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Letter from London

Ian McKay | August 18th, 2013

Ian McKay, ianmckay1@btinternet.com

As the summer season of London sales draws to a close, I find my “waiting for report” files bursting at the seams—as ever. Over the coming months, I will work through them, and forthcoming “Letters” will include lots of paintings and drawings, plenty of clocks, some good silver, fine furnishings, and so on. This month, however, I have selected 16th-century slipware with royal associations, more Chinese works of art, a stunning ivory portrait of an English banker, and a couple of Medicis profiled on a rock crystal masterwork. There is also one of those gadgets that Q hands over to 007 in the Bond movies, a watch that turned a handsome profit to its lucky finder. We also have Alméria, an exotic Art Deco dancer, another M.A.D. menagerie, and a high-priced hoard of coins once thought worthless. For the first time, I think, in this feature, there is news of a record-breaking car sale. I have had old aeroplanes and boats before, so it seemed only fair to give the cars a run out—but I promise not to make a habit of it.



This hoard of almost mint 1890 farthings sold for $96,220 by Woolley & Wallis of Salisbury. The farthings that I remember as a boy had the sovereign’s head on one side and a wren on the other, but these Victorian farthings bearing Queen Victoria’s still youthful likeness (she had been Queen for 53 years by 1890) had, on the other face, the much used image of a seated Britannia, with a lighthouse behind her.

The Fabulous Fourthlings of Crichel House

There will be households all over the U.K. that have, tucked away in a drawer or box somewhere and perhaps long forgotten, a few examples of the coins that we all used before decimalisation arrived in this country. There will be half-crowns, florins, shillings, tanners (sixpence) and threepenny bits, pennies, and halfpennies. There will also be farthings, a coin that 50 to 60 years ago was recognised as effectively worthless.

Some will have kept them as collectors’ items, some for sentimental reasons, and some because they never got spent and just accumulated. I have a neighbour, Brian, who has always collected/hoarded all sorts of odd things. Brian has tins full of the things, but I hope that he does not get too excited if he learns about another hoard of old farthings that sold at auction in July for a very high sum indeed.

This extraordinary cache of 2794 Victorian farthings, all dated 1890 and—allowing for some spotting and minor imperfections—in lustrous, mint condition, came from the estate of the late Mary Anna Marten of Crichel House, near Wimbourne in Dorset, and it is this provenance, as much as anything else, I imagine, that accounted for their great success.

Crichel House is a grand country house that had been in the Alington family for some 300 years until it was sold this year, and it was in 1890 that an unidentified member of the family had a £5 bet with a friend as to which of two raindrops would reach the bottom of a windowpane first. These two Victorian gamblers were perhaps inspired by a much more famous wager of that very same nature that took place in 1816 at White’s, a famous gentleman’s club in London.

That earlier bet of £3000, it has been suggested, would equate to around $300,000 today, but even though the wager at Crichel House was a much more modest, albeit still substantial one of £5, the losing party took it badly and “honoured” the debt by paying in brand new farthings acquired from his bank. The word honoured does not sit well in this context, and I doubt whether their friendship survived the bet and the petty manner in which the loser’s obligations were met.

In those times, and even when I was boy, there were 240 pennies to the pound and four farthings to the penny—its name deriving from the Anglo-Saxon feorthing, or fourthling. I can remember being able to buy individual chewy sweets for a farthing in our local corner shop, but even in the 1950’s the farthing was something of an anachronism, and it was withdrawn from circulation in 1960.

Farthings were still legal tender up to the equivalent of one shilling—that is 12 pence, or 48 of the little things—but everyone had stories of, say, bus conductors refusing to accept eight pesky little farthings for a tuppenny fare, let alone the doubtful wisdom of attempting to offer 48 of them for a pint of beer!

The Crichel House coins were wrapped in tissue paper at the time of issue and though, over the years, some were spent or given away, the 2794 that remained in store in a cupboard are still pretty much as delivered—as the image shows.

Part of a July 16 and 17 sale held by Woolley & Wallis of Salisbury, the hoard had been valued at around $24,000 by Daniel Fearon, a numismatic specialist and consultant whose observation on the man who lost the bet is worth quoting here, “He went to great lengths to be a bloody nuisance.”

The winning bid was one of $96,220.



The ex-Rawlinson/Falkner collection fleur-de-lis decorated slipware dish by Thomas Toft, 1670-85, which sold for $72,870 at Bonhams on May 1.


Charles II hides in the Boscobel Oak following his defeat by Cromwell’s army at the Battle of Worcester in 1651—a slipware dish of 1680-85 by William Talor that made $80,335 as one of the three examples from the famous Frank Falkner collection sold at Bonhams.


William and Mary are seen on this cracked Staffordshire slipware dish of 1689-95 that sold for $61,670 at Bonhams.

Kings Up Trees Should Avoid Slipware

Usually associated with the early Staffordshire potteries—but also made at Wrotham in Kent and elsewhere from the 17th century—slipware is the name given to a type of earthenware decorated with a mix of red- or buff-coloured clay and water, known as slip. The slip decoration is trailed, dotted, scratched, or applied in moulded form and then covered in a thick, glassy, clear lead glaze. Many slipware pieces, be they dishes, pots, cups, or jugs, are of sturdy, thick construction and ideal for the rigours of domestic usage, but on the other hand, the highly decorative nature of some of these early wares indicates that display was also a consideration.

A pioneering collector in this field was Frank Falkner, a man attracted by the primitive charm of Staffordshire wares, and one whose pioneering book on the Wood family of Burslem (Staffordshire) potters helped establish a new market for early pottery figures. Following his death in 1930, the family retained the collection until 1956, when it found its way to Sotheby’s and a major auction. A small number of pieces were, however, held back at the time, and on May 1 of this year, three slipware dishes from Falkner’s original collection were seen at Bonhams. All three are pictured and described here.

Though very little is known about his life, Thomas Toft is a famous name in the history of these early wares, and sold for $72,870 at Bonhams was a slipware dish decorated to the pale ochre ground in light-brown slip and featuring a large fleur-de-lis as its dominant decorative theme—though the name of its maker is also prominently and proudly displayed.

Only two signed and dated Toft pieces are recorded. They bear the dates 1671 and 1674, and, as he died in 1689, perhaps the best that can be suggested by way of age for this 17 1/8" diameter dish is 1670-85.

The dish has been broken and repaired, but the breakage seems to have occurred in the last hundred years, as an illustration of the dish in the catalogue for a 1913 exhibition of Early English Earthenware held at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London shows no sign of this damage. At the time, the dish was in the collection of William G. Rawlinson, who was also a noted collector of Turner drawings and prints (publishing a study of the latter) and of Chinese blue and white porcelain.

Sold at $80,335 was a slipware dish of 1680-85 with decoration inspired by a well-known incident from English history—and one that at the time was still pretty recent history as well.

A subject that the dish’s maker, William Talor, turned to more than once—as indeed did Toft—it depicts a key moment in Charles II’s first ill-fated attempt to return from exile and regain the throne his father had lost on the executioner’s block. In 1651, his royalist forces routed and fleeing from Oliver Cromwell’s “New Model Army” following the Battle of Worcester, Charles hid from his pursuers in a pollarded oak near Boscobel House in Shropshire.

It had been politely suggested to the king that hiding in Boscobel House itself was unwise, and with the aid of the quite inappropriately named Major Careless, he was persuaded to take refuge in a nearby oak. In fact, Charles was even able to sleep in the tree whilst careful Careless kept watch until it was safe to continue their flight from the country.

In 1680, at much the same time that Talor was creating this dish, Samuel Pepys recounted in his diaries an account of the escape that Charles II—by then long restored to his throne—had given him of the incident.

“We went, and carried up with us some victuals for the whole day, viz., bread, cheese, small beer and nothing else, and got up into a great oak that had been lopped three or four years before, and being grown out again, very bushy and thick, could not be seen through and here we staid all day.”

In Talor’s dish, a rather comic-looking Charles hides in the Boscobel Oak, which is flanked by the heraldic royal supporters, the Lion of England and the Unicorn of Scotland, united in the royal coat of arms at the time of the accession to the throne of the first Stuart King of England, James I (James VI of Scotland) in 1603. Charles II is said to have had a liking for slipware, though whether he would have been amused by this dish is another matter.

Dated to 1689-95 and by an unidentified maker was a dish decorated in familiar, simple form with the figures of William III and Mary and inscribed on the trellis border “God:Bless:K:W:&:q:M.” A similarly decorated dish sold by Christie’s in 1999 bore the initials W.S., which have been identified as those of a William Simpson, but whether his name should also be attached to this dish is a matter for discussion. The dish sold at $61,670.



This 18" long white marble version of François Pompon’s famous Ours Blanc sold for $258,985 at Sotheby’s on July 2.

 

This 34¾" high Coadestone tiger sold for $76,955 and was among the garden ornaments and statues from Dunsborough Park at a Christie’s South Kensington sale of June 19 and 20.

This late 15th-century bronze aquamanile from Nuremberg, 11" high, sold for $273,360 at Christie’s on July 5.

Sold for $2,142,555 at Christie’s on July 4 was this 37½" high écorché bronze figure of a horse, a cast of circa 1810 by Giuseppe Valadier but based on a 16th-century original, the so-called Mattei Horse, now in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

 

This pair of Qianlong period cloisonné enamel elephants sold for $774,495 at Christie’s on May 14.

 

In 1829, this “extraordinary and minute copy of animated nature,” a nearly 3" long automaton silkworm, was put up for sale with other large and small mechanical wonders that had been previously toured and exhibited around Britain by Henri Maillardet. Five years later, it was sold once more when, following the death of its proprietor, the contents of Thomas Weeks’s Mechanical Museum in Tichbourne Street, London, were sold off over several days. On that occasion, it was bought a Mr. Strachan for a sum that would now equate to $9. At Sotheby’s on July 3 of this year, it sold at $350,595.

A High-Priced M.A.D. Menagerie

Gathered here, or perhaps rounded up would be a  better term, are a polar bear, two horses, a pair of elephants, and a tiger. Created from a variety of materials and varying in dates from the 15th to the 20th century, this is nothing less than a very special and very expensive M.A.D. menagerie. The inhabitants are described below, and all are illustrated here.

Sold for $258,985 at Sotheby’s on July 2 was a white marble sculpture of an Ours Blanc, or polar bear. It was an example of the single most admired work of the French sculptor François Pompon (1855-1933). Indeed, the work was so closely linked with his name that a bronze cast of the bear’s head even adorned the door of his Paris atelier in the 1930’s.

After the model’s first monumental appearance at the 1922 Salon d’Automne in Paris, it was reproduced in a variety of materials and sizes, and it is thought that 13 marble versions in the size (18" long) seen at Sotheby’s were executed in the period up to 1933. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris has a marble version that is over 8' long, and there is another big version in Dijon, where Pompon once worked and studied. Bronze and plaster versions are to be found in other museums, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

My tiger was to be found among the garden statuary and ornaments from Dunsborough Park in Surrey sold by Christie’s South Kensington on June 19 and 20. The Dutch owners of the house are the Baron and Baroness Sweerts de Landas Wyborgh, who some 20 years ago embarked on the restoration of the house’s six acres of 18th-century walled gardens. Dunsborough was also a showcase for the stock of Baron “Dolf” Sweerts, who began dealing in garden ornaments in the 1980’s.

Among the sale’s 500 lots was this late 18th-century Coadestone tiger, which was apparently modelled from life by John Bacon, the factory’s principal modeller and designer. In the 1784 Descriptive Catalogue of Coade’s Artificial Stone Manufactory, this 34¾" high seated tiger was No. 59 in the statues section and priced at eight guineas—say $13 at today’s exchange rates—but in the Dunsborough Park sale, and at a time when Coadestone is very much back in fashion, it raised $76,955.

Other Coadestone successes in that sale included a lion on a large plinth, at $95,475; a figure of Minerva with her shield and spear, at $104,730; a reclining Naiad, at $80,660; and a “Medici Vase,” also at $80,660.

Found in both secular and religious contexts, aquamaniles were used to pour water over the hands of guests or celebrants (into a basin) and at their best were significant status symbols in medieval Europe. There were doubtless many pottery examples, but few of those have survived, and it is the bronze aquamaniles that make the big money at auction.

They were generally modelled in animal form, with lions the most common subject, but seen here is a much rarer equine example. Made in Nuremberg, circa 1490, and with a handle in the form of another grotesque beast, it is almost identical with an example that in 1978 sold for a sum around $93,800 at the exchange rates of the time. That one was part of the spectacular series of sales held by Sotheby’s to disperse the Robert von Hirsch collections, but in the “European Connoisseur” sale held on July 5 by Christie’s, the example illustrated above right sold at $273,360.

Since Renaissance times, artists and sculptors have been fascinated by the structure of human and animal bodies, and some even took part in dissections in order to aid their studies—Leonardo da Vinci, for example, or, in the 18th century, George Stubbs, the equine specialist whose remarkable series of engravings were published as The Anatomy of the Horse.

The first documented écorché, or flayed, anatomical models intended to show muscular structure were made in Italy in the 16th century, often in bronze, but seen in the “Exceptional Sale” held by Christie’s on July 4 was a 37½" tall cast of a horse made in the late 18th or early 19th century and attributed to Giuseppe Valadier (1762-1839).

It does, however, derive from, or was cast after, a 16th-century bronze now in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence—the so-called Mattei Horse. This bronze was so famous that when Giuseppe Mattei attempted to sell it in 1770, Pope Clement XIV forbade him from selling it outside Rome. During the Napoleonic era, however, Mattei’s collections were finally sold to Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon’s uncle, and in 1816 the horse was sold in the Fesch sale in Paris. In 1913 it was bought by Charles Loeser of London, but on his death in 1928 it was bequeathed to the Palazzo Vecchio.

The son of a goldsmith, Giuseppe Valadier was a successful architect, and he also took control of the family workshop and foundry and continued his father Luigi’s work in casting in large scale. The all’ antica nature of the colour (reddish-brown) and finish of the present bronze suggest production at a time when the workshop was under Giuseppe’s direction—his father’s bronzes had a distinctive blackish-green patina—and a reference to an écorché horse in an 1810 Valadier inventory may well relate to this very bronze.

This cast is known in two other, apparently later, examples. One is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the other in the Torrie Collection at the University of Edinburgh.

There is some evidence that in the 19th century this particular bronze cast was in the collection of the Dukes of Northumberland, and by the mid-20th century it was certainly in the collections of the Russian poet and dancer Boris Kochno and his lover, the artist and theatrical and fashion designer Christian Bérard. It can be seen in a 1946 watercolour of their studio by the Russian artist Alexandre Serebriakoff.

A few years later, the horse is seen once more in a Serebriakoff painting, but this time in the drawing room of the Hôtel Lambert, a sumptuously appointed 17th-century townhouse on the Ile St-Louis in Paris that was the home of Baron Alexis de Redé. He and his lover, the Chilean millionaire, connoisseur, and art collector Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, were close friends of Kochno and Bérard, so it is assumed that the horse passed between them in the late 1940’s.

In 1975, at the Baron de Redé’s auction at Sotheby’s Monaco, the bronze was bought for 1.5 million French francs (let us say $300,000) by a member of the Christie’s consignor’s family, but this time out it sold at $2,142,555.

Among the Qianlong period cloisonné enamels seen in the Chinese works of art sale at Christie’s on May 14 was a pair of caparisoned elephants that sold at $774,495 to an Asian collector. Standing 19" high, the elephants have coloured enamel saddles and saddlecloths decorated with stylised lotus flowers on leafy scrolls and chased gilt trappings set with red stones, while their grey bodies are delicately inlaid with gilded cloisons to simulate the animals’ wrinkled hides.

And finally, moving from the gargantuan to the miniature—though not in price terms—we end up in the insect house.

Sold for $350,595 in the “Treasures” sale held by Sotheby’s on July 3 was a little jewelled gold and enamel automaton silkworm, or “Ethiopian Caterpillar” as it was called when sold in 1834 as part of Thomas Weeks’s Mechanical Museum in London. Probably made in Geneva, circa 1810—though by whom is uncertain—this remarkable creation is barely 3" long and has an 11-segment body that, when activated by means of an almost invisible lever, undulates sinuously forward on its tiny gold peg legs.

The upper segments of its body, edged with seed pearls, are enamelled in translucent yellow to a textured gold ground scattered with tiny black or scarlet dots and studded with a triple row of rose diamonds within translucent green and black enamel rings. The caterpillar’s head is set with small ruby eyes and its undercarriage, so to speak, exhibits incised bands and stripes picked out in black champlevé enamel.

A few other automaton caterpillars are recorded, but all are enamelled in scarlet, and it is suggested that the naturalistic colouring of this example may mean that it was not originally intended for show in Europe but to provide amusement for the Imperial Court of China.


Just Watch What You Are Doing with That, Bond!

Bought earlier this year for around $40 in a car boot sale, this modified Breitling “Top Time” watch turned out to be one that Sean Connery wore as James Bond in the 1965 film Thunderball, and in a June 26 “Pop Culture” sale held by Christie’s South Kensington it sold at $160,175. Supposedly equipped with an underwater Geiger counter function for a mission in which Bond must find two atomic bombs stolen by SPECTRE, it was given a special case designed by the Valley Tool Company and, according to the auctioneers, was the first special watch issued to 007 by Q and his team of armourers and gadgeteers.



The Chiparus figure Alméria, sold by Bonhams for $414,425.

Just Who Was Alméria?

I admit to being unclear as to why the cold-painted bronze and carved ivory figure illustrated here is called Alméria—a name I immediately associate with a Spanish city, on the Mediterranean coast of Andalucía—but I am very clear about the fact that it is something very special.

The Art Deco sculptures of the Roumanian-born artist and sculptor Demetre Chiparus are greatly admired and very, very expensive—especially so in the larger sizes. The larger figures were made to order, but it seems that even in the mid-1920’s, when Alméria was created, the big version was costly, and this is thought to be one of perhaps only five examples commissioned. On the stepped onyx base seen in the illustration, Alméria stands just over 2' high, but also part of the lot was the original, 38" high onyx display pedestal.

In cases like this, Chiparus named his figures for the characters depicted rather than the actual performers, and it is thought that this model in her lampshade dress represents the great Russian dancer and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, in one of the Paris performances given by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Presumably she is dancing the role of Alméria, but I have been unable to discover in which ballet or in what context—perhaps a M.A.D. reader can help?

However, in searching for clues, I learned a great many other interesting things about this celebrated ballet dancer and choreographer, among them the facts that while she was twice married to other chaps, the great love of her life was the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, and that in 1935 she choreographed the dance sequences to Mendelssohn’s magical music in Max Reinhardt’s famous film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And in 1938, having settled in Los Angeles, Bronislava Nijinska opened a dance school there, and one of her students was a certain Cyd Charisse.

What really matters here, of course, is the fact that this rare figure was sold for $414,425 in a June 19 decorative arts sale held by Bonhams.



This elegant black Ding bowl of the Song Dynasty made a nonsense of its $6000/9000 estimate at Sotheby’s on May 15 and went on to sell at $296,050.


This pair of Qianlong period blue and white moon flasks, a little over 19" high and decorated with eight radiating lappet panels that each enclose the beribboned baji-xiang, or eight auspicious symbols, sold for $3,620,310 at Sotheby’s on May 15.


This rare Qianlong period blue and white “joined-lotus” bottle vase sold for $1,036,180 at Bonham’s on May 16.


This Qianlong period white jade “Longevity” ruyi sceptre sold for $1,318,900 at Sotheby’s on May 15.

Auspicious and Costly Chinese Works of Art

The most expensive of the very large numbers of Chinese lots offered in the London rooms in one week in May was a pair of
19 3/8" tall blue and white “baji-xiang” moon flasks of the Qianlong period. Sold for $3,620,310, the flasks are illustrated and very briefly described at right, but though there are any number of high-priced things from which to choose, this is the time of year when my files are overflowing with good things, and I have restricted myself to just five in all.

Among them are items which made much, much higher than expected sums, but then as M.A.D. readers will know, that is far from an unusual occurrence in this market. A sixth lot from these sales, a pair of Qianlong period cloisonné enamel elephants that sold for $774,495 at Christie’s, feature in another of this month’s reports—see the “M.A.D. Menagerie” story.

Reckoned to be worth as much as $75,000, but sold at Bonhams on May 16 for a rather more substantial $1,036,180 was the rare blue and white, garlic head “joined-lotus” bottle vase seen far right. Bearing a Qianlong seal mark and of the period, this 11¼" high vase has an unusual and very rare form of decoration in which the full, open blossoms are painted as two lotus flowers joined together, but issuing from a single stem—an auspicious motif, forming a rebus, bingdi tongxin, which apparently means “May you have a harmonious marriage and share the same ideals.”

This rare decorative element is also seen on a famille rose ruby ground enamelled vase in the Qing Court Collection at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. That one is dated 1743, at a time when Imperial porcelain production was under the direction of Tang Ying, and it is possible that this vase was a special commission made under his direction.

Very different in conception is the black Ding bowl seen above, a supremely elegant Song Dynasty (960-1279) piece of flaring, shallow conical form that at its maximum diameter of 5 7/8" reaches a gently everted rim. Covered overall in a lustrous black glaze that thins to a russet brown at the rim, it has a foot that is unglazed at the base, revealing the white body beneath. Some might see this as an unfinished look, but others may view it as an attractive feature. Ding refers to the site of the kilns in Hebei province in northern China where such wares were made.

Sent for sale from a Swedish private collection to Sotheby’s on May 15, it was estimated at $6000/9000 but sold for $296,050.

The star turn in a Christie’s sale of May 14 was the pair of famille rose models of pagodas of 1750-1800 (Qianlong/Jiaqing period) seen at right—each standing over 8' high and almost certainly based on the famous “Porcelain Pagoda” of Nanjing, or the Bao’en Temple Pagoda, built in the early 15th century but destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion of 1854.

The pagodas came to sale from the Castello di Vincigliata at Fiesole in Italy—the consignors having bought them, along with the Tuscan castello itself, in the 1950’s. These monumental pieces sold for $1,809,450—yet again a much higher than predicted sum.

Popularly believed to owe their origins to bamboo or bone back-scratchers, but more likely to have derived from hutablets, items of authority and social rank held by officials in ancient China, ruyi sceptres are highly auspicious objects, favoured for their shape and ornamentation.

The example seen above right is almost 17" long, and sceptres of this size are rarely fashioned in jade, as boulders large enough to create something of such a size are rarely found. Carved in low relief to a smoothly polished stone of even white tone, with just some traces of russet staining, this “Longevity” sceptre was in 1945 a gift from the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek to His Highness, Maharaja Sir Padma Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana of Nepal, and was sent for sale at Sotheby’s on May 15 by Princess Rama Malla of Nepal. Carrying an estimate of $150,000/230,000, it was yet another outstanding success at $1,318,900.


This pair of large porcelain pagodas sold for $1,809,450 by Christie’s on May 14.



Fangio’s world championship winning Mercedes-Benz W196R, sold for a record $29,673,700 in the July 12 Goodwood “Festival of Speed” sale.


This 1934 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 “Le Mans” Tourer sold for $2,884,640 in the Bonhams sale.


This stunning Maserati 300S spent much of its competitive life in the U.S.A., but eventually returned to Europe and this summer made $6,106,110 at Goodwood.

Breathtaking Automotive Icons of the 1950’s

Automotive history, I am told, was made at the annual Goodwood “Festival of Speed” sale on July 12, when 63 cars were sold by Bonhams for around $54.6 million. That total made the auction the highest-grossing car auction ever held in Europe and brought world records for no fewer than ten principal marques.

The star turn was the 1954, F1 Mercedes-Benz W196R car in which the legendary Argentinean racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio clinched the second of his five Formula 1 world titles.

The other W196s are all either in the manufacturer’s own historical collection or other museums, so it was no surprise that this was a lot accorded one of those elastic “Refer to Department” estimates. On race day, Bonhams had 11 serious bidders from four continents. Most were bidding anonymously via the telephone, and one of their number paid a staggering $29,673,700 for this iconic car—a sum that more or less doubled the previous record for a car at auction.*

Described by Bonhams as being “in remarkably unspoiled, almost ‘barn-find’ condition, its super sophisticated mechanicals believed to be complete and runnable after proper preparation,” this was one of the cars in which the German manufacturers, so successful in the 1930’s, had made a dramatic comeback to Grand Prix racing and successfully challenged the postwar dominance of the Italian Maseratis and Ferraris.

In a period of just 14 months spanning the years 1954-55, Mercedes cars, with either Fangio or Karl Kling at the wheel, won nine of the 12 Grand Prix races that counted towards the world championship, but then in October 1955, following a crash involving one of the firm’s virtually unbeatable Mercedes 300SLR sports/racing cars at the Le Mans 24-Hour race that saw 83 spectators killed, the board of Daimler-Benz decided to quit motor racing indefinitely.

They had nothing more to prove, and it was not until the 1980’s that Mercedes came back to the circuits. In 1987, when asked by a BBC-TV reporter about his company’s brief but highly successful postwar return to serious motor racing, Daimler-Benz’s revered former chief engineer, 81-year-old Rudi Uhlenhaut, replied “...when we returned to racing in the mid-1950’s, our directive was to be the best, and to win both the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship, and the Sports Car Championship. We did that, and—while we could have done better—when our board took the decision to withdraw, we were the best.”

“Simply the best,” as others might have said.

The subsequent history of this car includes a number of years in Lord Montagu of Beaulieu’s National Motor Museum on his Hampshire estate, but it was then sold to finance the provision of a library and lecture hall complex at Beaulieu. It has changed hands a few times since then, but had been away from public view for some years before reappearing to great acclaim at Goodwood this summer.

Where will it turn up next and will it be seen on the circuits once again? Next year marks the 60th anniversary of Fangio’s world title winning race in the car, but car lovers will just have to wait and see.

I am not a serious car person—though I do still have my MGB Roadster—but one car in the Goodwood sale that really took my breath away (that’s two song titles now) was the sleek lady in red (three…) pictured above.

Another record breaker, this mid-1950’s vintage beauty is a Maserati 300S Sports-Racing Spider that sold for $6,106,110. One of a number shipped out to the U.S.A. at the order of Briggs Swift Cunningham, this is a car that began a distinguished racing career in the 1955 Sebring 12-Hour, when it was co-driven to third place by Bill Spear and Sherwood Johnston. They could not get the better of the Ferrari 750 Monza driven by Phil Hill and Carroll Shelby or the Jaguar D-Type of race winners Mike Hawthorn and Phil Walters (another Briggs Cunningham entry), but they were doubtless gratified to leave the Maserati works entry 300S in fourth place.

My third car—and then I must pull over and get back to proper antiques—is something a little older, a 1934 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 “Le Mans” Tourer which sold for $2,884,640.

Acquired new by the 3rd Viscount Ridley, an enthusiastic amateur racing driver who owned several Alfas, it stayed with him until his death in 1964, and though it changed hands several times over the succeeding five years, it has had only one other careful owner since 1969, when, against his father’s best advice, the Bonhams consignor paid what would today be around $3500 for it. It has been cherished, returned as closely as possible to factory specification, expertly maintained by Alfa specialists and, out on the road, has rallied and toured in Europe and Africa.

*The previous record was $16.39 million, paid in August 2011 for the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa prototype of 1957 in a Pebble Beach, California, sale held by Gooding & Company.



This magnificent rock crystal vessel sold for $368,850 at Sotheby’s on July 3, and a detail showing the portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici.

The Pope, the Duke, and the Slave Girl—Happy Medici Families

The gilt copper mounts are possibly French and a little later—late 16th/early 17th century—but the superb rock crystal vessel or container seen here was made in Florence, 1530-50, and the portraits of Pope Clement VII and Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence that it bears suggest a major commission by members of this powerful dynasty.

The body, lid, and underside of the 5 5/8" tall vessel are carved from the mineral, formed from silicon and oxygen, known as quartz, and which in this transparent and colourless type is known as pure quartz, or more commonly as rock crystal. Such pure quartz crystals can reach around 3' in length, and they form with a hexagonal cross-section, which has here been retained—though hollowing out the crystal to leave such a thin, clear, and lightweight vessel on which to carve the decoration must have been a time-consuming and nerve-wracking process.

Rock crystal has been carved since prehistoric times, but it was in 16th-century Europe that the art seems to have reached its artistic and masterfully complex heights. The three most impressive collections surviving to this day are those of the Florentine Grand Dukes in the Palazzo Pitti, the Hapsburg collections now housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Wittelsbach collection in Munich—all of them formed by members of great European noble families.

The mannerist decoration and ornamentation of this treasure is, in the auctioneers’ terms, “close to” that of Giovanni Bernardi (1494-1553), a celebrated gem cutter and rock crystal engraver to the Este and Medici courts and to Pope Clement VII.

The portrait of Clement VII is very similar to that made for a well-known portrait medallion by Benvenuto Cellini, and that of Alessandro de’ Medici, showing him with prominent nose and tightly curled hair, may be compared with the image on a chalcedony and gold pendant now in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

The first hereditary Duke of Florence, Alessandro was known by his contemporaries as Il Moro, or The Moor, because of his mixed-race heritage. Alessandro’s mother is said to have been a woman of the sub-Saharan regions named Simonetta da Collavecchio, who was in service at the court, perhaps even a slave. The official line was that Alessandro was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici, grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, but it is now believed that his real father was the 17-year-old Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the future Pope Clement VII, whose portrait also adorns the vessel.

In the “Treasures, Princely Taste” sale held by Sotheby’s on July 3, this Renaissance masterpiece was sold for $368,850.


Going for Baroque—The First Governor of the Bank of England

David le Marchand, a French Huguenot ivory carver, was born in 1674 in the northern French port of Dieppe, a town with a long tradition in ivory work, but like so many other Huguenots whose Calvinist Protestant beliefs saw them persecuted in France following the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes, he chose to leave his native land and find safety and a livelihood in England. In fact, David le Marchand settled first in Scotland, in 1696, but within four years had moved down to London, where he established himself as one of the foremost and most fashionable portraitists of the age.

Le Marchand’s sitters included many of the leading figures of the time, among them Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, and it was at one time thought that the masterful ivory medallion portrait seen here was of Samuel Pepys, who is known to have sat for one of Le Mar-
chand’s Baroque-style likenesses. However, it is now thought most likely to depict Sir John Houblon, the first Governor of the Bank of England, a Lord Mayor of London and another man of Huguenot descent.

Charles Avery, author of David Le Marchand 1674-1726: An Ingenious Man for Carving in Ivory (1996), notes a strong similarity to a 1696 portrait of Le Houblon by Clostermann in this 8 3/8" high medallion, which he dates to 1704-16. He also views it as “one of the more celebrated of David’s reliefs” and observes that “its large size and the direct, unflinching gaze of the sitter engage a viewer’s attention immediately.”

At Sotheby’s on July 2, this important English Baroque ivory was sold at $477,715.


Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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