Published: April 27, 2021
Review by Madelia Hickman Ring, Catalog Photos Courtesy Sworders
STANSTED MOUNTFITCHET, ESSEX, UNITED KINGDOM – Sworder’s annual “Out of the Ordinary” sale, now in its fourth year, was even more unusual than ever, not least because the previous edition had taken place prior to the pandemic locking everything down. Despite that, the sale, which was conducted April 13-14 over two days rather than the usual single day, offered a larger selection of 615 lots with a 70 percent sell-through rate and achieved a total of $346,885. The sale shows a significant growth over the 2020 edition, which was just 60 percent sold and realized $249,450. Bidding took place on three online platforms, with sales to nearly 250 individual buyers in 19 different countries. Phone and absentee bidders purchased about one fourth of the sale, with the rest going to online buyers. Oddities in every category, from the mythic to the macabre to the medical, were represented.
Mark Wilkinson is the head of sale for the Out of the Ordinary auction and we caught up with him via Zoom the day after the final session wrapped. “It was our largest (Out of the Ordinary) sale and we had a higher turnover of lots sold. I’m very, very pleased, particularly given the strange circumstances. We had just one day of preview so we couldn’t preview it as we would have liked, which is sad in a way because its such a big, colorful sale. But, it’s very rewarding that it went so well. It has been fascinating to see how bidding patterns have changed because of lockdown. Certainly, the observations that I’ve made are people have become more comfortable bidding on things without seeing them.”
Nearly 50 lots of taxidermy from several sellers got the first session off to a rousing start and the category set the high bar for the entire sale. A taxidermy alicorn, or winged unicorn, created from a pair of swan’s wings and horn attached to the taxidermy figure of a rearing horse was a Twentieth Century fabrication but soared to take the top-lot honors, achieving $11,900 from a Polish private collector bidding online.
A taxidermy dodo specimen that had been mounted on a marble top breakfront plinth had a quintessentially Victorian aesthetic and brought $3,868 from a private UK collector who was bidding on the phone. Other highlights from the category included an early Twentieth Century Russian Sun Bear, which was wearing a straw boater hat. Like the dodo, it will be staying in England, selling to another private collector who was bidding online and paid $6,545 for it.
For those whose taste runs to the dark side, skeletons, mummies and a man trap were on offer, as was materials related to magic and the occult. Wilkinson commented that “the witch craft and monster section was the most popular in the sale. There is an enormous appetite for that material, which is consistent for ‘Out of the Ordinary’ sales.”
An early Eighteenth Century volume containing three tracts by Sir Matthew Hale titled variously, A Short Treatise Touching Sheriffs Accompts; A Tryal of Witches; and A Discourse Touching Provisions for the Poor had a visually striking frontispiece and was spookily evocative of the period in British history when witchcraft trials were a part of life. The 142-page volume, which had been printed in London, doubled its high estimate and sold to a German buyer for $1,636.
Arguably one of the most historically significant lots was an early albumen photographic print, circa 1857 or 1858, of Mary Louisa Fisher and Julia Prinsep Stephen (both née Jackson) by James Mudd or Joseph Cundall, that was sold together with another albumen photograph of Julia Prinsep Stephen, taken in the mid-1860s and possibly by Julia Margaret Camera. Stephen (1846-1895) was a Pre-Raphaelite model and philanthropist, the wife of biographer Leslie Stephen and the mother of Virginia Woolf. An identical – if smaller – print was part of Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1857 Signor photograph album of 35 photographs that sold at Sotheby’s in 2012 for $195,000. Wilkinson said he knew of no other existing copy of the photograph; it sold to a museum in California for $3,867.
Twentieth Century historical artifacts were abundant. “Keep Calm and Carry On” has become synonymous with the British national spirit and resolve during World War II so it came as a bit of a surprise to learn that the iconic poster was not widely distributed. “People think it’s more common an item than it is,” Wilkinson said. “A handful have come up in the past few years. Really, they were just used in bunkers.” The 29½-by-19¾-inch poster, which was printed by His Majesty’s Stationery Office in September, 1939, had been sourced from a local collection and sold to a private British collector, who was bidding on the phone, for $7,735.
Carnival rides and games got the second day of sales off to a light-hearted start, with a child’s carousel horse with its original pole fixture bringing $2,083, and a Twentieth Century coin-operated fortune ticket machine titled “What Does Your Future Hold” ringing out at $2,529.
“The real surprise of the sale was a group of airplane propellers,” Wilkinson said, referring to three lots from different sellers that were offered consecutively on the second day of the sale. The first to cross the block was one that had belonged to a B-17 Flying Fortress. According to the serial numbers, it had been made by Douglas Aircraft Company for an aircraft with the 525th Bomb Squadron and part of the 379th Bomb Group, Eighth Airforce. The plane had suffered a mid-air collision with another B-17 and crashed into the Thames estuary while en route back from a raid over France, on June 19, 1944. All but one of the 11-men crew perished and the propeller was recovered during dredging in the 1970s. A private buyer bidding online spun it to $5,653, more than double its high estimate.
The next propeller to cross the block was wooden and circa 1930s that had probably belonged to De Havilland Tiger Moth. It more than tripled its high estimate and flew to $2,083. The third propeller of the group was a circa 1914-20 laminated hardwood two-blade airscrew for the Avro 504-type biplane and brought $7,438.
Wilkinson wondered if the pandemic had increased interest in all things medical, noting particularly strong results on a group of mid-Nineteenth Century surgeon’s tools that cut through their estimates and brought $6,545 from a private UK collector bidding online. Two lots of glass eyes, offered consecutively, each sold for $1,339, more than three times their high estimates. Each lot was a fitted case of 50 prosthetic medical hand-blown human glass eyes with variations for each eye. Wilkinson speculated that they were salesman’s samples that would have been used to exactly match with an existing eye.
Sworder’s next “Out Of The Ordinary” sale will take place in February or March. For information, www.sworder.co.uk.
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