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soldiers rather than the enemy in the trench is anyone’s guess, but is was a marketing disaster and the toy was soon withdrawn.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!