Estimated at £30-50, a severely damaged 1889 penny coin has just sold for nearly £5500 at auction. It was relatively rare because of its age, but not that special in terms of numismatics. No, what attracted bidders in their droves was the fact that the damage was caused by a bullet in the trenches during the First World War and its presence in the pocket of Private John Trickett had saved his life. This stroke of luck meant that, years later, his granddaughter was born and it was she who decided to put the coin up for sale – where her cousin successfully outbid others to keep it in the family.
This is a fine example of how it is so often the story associated with an item, rather than any intrinsic value, that makes it so sought after at auction.
Mistakes happen too, and while they can often be costly, they can also bring a great stroke of luck. One of my favourite stories involves a man who bought a painting in a thrift shop in Pennsylvania for $4 because he liked its frame. Removing the picture to inspect the frame more closely, he found that it concealed one of the original copies of the American Declaration of Independence, which went on to sell for $2.4 million at auction.
It’s been a remarkable couple of weeks in the auction world, and this period has reminded me of what a wonderful business we work in. Whether it is rock and pop memorabilia, fine art, photography or pretty much anything else really, something of interest has hit the headlines.
The first recording of David Bowie’s Starman, a reel-to-reel demo tape from 1971 packed away in a loft for decades, was expected to fetch £10,000 but sold for over £50,000. Peter Hook’s Joy Division collection made tens of thousands too, while the late pop star George Michael’s art collection was knocked down for £11.3 million. Meanwhile previously unseen photos of the Queen and Prince Philip relaxing on holiday in the 1940s and ’50s taken, it seems, by the author Daphne Du Maurier among others, have been consigned for an April sale.
But three auction stand out for me as the most unusual: the first involved a couple who thought they were bidding on a two-bedroom Glasgow flat but ended up buying a large derelict by mistake (this wouldn’t happen in a chattels auction); the astonishing price of $1.4 million paid for a racing pigeon and, my favourite, the food firm Heinz bought back a gold baked bean, created to mark the centenary of the popular foodstuff in 1995, for £750… also in Glasgow.
The last setting you would expect an auctioneer to take their life in their hands would be at a school’s charity fundraiser in a hotel ballroom, but that’s what happened when part of the ceiling collapsed at The Savoy on March 2. Fortunately, the only real damage was to the wonderful coving and a work of art created by the auctioneer, David Harper.
It was a lucky escape, but also a reminder of other close runs in the pursuit of our noble cause. I can think of a number of auctioneers who have found themselves holding live grenades after rummaging through a box of miscellaneous items consigned for the weekly general sale.
Certain types of auction can be more perilous than others; news in during the last week included the tale of several people hit by a car at an auto auction in the US. And spare a thought for the farmer crushed by a one-ton bull during a pedigree auction in Scotland recently.
As a whole, though, it is a comparatively safe enterprise when it comes to fine art, antiques and other chattels, I’m pleased to say. The biggest concern is usually how much damage someone may do to their wallet if they get a little too carried away when they see something they really love.
You may have read about what must be the attic find of the century in the news in the past week or so: the ‘Lost Caravaggio’.
Valued at up to £130 million, the painting – a rather lurid scene of the Biblical Judith beheading Holofernes – was discovered when a local auctioneer was called in to look at the rather dusty work after burglars had broken into a home in Toulouse and stolen a number of other items.
His inspection led to two years of research, including weeks in the laboratory of The Louvre, before the painting was unveiled as a national treasure in 2016.
As with works of this stature, however, expert opinion remains divided, with some arguing that the picture is the work of another artist or by one of Caravaggio’s students. Nonetheless, enough heavyweight opinion has swung behind the attribution for the auctioneer to proceed with confidence, and I’m delighted to say that it will be the original Toulouse auctioneer who will conduct the sale this summer.
How big a deal is this painting? Including this one, we now have 68 paintings attributed to Caravaggio, a baroque painter and one of the greatest Renaissance masters, who influenced later artists like Rembrandt, another giant of art, but considered a lesser talent than Caravaggio himself.