The Romance of the Auction Room.
J. A. MIDDLETON, IN PEARSON’S MAGAZINE.
Extraordinary things have been sold in auction rooms. As the writer says “ Nothing is sacred to the auctioneer.” Great auk’s eggs command an enormous price and are very rare. Relics of famous men, paintings, vases and art goods are largely traded in. A long list of articles which have sold high up, has been compiled by the writer.
QUEER things come under the auctioneer’s hammer in cosmopolitan London. From an idol’s eye to a lock of Napoleon’s hair nothing is sacred to the auctioneer. It is odd, too, how the most gruesome relies will always find a ready sale—bloodstained garments and handkerchiefs worn by victims of assassinations or criminals on the scaffold or guillotine, bullets that have brought death, cases containing mummies, or skeletons, and so on. There was active competition lately for a small portion of the skin of a notorious Danish pirate, who had been (presumably) flayed alive, taken from the Norman Church at Hadstock; and about three years ago, attention was drawn in the House of Commons to the fact that the bones of some British soldiers, who fell in the first Afghan war, were about to be offered as “curios” in a London, auction room !
Perhaps the most remarkable “lot” ever put up to auction was the Roman Empire. It was sold to the highest bidder in 193 and knocked down to Julian, after a keen competition with Sulpician, for 6250 drachmas. Put this by the way.
Whenever a great auk’s egg is to be sold by auction, great interest prevails.
The last great auk died in 1847. A perfect egg, with a pedigree, has fetched no less a price than £300. There are supposed to be seventy-
two of these eggs in existence, and nearly all those that have been under the hammer have passed through the hands of Mr. J. C. Stevens, the wellknown curio dealer and auctioneer of Covent Garden, some which fetched £30 at his rooms being now valued at 300 guineas—in fact Mr. Stevens’ rooms are sometimes referred to as the “Great Auktion Rooms.” One specimen sold last March realized £210 During its chequered career it was once lost for twenty-five years.
Many are the romantic stories in connection with great auk’s eggs. One interesting anecdote about them is related by Mr. Stevens.
A country lad attended a provincial sale and bought a box of miscellaneous articles for one pound sixteen shillings. At the bottom of the box were two large eggs, which the lad took to Mr. Stevens.
They turned out to be the famous auk’s eggs and Mr. Stevens sold one, almost immediately, for 280 guineas while the other was disposed of later for 180 guineas.
It was Mr. Stevens, by the way, who sold the hat of the late President Kruger. Although very old and greasy, it went for the sum of twent}7six guineas, amid the satirical comments of the crowd. A buyer who was present inquired if it was hallmarked. “No,” replied Mr. Stevens, “ it is Paul-marked.”
The bugle with which TrumpetMajor Joy, of the 17th Lancers,
sounded the order for the famous charge at the Battle of Balaclava is in the possession of Mr. T. G. Middlebrook, of Mornington Road, Regent’s Park, who paid 750 guineas for it at one of Messrs. Debenham & Storr’s auctions.
Joy was standing close behind Major Nolan when that officer was killed at the beginning of the charge. He himself survived it, and when he left the army the Duke or Cambridge gave him a post in the War Office, which he kept until he retired on account of his age, on a pension. He died in 1893. The bugle is a treble instrument of brass, with a powerful, yet sweet tone. It holds the place of honor in Mr. Middlebrook’s interesting private museum, wrhere many other rare curios are gathered together, including a superb collection of great auk’s eggs, for which the owner has paid almost fabulous prices. The sum he gave for the first was 180 guineas. Since then he has purchased three more eggs for 280 guineas, 160 guineas and 300 guineas respectively, this last price breaking the record.
Two good stories were once told ?t the auctioneer’s conference:
At a certain rummage sale in London, one of the lots put down by the clerk consisted of three silver cups which had been found in a cupboard. They had been overlooked by the representative of a well-known firm, and nobody attached any importance to them. Presently, however, a
gentleman drove up to the auc-
tioneer’s office in a hansom, and said he would like to buy the cups. The auctioneer asked him how much he would give for them, and the reply was £300.
The auctioneer was staggered, but
quietly remarked., ‘ ‘ I do not think my client will take that. ’ ’ Soon after he sent out for an expert who examined the cups and pronounced them to be silver chalices of the sixteenth century, offering to give £700 for them there and then, which was refused.
The cups were put up for sale and realised £1135. They had originally come out of a monastary in Spain, and two Catholic noblemen bid vigorously for them. Had the man who discovered their value only kept silent, he might have picked them up at the auction for a few pounds.
A London auctioneer was once asked to make a valuation for probate at Wimbledon. The estate belonged to an old lady of miserly habits and was expected to be valued at about £1,500. A careful search was made for any little parcels of stray jewelry and it met with its reward, for jewels to the amount of between £5,000 and £6,000 were found, including a string of pearls which had never been worn, and which was worth £4,700. Some of the jewels were found hidden in pieces of toast and other strange substances, and a good deal of the property was found in a loft over a stable. The old lady’s personal jewelry, which she always wore, consisted of a set of Scotch pebbles. She alone had had access to two of her rooms for twenty years, and in them a magnificent collection of old silver was found.
Christie’s are distinguished for their connection with the fine arts. From 1766 down to the present day the most celebrated connoisseurs have gathered in their rooms. The first Christie, who was painted by Gainsborough, knew most of the eminent men of his time. Garrick, Richard Wilson, and Gainsborough frequently
dined with him, and he was known as the “princely minded Christie.” The original Chippendale rostrum and the ivory hammer which has sealed so often the fate of the Lares and Penates of good old families, are still in constant use at King street, St. James.
A romantic story hangs around the famous Portland vase, probably the most interesting , lot ever sold at Christie’s. A chance discovery led to its recovery from a grave where it had lain for hundreds of years. In the early part of the seventeenth century some workmen, digging on a hill near Rome, came upon a large vault containing a marble sarcophagus in which was a dark blue glass vase, about ten inches high, ornamented with figures in relief, of opaque white glass. The vase was full of ashes, but there was no inscription to show whose remains were deposited in the urn.
For a long time the vase stood in the library of the Barberini Palace in Rome; then the story goes that a Roman princess, the representative of the Barberini family, parted with it to pay her card-playing debts. The circumstances reached the ears of the Pope, who forbade the owner to remove the vase from Rome. Nevertheless it was smuggled out of the city, and sold to Sir William Hamilton, who sold it, in time, to the Duchess of Portland. The transaction was conducted with so much secrecy that even the Duchess’ own family were kept in ignorance of it.
When the Duchess of Portland died, in 1786, the vase came under the hammer. The Duke of Portland and] Josiah Wedgwood were both equally! anxious to possess it, and when the Duke learnt that the potter wanted it for
copying purposes, he offered to lend it to him if he would not compete at the sale. This was agreed to, and the vase was knocked down to the Duke for £1,029.
In 1810 the vase was placed in the Portland museum, then Montague House, but another chapter was still to be added to its romance. A man' named William Lloyd, who was recovering from a drunken bout, picked up a Babylonian stone and hurled it at the vase. There was a crash, aud the exquisite gem of ancient art fell, shattered by a barbarous act of vandalism. The pieces were put together again, and the vase, which is estimated to be worth at least £10,000, can be seen to-day in the Gold Ornament Room of the British Museum. The cameo-like figures upoq it represent the meeting of Peleus and Thetis in the presence of Poseidon and Eros.
Other famous vases were the three Rose du Barri Sevres specimens, found by the Earl of Coventry in a long disused room of his mansion. On being sent to Christie’s they fetched £10,500 on June 12th, 1874, and were purchased by the Earl of Dudley.
A famous sale in auction annals was that of the Wynn Ellis collection in May, 1876, for at it the celebrated portrait of Georgina Duchess of Devonshire by Gainsborough fetched 10,100 guineas.
A few days later London was petrified with astonishment to learn that the picture had been stolen from the rooms of its purchaser, Mr. Agnew, of Old Bond Street, having been cut out of the frame during the night.
A reward of £1,000 was offered, and for many years police investigations went on, but without success.
The following year a portrait purporting to be “The original and fam-
ous portrait of the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire,” was exhibited, but found to be an impudent fraud. Other so-called originals have made their appearance from time to time, but only last year the picture itself made a dramatic reappearance in London.
It had, it seems, been stolen by Adam Worth, an American professional criminal, who has since died in England. The robbery was carried out under cover of a London fog, and was not undertaken for the purpose of making money, but to induce Mr. Agnew to go bail for one of Worth’s burglar friends, who was under arrest in Paris.
The picture was nailed into the false bottom of a trunk and smuggled to America. The hue and cry prevented Worth from coming forward, but eventually, through the mediation of two men, named Pat Sheedy and Robert Pinkerton, the painting was restored to the Agnew family.
Mr. Agnew eventually sold it to Mr. Pierpont Morgan, in whose possession it now remains, for the sum of £40,000.
Mr. Pierpont Morgan is the proud possessor of many of the costliest things in the world, and the followingare some of his treasures, with the prices he paid for them:
Raphael’s Madonna of St.
Anthony of Padua.......£100,000
Van Eyck’s Gothic tapestry 100,000
Fragonard panels painted
for Madame du Barri... 70,000
Four tapestries after
Guilinano silver collection.. 60,000
Mannheim collection of
The Limoges Triptych, by
Nadan Penicauld........ 20,000
Garland porcelain collection 150,000 Landscape by Hobbema.... 50,000
At the sale of Horace Walpole’s collection at Strawberry Hill, Anne Boleyn ’s clock, in silver gift, bearing the initials, “H.A.” above a truelover’s knot with motto “The Most Happye,” was sold. It was given to her by the King on the morning of the marriage, and, as Harrison Ainsworth truly said at the time of the auction, ‘ ‘ This love token of enduring affection remains the same after three centuries; but four years after it was given the object of Henry’s eternal love was sacrificed upon the scaffold. The clock still goes; it should have stopped for ever when Anne Boleyn died.”
This relic was bought by the late Queen for £110.
A silver mounted rock crystal ewer was discovered by an expert among some old rubbish in the päntry at Beauclesert, and sold among the late Marquis of Anglesey’s effects for 4,000 guineas.
It was only 6 1-2 in. high and was of English sixteenth century workmanship, although the design was obviously inspired by some masterpiece of Benvenuto Cellini. The spout was formed by a dragon and the exquisite chasing of the handle was certainly reminiscent of early Italian influence.
The highest price previously given for a piece of silver sold by auction was fetched by the famous Tudor cup in 1902, which realized £4,100 at the Dunn-Gardner sale, so the Anglesey ewer beat the record.
But the record has again been beaten lately by the famous rock crystal biberon—a drinking vessel
with a spout—which fetched £16,275 at Christie’s in May.
An exciting duel for its possession took place between Mr. Duveen and Mr. Charles Wertheimer, the latter gaining the victory. Mr. John Gabbatas, the owner, had placed a reserve of only 5,000 guineas on it, so the result must have been, a pleasant surprise to him.
The famous rose-pink “Agra” diamond formed the last item in the recent sale of Messrs. Streeter & Co.’s stock of jewels at Christie’s. Like most big diamonds it has a curious and romantic history. Nearly five hundred years ago it was proudly worn by the Sultan Baber, the founder of the Mogul Empire. In 1857 it was taken from the King of Delhi, and smuggled out of India by being placed in a horse-ball, which a horse was made to swallow. In due course it became well known in Europe, and it formed the subject of a case in the law courts in 1892. Finally it reposed in a wadding-lined box at Christie’s under the admiring gaze of experts who had journeyed from all parts of the world, several Indian gentlemen being noticeable among them. A bid of £1,000 was made at once, and the gem was ultimately knocked down to Mr. Max Mayer for £5,100.
As the Agra weighed over thirtyone carats this was a relatively small price. The “Hope” blue diamond, for instance, is valued at £20,000 to £30,000, and the “Koh-i-noor” is supposed to be worth £120,000.
Does the old proverb about lucky spoons affect the value of old silver Apostle spoons'? They are so keenly sought after that a collection of sixteen Early English Apostle spoons realized £1,035 at Christie ’s last February, and these were odd spoons—
a complete set brought close upon £5,000 in 1904. Certainly the owner would be “lucky” in possessing them, if only for their marketable value. The highest price ever fetched by a silver spoon was reached at the DunnGardner sale, when one with the motto “St. Nicolas pray for us” engraved on it was sold for no less a sum than £690.
A curious object came under the hammer in Wellington Street in 1901. It was no other than a preserved fragment of a “Protestant Cheese,” which was presented to H.R.H. the Duke of York by the inhabitants of the County Palatine of Chester, in gratitude for his able vindication of the Protestant Ascendancy in Parliament on April 25th, 1825.
It was the largest cheese ever made and weighed 149 pounds. The Duke gave a small portion of it to Mary Isabella, Duchess of Rutland, and this fragment realized £1 14s. in the sale room.
Sotheby’s does for books what Christie’s does for pictures. At a recent sale of autographs and manuscripts of exceptional interest one of the items revived memories of one of the most romantic love stories in history—that of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. It was in the form of a letter from the gallant sailor to his “Enchantress,” addressed to “Lady Hamilton, 23 Piccadilly, London,” both contents and address beingsigned in full, which was unusual.
The letter ran:
Amazon, off Folkstone,
September 25th, 1801.
My Dearest Emma—
I got under sail this morning at daylight, intending to return to the Downs on Sunday or Monday, but
receiving a note from Dr. Baird of our dear Parker’s being worse, and requesting me to stay a day or two longer, and as it is calm, so that I can neither get to the coast of France or to Dungeness, I am returning to the Downs. My heart, I assure you, is very low; last night I had flattered myself, I now have no hopes. I dare say Dr. Baird will write you a line, but we must bear up against these misfortunes. I have not had your letters to-day; they are my only comfort. Yesterday the Calais flat boats, &c., came out. Captain Russell chased them in again, but they can join at any time, as the season approaches when we cannot go on their coast. You must, my dear friend, forgive me, for I cannot write anything worth your reading, except that I am at all times, situations, and places—Yours, NELSON AND BRONTE.
Lady Hamilton has certainly con-
tributed more than her share towards the romance of the auction room. From time to time one or another of Romney’s beautiful portraits of her comes into the market and she has been portrayed upon china plates and many other objects. The highest price ever paid for a letter (over £1,000) was realized for one written to her by Lord Nelson.
A series of epistles from Charles Dickens to George Cattermole included in the same sale threw an interesting light on the method of illustrating Dickens’ books, and showed how much the illustrations really owed to the novelist’s own suggestions. Cattermole was the well-known water-color artist who contributed illustrations to “Barnaby Rudge” and other books by Dickens, and in corresponding with him Dickens’ suggestions often amounted to word-pictures.