What’s the strangest thing you have ever seen at auction? I was asked the other day. A good question, but difficult to answer after several decades in the job.
Thinking back though, a number of items stand out – not necessarily ones that passed through my hands, but nevertheless memorable. The New Patent Exploding Trench was one. A WW1 toy produced briefly by Britains, it involved a wooden and fabric trench loaded with six lead riflemen of the Gloucestershire Regiment. When hit, a specially placed flagstaff set off a cap, which made a loud report, shaking the trench and “killing” the soldiers. Why a British factory should have put British soldiers rather than the enemy in the trench is anyone’s guess, but is was a marketing disaster and the toy was soon withdrawn. The result? A rare collectable that has made a decent four-figure sum in the two or three times it has appeared at auction over the past 20 years.
Perhaps the most chilling thing I have seen was not at auction but at a restoration firm. What looked like a framed piece of parchment turned out to be a collection of tattoos cut from the bodies of French soldiers in the field of Waterloo. Now who would want to buy that?
Some of the most surprising and superb things appear when people bring things in for valuation. Like the Boys Scouts, we are always prepared for what is presented to us!
What is the most valuable item sold at auction for its size? One piece that might like to stake a claim is the Pokémon card that has just sold for $420,000. No larger than an ordinary playing card, the rare 1999 Pokémon Base Set Shadowless 1st Edition Holo Charizard card is the holy grail for Pokémon collectors.
“What makes the card so unique is its perfect PSA 10 Gem Mint grading. Even though there are 3,000 copies of the card, only 121 have been given that designation, according to PWCC,” reports CNN.
It may be a large sum for so slight an object, but it comes nowhere near the record. At least two other items beat it hands down.
The first is the rather smaller (around half the Pokémon card’s size) Honus Wagner baseball card that took $6.6 million at an online auction in August last year. Long considered the most desirable of all baseball cards, it passed the $5.2 million paid for a Micky Mantle rookie card just seven months earlier.
However, even this pales into insignificance compared with the price paid for the world’s most valuable stamp: the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, reputedly the only one left. Whether by weight or size (29 x 26mm), at $8.3 million (£6.2 million), its sale to Stanley Gibbons in July 2021 gives it a value of just over £2 million per square inch.
But wait; as far back as December 2007, the 5,000-year-old limestone carving dubbed the Guennol Lioness, a startlingly modern looking 3¼in high figure, took $57.2 million (then £28.9 million) at Sotheby’s. That’s £8.9 million per vertical inch.
As anyone who visits our Fernhurst saleroom on a regular basis will know, working in the auction business is more of a vocation than a job. Days off are few and far between and even when they do come round, you always have your eye open for a business opportunity. It can be a bit of an obsession, and it’s not long before you realize that no matter how hard you try to relax, you are never really off duty.
I have even found myself, while on holiday, turning over the cups and saucers in tearooms to check the maker’s marks in the hope of a major discovery.
The upside of all this is that having spent several decades seeking out consignments before dispersing them from the rostrum, the excitement of uncovering something special and then making sure I do the owner proud when selling it is as thrilling today as ever. That thrill of the chase is what also drives dealers and collectors, to a great degree, as well as the desire to handle and own something of rare quality and craftsmanship.
One of the most interesting aspects of the job comes on valuation days, when we have no idea what people will bring in for assessment. Occasionally this leads to the discovery of a real gem!
Like any business, we suffer dull days and disappointment, but I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing.
We all like solving puzzles because of the intrigue, drama, journey of discovery and sense of achievement. Perhaps that’s why so many cop series and whodunnits make it onto the small screen.
Perhaps, too, that’s why the treasure hunt nature of so many antiques programmes has thrived over the years.
If you think about it, collectors, dealers and auction house specialists are all detectives in their own way, seeking out the history and associations of objects, looking for clues as to who made them and how, and also identifying characteristics and qualities that affect value.
Sometimes it can be the apparently most insignificant piece of information that unlocks the secret.
I can remember being asked to identify the exact location of the view on a vintage postcard. The owner, who was selling an album of these views at auction, knew the area well but simply could not recognise the view depicted, which did not appear to go with the caption.
I studied it for about five minutes. In the foreground of the view was a river. Then I noticed that rowing boats tethered to the far bank were all drifting in the same direction, which, of course, would mean downstream. That was the key. Knowing the area myself and which way the river flowed, I realised that the photograph had been taken from the opposite bank and that the location being described in the caption was actually behind the photographer and across from the view in the photograph.
It might not have been the discovery of the century, or resulted in a fortune being made, but the sense of excitement and satisfaction at solving the riddle was just as palpable.
This is the sort of careful approach we need to take when making valuations on behalf of clients or drawing up catalogue descriptions.