After decades in the business, it never ceases to amaze me how new developments can still amaze me! The latest to do so is artwork generated by artificial intelligence now selling at auction. It’s not often that I dwell on the philosophical, but I do wonder whether anything created by a computer programme, without the input of the spark of life and spiritual inspiration, can be classified as art. I’m not expecting an answer to that one in the next five minutes – after all, the human race has been creating art for at least tens of thousands of years and no one has yet been able to pin down a catch-all precise definition of what art actually is, and in many ways I hope they never do, because that would break art’s magic spell.
This calls to mind the late great Kenneth Clark, whose ground-breaking TV series Civilisation put the cultural cap on the 1960s, exactly 50 years ago (it ran from February to May 1969).
In his introduction to the first episode, entitled The Skin of our Teeth, Clark famously opined: “What is civilisation? I don’t know; I can’t define it in abstract terms, but I think I can recognise it when I see it.” Of all the emblems of civilisation across the world, what did he decide to use as his backdrop to illustrate this point? Notre Dame in Paris.
Whatever happened to Freddy the Fearless Fly? Or Dipper the Dodger? Or how about Podge, Jimmy and his Grockle, Marmaduke Mean the Miser or Flippy the Sea-Serpent?
All now lost in the mists of time, they enjoyed a brief ray of sunlight alongside the rather better known Korky the Cat a week ago when the first ever Dandy annual, from 1938, sold for a tidy £1250 at auction.
The Dandy Monster Comic, as it was then titled, was the first of more than 80 issues published over the years, with characters like the irrepressible Desperate Dan emerging along the way.
Always slightly in the shadow of its rival The Beano, a first (1940) edition of which made £2700 at auction last year, The Dandy was one of the all-time greats and, although still printed as an annual, no longer enjoys a weekly run, replaced some years ago now by an online version instead. Time moves on, I suppose, but it leaves me with a twinge of sadness.
If you really want to make money at auction from comics though, you need to look across the Pond. Superman’s first appearance in 1938 is the holy grail. On the cover and the last ten pages of Action Comics No 1, and now one of the rarest in the world, an example has already made $3.2 million at auction.
Look back 50 years and it’s a marvel to think that our parents’ and grandparents’ generations thought nothing of heading to their local auction rooms when furnishing their homes.
In those days, the local chattels auctioneer, livestock auctioneer and estate agent were often part of the same firm. It made sense; when someone died, it meant that their family could dispose of everything via a sort of one-stop shop rather than having to look around for several different firms to provide the service.
Furniture, silver, glass, ceramics and pictures from one home in the district would be recycled to others and so families built up their own collections of heirlooms and invested in chairs, tables, sofas and beds that would last a lifetime, before being handed on to someone else.
Tastes may have changed, but this tradition of making things last that predated the throwaway society we became is ripe for revival now we have become so concerned with the adverse effects of plastic and other disposable materials. It also explains why quality is as important from a practical point of view as it is from an appreciation of aesthetics. Well-made pieces built to last that are pleasing to the eye may not be the ideal for today’s manufacturer’s relying on repeat sales, but you’ll often find them at auction and they are keystones to a sustainable future, just as our parents and grandparents knew. Now it’s time for the next generation to find this out.
Occasionally someone brings an item in for valuation or sale that is so odd that it can be impossible to identify. This is either because it is so rare, no one has seen one before, or because its original purpose is now defunct.
I have seen two such items in the past week, one of which I actually handled, the other I saw in a news report. The first was a small, lozenge-shaped silver box with a finial of two birds. It was hollow and pierced to the sides and contained a stone, sealed within. The bottom of the box was ridged. What could it be? Fortunately, the owner knew. It transpired that the box once served two purposes: the first clue was in the ridged surface to the underside, which was used as an exfoliator by the ladies of the harem in the sultan’s palace; the clue to the second was the stone. As the ladies scrubbed, the stone rattled, acting as a warning to anyone about to enter that they were mid ablutions and so should not be disturbed.
The second item I saw was a real rarity: looking rather like a large metal seed, which just about fitted in the hand, it turned out to be an early form of grenade, used by crusaders, which was fund in the sea of Israel. I don’t expect to see another of those in my lifetime.