News that the late great Tommy Cooper’s trademark fez is up for auction with an estimate of £3,000 reminds me of my favourite joke of his: “I’m on a whisky diet; I’ve lost three days already.”
And if the fez is as closely associated with Cooper as the large corona cigar is with Churchill, then nowhere in Scotland – the spiritual home of whisky in more ways than one – is the single malt more closely associated than the island of Islay.
Its various forms include Bowmore (named after the island’s capital), the oily, peaty Lagavulin and Ardbeg, sublime Caol Ila and perhaps the smoothest of all single malts, Bunnahabhain. Port Ellen, Laphroaig and Bruichladdich are other leading brands.
Between them they are thought to provide Islay with one of the highest value exports per capital of any community in the world. With around 3,000 inhabitants and a whisky export industry worth close to £300 million a year, that figure comes out at around £100,000 a head. That beats the leading country per capita export value (Liechtenstein) of around $100,000.
No surprise, then, that dedication to the ‘water of life’ is so strong and widespread, not just on the island itself but among wealthy collectors.
Now there is news that the most extensive and complete collection from Islay is going under the hammer as part of Fèis Ìle, the annual festival of music and malt, on May 24.
The consignment comes from Pat’s Whisky Collection, the largest private collection of whisky ever to come to auction. Those Pat has selected from his 9,000 “bottle library” includes the legendary single cask 1982 Port Ellen, of which only 220 bottles are thought to exist, and a limited issue Bowmore 25-year-old, produced in only 100 bottles.
It’s a collector’s dream.
The fine art market is home to a concept known as “wall power”. This advocates a notion of the-bigger-the-better, particularly when it comes to contemporary art. Partially this is because a larger work of art on your wall – or a larger sculpture in your hallway or garden – is likely to have a bigger impact. However, wall power can have its drawbacks at auction. In order for substantially sized paintings or sculpture to do well (assuming they’re any good, of course), an auction house must be able to attract buyers not just with enough money to raise the level of bidding, but also with homes and gardens large enough to accommodate such purchases to scale.
So works like these can also be status symbols, because they tell everyone that the buyer is of sufficient means both to buy the work at a significant price and also must have a big enough wall to hang it on.
Never underestimate status as a strong driver of demand when it comes to buying art among the wealthy.
Fortunately, not all art is priced by the inch. In fact, some of the world’s most expensive pieces are very small indeed. The world’s rarest and most desirable stamp, for instance, the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, has been valued at around $15 million for auction in New York soon, while Leonardo da Vinci’s beautiful signed drawing of the head of a bear is expected to fetch up to £12 million at auction this summer. However, for my money, the most desirable work per inch sold at auction must be an ancient carving known as the Guennol Lioness. Around 5,000 years old and from Mesopotamia, the limestone sculpture has a remarkably modern Art Deco air about it. Its chiselled features stand out strongly along it 8cm high frame. When it came to auction in 2007, it sold for $57.2 million.
“I am the greatest,” shouted Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in 1963 on his comedy album that is now seen as a precursor of rap and hip hop. It may have been a semi-serious claim at the time, but the world sat up and took notice when he became World Heavyweight Champion six months later, beating the heavily favoured title holder Sonny Liston.
Many consider Ali the greatest sportsman of the 20th century – an amazing claim but one sustained by the strength and individual nature of his character and his ability to tap into the public mood.
In the world of rock and pop memorabilia, for all their worship at the altars of Elvis and Buddy Holly, auction records and the fans have made it very clear that there is no one to touch The Beatles, the most iconic band of all time – a status that they are unlikely ever to cede to anyone else.
Now Roger Federer has announced that he is to auction 20 lots of his match-worn clothing and racquets from his Grand Slam wins on June 23 to raise money for his foundation.
Nadal may have matched his men’s Grand Slam record of 20 titles, and Djokovic may even pass that to set a new record in the next year or so. But the frustrating thing for Djokovic, to whom this means so much, is that the number of titles doesn’t matter because we all know – and he knows – that what makes Federer the GOAT is something that surpasses the results board: that untouchable mix of grace, athleticism and perfectionism leavened by a healthy dose of self-deprecation and the seemingly effortless ability to charm the fans.
So far, Federer is a shoo-in for the greatest sportsman of the 21st century, proving that, in the end, being the greatest is about character. This auction should be a landmark sale in every way.
With headlines celebrating huge prices for modern collectables like sneakers, comics and plastic toys, the traditional world of fine furniture and silver auctions can seem a long way away. The reality, though, is that at heart little has changed except for current tastes.
People of all ages like to have nice things and they also like to make a bit of money from things they no longer want or need, which other people might appreciate.
The factors that govern values in Pokémon playing cards are little different from those that determine what people will pay for other, older works on paper, especially rarity and condition.
Sometimes people of different generations like the same things without realising it because they call them different names: what younger collectors refer to as vintage posters, advertising packaging and other transitory pieces of design would be called ephemera by the collectors of yesteryear. The trick is getting people to appreciate that ‘antique’ is not dead and gone, it’s simply transitioning as the years go by, along with the terms we use to describe it.
The result is that auction houses have begun to change the way they present their sales calendar and departments to reflect the changing attitudes of the public who tend to think of objects in terms of furnishing and design rather than as academic collectables. Furniture, lighting and works of art sales have now sometimes come together under the title of Homes & Interiors, for instance. And the types of furniture, from the way they are designed to the materials they are made from, have also moved on, with the occasional backward glance as out-of-fashion pieces suddenly become à la mode once more.