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What’s in a name? Ask Lewis Carroll

Our latest Antiquarian Books sale provided an excellent illustration of why proper research is essential for the best outcome in any saleroom.

An inscribed presentation copy of [Charles Dodgson] Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, from 1877 carried an inscription that read: “Mr & Mrs Dyer from the Author, Sep. 27/[18]77.”

The question was: who were the Dyers?

While the fact that this was a signed copy clearly added value and its inscription made it even more attractive, the burning question was: were the Dyers merely a casual acquaintance or significant figures in the author’s life? The answer, I’m delighted to say, proved to be the latter.

Our investigations revealed that the Dyers were the couple with whom Caroll took lodgings at 7 Lushington Road, Eastbourne, for his summer holidays. Remaining with them for July to October, 1877, his stay proved to be the first of many there that he undertook for the rest of his life.

Although nominally a vacation, the period provided him with the peace and quiet he needed to work, including on his new theory of voting used to develop a system of proportional representation, which still influences parliament today.

The estimate was £500-800, but this additional nugget of information led to a battle between a bidder on the phone from the USA and another in the room, with the hammer falling at £1100.

As I said, it pays to do your homework.

Technology has taken over auctions, but not entirely

As we gear up for our latest set of busy sales in the run-up to Christmas, we are also getting to that time of year when – assuming there is time to stop and grab a breath – I like to take a moment to reflect a little on the past 12 months.

Looking at the auction industry today for fine art and chattels, it’s remarkable how far we have come in the past 20 years. From being a leading light of the local area and a little further afield, we now have a global reach when it comes to bidders, and an international reach when it comes to securing consignments, in great part thanks to the internet.

There’s simply no getting away from the importance of the Web and live online bidding, but what also strikes me is that when it comes to developing specialist knowledge for identifying objects and carrying out cataloguing and valuations, the old ways remain the best.

Speak to many of the managing directors of auction houses today, and they will say the same. Ask them how they started and, for the most part, you will find that they began as teenagers humping round furniture as humble porters before stepping on the first rung of the ladder as a junior cataloguer.

There is no substitute for handling things as they pass through – that’s the bit you simply can’t learn from a computer screen, even today.

A little bit of history – and auction history – for the festive season

OK, I’ve held off as long as I can but it’s less than a month away now, so as Advent begins on Saturday, I think it’s reasonable to mention the C word. Christmas, as we now know it, is largely the invention of Charles Dickens, thanks to his magnificent 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, which many credit with reviving interest in the declining traditions of the holiday at the time.

Just as Prince Albert introduced the German tradition of the Christmas Tree, and Coca Cola can take responsibility for the modern image of Father Christmas, so Dickens’ creation coincided with other innovations that become traditions themselves, perhaps none more so than the Christmas card.

Although the first known Yuletide greetings card dates back to the reign of James I, the Victorian tradition began in the same year that A Christmas Carol was written and published. Commissioned by the inventor Sir Henry Cole and Illustrated by John Calcott Horsley, the world’s first commercially produced card depicts a family celebration at the centre, with scenes of charity giving to each side. These were not cheap throwaways. At a shilling each, they were considered expensive and so only a few of the 1000 printed sold.

Needless to say, it is an example of this that holds the world auction record for a Christmas card, with one selling for £20,000 as long ago as 2001.

Why the destruction of art has its own set of rules

Ron English is an American contemporary artist, who is famous for exploring brand imagery and advertising. His website, Popaganda, currently promotes recent shows titled Universal Grin and Delusionville. He certainly looks cutting edge, is clearly successful and seems to know what he is doing.

However, if reports are to be believed, he may be about to make a significant and costly mistake.

In the wake of the media frenzy surrounding Banksy’s shredding of his celebrated work Girl With A Balloon at Sotheby’s, English has spent $730,000 on another Banksy – this time a mural – and has vowed to destroy it by painting it over with whitewash.

English is reported to have bought the piece at auction as a protest against the commercial exploitation of street art. However, he also says that after he has altered it he intends to sell it for $1m. This seems confused thinking at the very least.

Whatever his motives, what English has failed to take into account, as far as I can see, is that while he may have a large following, he is not Banksy. When Banksy shredded his own work, art market experts believe he added to its value by creating a new work as a result, Love is in the Bin. English overpainting a Banksy with whitewash is not the same thing at all, so the $1m is probably a pipedream – not to mention the $730,000 he has just paid out.