+44 (0)1428 653727 sales@johnnicholsons.com


Why the Olympics is about a lot more than just sport

PyeongChang 2018 reminds us that Olympic prowess is not just about track and field, gymnastics, cycling and swimming, wonderful sports though they all are.

Speed skating, skiing in all its forms and, to my mind the most inexplicably compelling sport to watch of all, curling, create as much excitement.

Of course, for auctioneers, dealers and collectors, the Summer and Winter Olympics provide additional excitement in the form of rare collectables, from promotional posters to medals and Olympic torches, all of which enjoy competitive markets.

Although the modern Olympics started in Athens in 1896, it wasn’t until the St Louis games of 1904 that the tradition of gold, silver and bronze medals was instituted. Designs became standardised in 1928, with one side carrying an image of the goddess of victory clutching a palm and the winner’s crown, and the other side depicting an Olympic champion being carried by the crowd. It was only at the 1972 games that a new tradition began: commissioning an artist to design to design the reverse for each games. In 2004 a new design for the goddess also featured the Olympic stadium.

The auction record for an Olympic medal? (Actually for any piece of Olympic memorabilia): the $1.46m paid in 2013 for one of the four Olympic golds won by US track and field star Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin games, an iconic victory, undermining the host nation Nazis under Adolf Hitler as it showed a black man as superior to the Aryans.


The enduring tale of love and money

I see Valentine’s Day has come round again. (I must remember to buy the essentials…)

One of the most interesting things I read about this annual event the other day is that it generates almost $15 billion worth of retail sales each year in the United States. To put it in context, that is around a quarter of the value of the entire global art market – auctions, dealer and gallery sales, fairs, private deals and so on.

That’s quite a market for a tradition whose true commercial origins date back little more than a century. Now is the time for auction houses the length and breadth of the land to put up Valentine memorabilia for auction, from early Victorian cards and sailors’ Valentines to those sent by celebrities.

Back in 2003, a Valentine card sent by Princess Diana sold for ten times its estimate at £2000, while in 2012 one sent by Amy Winehouse made £1600.

The earliest known printed Valentine’s card dates to 1797 and was published on January 12 that year by John Fairburn of 146 Minories, London. It depicted a young woman in a landscape setting at the centre, surrounded by cupids, flowers, birds and other symbols of love, as well as messages. In 2013, that made a creditable £450 at auction.

Captain Cook and his contribution to science

This year is the 290th anniversary of the birth of Captain James Cook and the 250th anniversary of his First Voyage of Exploration in the ship Endeavour. Acknowledged as one of the great heroes of British history, Cook’s contribution to society and the development of knowledge goes far beyond his role in stoking Britain’s Imperial ambitions and in part explains why copies of his journals are so sought after at auction.

Quite apart from being the first sea captain to circumnavigate the globe, making first proper European contact with what was later to be known as Hawaii in the process, he named Botany Bay in New South Wales for the unique botanical specimens collected by Joseph Banks, whose researches and collections on the voyage established the foundations for Kew Gardens and the advancement of plant science.

Cook himself was instrumental in creating the first accurate and detailed maps of the Pacific Ocean, tackling the thorny issue of longitude by employing the newly published Nautical Almanac of astronomer Charles Green. He used the lunar distance method, measuring the angular distance from the moon to the sun in the day or that of eight stars at night to determine the time at Greenwich, which then allowed him to compare that to local time determined by the position of the sun, moon or stars.

All in all, Cook was a bit of a renaissance man.

Remembering the great Red Rum

A couple of bronzes up for sale in our January 31 Fine Antique auction have rather a charming tale behind them. Both depicting horses with jockeys at full pelt, they are the work of Philip Blacker (b.1949). Not only is he a former jockey, but riding Spanish Steps he also came fourth to Red Rum in the 1973 Grand National, the first of the legendary horse’s three wins at Aintree in the world’s greatest Steeplechase, and seventh on Happy Ranger in 1977, when Red Rum won his third and final National.

Blacker’s links to Red Rum go much further though, because it was to him that the authorities at Aintree went when they wanted to mark the 40th anniversary of that record-breaking third win last year. Blacker created a miniature limited edition (400) replica. Much earlier he had been commissioned to make a life-size bronze of Red Rum, which gave him the chance to get to know the horse better, and he also went on to design a new trophy for the Grand National at the sponsors’ request. The 40th anniversary limited edition was an exact miniature of the earlier statue.

Describing Red Rum as “charismatic”, Blacker remembers that most of the time all he ever got to see going round the racecourse was the great horse’s backside as he shot ahead. Happy racing days indeed.