, single-trigger, ‘ultra-round’, over-and-under sidelock ejectors, which sold at Holts on 20 September for a mid-estimate £160,000, were valued more highly for being made for Eric ‘Slowhand’ Clapton in 2004 is probably moot. Clapton could afford the best and these were absolute beauties in superb condition.
However, I can hardly imagine, had I bought them, confiding to the sort of shoot folk I mix with that these belonged to the legendary rocker as no doubt everyone, beaters included, would be air-guitaring me wherever I went and then wetting themselves laughing as I demonstrated just how ‘slow’ my hands are compared with his. Nor, sadly, in the same sale, would my buying Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Colt .38, Model 1902, semi-automatic pistol help me to pen words as expertly as the great man once did. I wish it were otherwise.
Sir Arthur had a younger brother, Innes, who joined the Army and served in various wars. It seems likely that this weapon first belonged to him and, on his death in 1919, it was given to Sir Arthur who then stored it with his solicitor when the Firearms Act was first introduced in 1920. Whether that provenance helped it reach its £4,000 lower estimate is, again, a mystery, but I reckon it would be a fab thing for a sporting writer to own; much more fun than his desk or pen.
While we are still mired in Brexit negotiations – who knows what will, or will not, have happened by the time you read this – we can thank the auction houses for bringing us stirring reminders of our glorious naval past.
First out of the blocks, at Adams in Ireland on 15 October, and proving that just because something is brown and made of wood it cannot be pigeonholed as ‘brown furniture’, was the ‘Armada Table’. Made from timbers, including heraldic lions and the figures of Hope and Charity, taken from the stern of a Spanish galleon that sank off the coast of County Clare in 1588, this splendid 8ft-long refectory table spent the first 300 years of its domestic life in Dromoland Castle. It was estimated at €100,000 to €200,000, but something this emotive will be treasured as long as we remember the Spanish Armada. Little surprise it soared to €360,000.
Charles Miller on 6 November had a reminder that President Trump might have had something of a point – though he doubtless forgot that France supported revolutionary America – when admonishing President Macron in a tweet for wanting to build a European army to ‘protect’ itself from America. There was a rather jolly oil painting – though rather ‘flat’, which might explain it selling for £3,500, under its £4,000 lower estimate – depicting The Capture of the USS
President by HMS Endymion, 15th January, 1815, known as the War of 1812 between the US and Britain. If you think we are having spats with our cousins over the Pond today, this painting puts a different perspective on that special relationship.
A Union flag that should stir the hearts of all good Brits was hauled past its top £2,500 estimate to sell for £3,600. Its hinged wooden box had a brass plate that states: “This ensign was worn in HMS Duke of York on 26th December 1943, during the action in which the German battle cruiser ‘Sharnhorst’ [sic] was sunk.” This was the battle of North Cape and Duke of York was the flagship of the British, Norwegian and Canadian Force hunting the mighty German battleship. Fought up in the Arctic Circle, I can hardly begin to imagine the horror of a battle to the death in such hostile waters. Of the Scharnhorst’s crew of 1,968, only 36 survived. A flavour of what the German ship might have looked like in all her terrifying glory came from the painting used by Airfix (remember those models we all used to make?) on the box of the Graf Spee, which was defeated (and subsequently scuttled) by the Royal Navy in 1939 at the Battle of the River Plate, between Uruguay and Argentina. There is nothing ‘flat’ about this all-action painting by Roy Cross and, probably because a couple of ‘boys’ remember gluing that ship together, it trounced its £2,000 to £3,000 estimate at Vectis on 28 August, selling for £8,500.
There is something timeless about an ancient and beautiful coin and Morton
& Eden did not disappoint on 24 October. What horse lover would not covet the ‘Greek’ (albeit from Sicily), circa 320BC to 300BC silver tetradrachm (the size of a 10p piece) with the sensuous depiction of threequarters of a horse’s head on the reverse?
In ‘extremely fine’ (almost perfect) condition, it looks as if the head was drawn yesterday by a fine equine artist. However, it is coin collectors rather than art enthusiasts who buy these things and it sold under its £4,000 bottom estimate for £3,800.
Or, from Italy, circa 390BC, one for cattle connoisseurs: a silver stater (smaller than a 20p piece) with a depiction of a charging bull on the reverse – that bull is right there, stomping and straining, 2,400 years later.
With this example there is the additional delight of the helmeted goddess Athena staring regally from the front of the coin, a portrait that would look thoroughly contemporary on our coinage today, though made at a time when our ancestors had yet to work out what a coin even was. That was to take another couple of hundred years and the arrival of the Romans. It too sold just under its low estimate for £14,000.
I’ve always thought of the Tibetans as peace-loving Buddhists, however, a splendidly gruesome object at Duke’s on 12 November got me wondering: a 19th-century ‘kapala’ – a human skull, mounted with silver dragon and skull motifs. This though is no head-hunter’s trophy; instead, the skull would have come from a sky burial site – where dead bodies are broken up and left for the vultures and scavengers to devour and, in so doing, returned to the cycle of life – and used in religious ceremonies. It popped its top £1,000 estimate to sell for £1,100.
The ‘Armada Table’ is carved from timbers from the stern of a Spanish galleon that sank off the coast of County Clare in 1588
Above: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Colt .38 Model 1902 Right: J Purdey & Sons’ 12-bore, single-trigger, overand-under sidelock ejectors made for Eric Clapton
Clockwise from top: Union flag from HMS Duke of York; Graf Spee painting by Roy Cross; coins depicting goddess Athena and a charging bull; a painting of The Capture of the USS President by HMS Endymion in 1815
This 19th-century ‘kapala’ – a human skull featuring silver dragon and skull motifs – was taken from a sky burial site. It fetched £1,100 when sold at Dukes in November