Opening Bids: This Old Chap
In 2006, Bonhams London introduced an annual auction as curious as the objects it proffered. Called Gentleman’s Library, the sale was packed with items one might find in a cultured Victorian’s retreat, and it was an instant hit. This January’s edition marked its 10th anniversary and the typically quirky inventory included antler-handled cutlery, a dinosaur bone cigar box, a surprisingly attractive chunk of tree fungus, a rare Kerala canoe, Egyptian bronzes and Roman marble statuary, an agate snuff bottle, and other fascinating specimens. The sale tallied a grand total of about $1.7 million against an estimate of about $2.2 million to $3.1 million, with top lot honors going to an early Victorian parquetry table, which fetched $38,300. Curious treasures can make for curious performances, as the results show: The 2015 sale was almost 58 percent sold by lot and 62 percent sold by value.
For years, Bonhams had left field all to itself, but no more. Christie’s London debuted its Out of the Ordinary auction in 2013 and it quickly earned a spot on the auction house’s calendar (the next one is scheduled for September 10). Last year, Skinner, located in Boston, held its inaugural Gentleman’s Auction, an online event that ran from November 20 through December 1. The second will likely happen in June, around Father’s Day.
Though they take slightly different approaches, the three sales all draw upon virtually every department in the auction house. “Out of the Ordinary has now given us a place for the quirky, unusual pieces,” says Anna Evans, director and head of European decorative arts at Christie’s. “It’s been incredibly successful. People really respond to it.” Presumably, just like the Victorians responded to these intriguing objects for their personal domains.
Cultured gentlemen then and now gazed upon the heavens, and centuries ago, they did it in style. Offered by Bonhams, this exquisite brass 7-inch reflecting telescope on a mahogany tripod base with cabriole legs, dating to 1850 or so, is credited to Thomas Morton. He was not a prolific maker of scientific instruments, but he was a good one—the only other example of his work is in the National Museum of Scotland.
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