February 20, 2015

Where Did Kitty and Mummy Go? - British Collecting Past and Present

Photo Credit: David Lay Auctioneers
Everyone likes a one man's trash is another man's treasure story.  But what can these stories tell us about collectors, collecting habits and the art market in antiquities in the 20th century in  the UK?

In November 2014, the family of a deceased elderly woman, Doreen Liddell, hired the services of an estate sale company, Penzance Auction House to go through the painful disposal of unwanted things us humans tend to accumulate over our lifetimes and that relatives frequently don't have the place for, or the emotional strength to actively sift through.  

Companies like these sort through a deceased person's household belongings, usually after the surviving family members have made a first-pass, marking or removing what they want to keep. The auctioneer's team, familiar with the mechanization of dealing with the property of the deceased,  pack up the momentos the family wants to keep preparing them for delivery to various destinations.  They then set to work valuating the remaining items the heirs aren't interested in retaining, preparing them for auction.  The last two steps usually involve donating the low value items to charities and chucking out the bitts and bobbs that remain.  In quick work company's like this one in Cornwall can clear the house of all evidence that was once a person's life. 

Photo Credit: David Lay Auctioneers
One item in this clean-out, a 7-inch tall bronze statuette of a cat, seemed destined for the trash dumpster parked on the driveway of Mrs. Liddell's cottage in Penzance, until auctioneer David Lay intervened.  Lay had a hunch that the regal looking cat with golden earrings set up near the fireplace was not a simple tourist trinket, but might be something special.  Following his instincts, he took the statue to specialists in Egyptian art at the British Museum. They identified the feline as a 26th Dynasty (672-525 BCE) Egyptian bronze.  

Statuettes symbolizing cats often served as votive offerings in Egyptian temples, and were frequently placed in tombs.  Almost all Egyptian gods were associated with some animal and assumed the form of a particular beast in Egyptian sculpture.  In this case the goddess, Bast, written as 'Bastet' by scribes to emphasis that the 't' was to be pronounced, is symbolized in the form of a feline.  In writing, her name has the hieroglyph of a 'bas'-jar with the feminine ending of 't' and during the Old Kingdom she was considered to be the daughter of Atum in Heliopolis.  She first appeared in animal form bearing the head of a lion.  Later,  in the New Kingdom, she took on the form of a domestic house cat like the animal bust found in the cottage.

Up for auction yesterday, the Bast statuette expected to sell for a conservative £5,000 to £10,000 GBP but instead sold for £52,000.  

But how did this ancient object find its way from an Egyptian tomb to a house in Western Cornwall?

It seems Doreen Liddell was the widow of Douglas Liddell, who, before his death was one of the biggest influences in British Numismatics. Liddell worked for Spink and Son Ltd, the prestigious auction house founded in London in 1666.   Starting out in their coin department just after the Second World War he would remain with the collecting firm through his retirement in December 1987.  He worked first in Spink's coin department, moving on to director of the company on the 1st June 1965, followed by a promotion to Managing Director in 1977, a post he retained until he retirement to Cornwall. 
 
Spink's has long been famous not only for its for its sales of Ancient Egyptian artefacts and in 1939 was tasked with selling the estate of archaeologist Howard Carter, the discoverer of Tutankhamen's tomb, three months after Carter's death. 

Photo Credit: Harry Burton/Rue des Archives/ Getty
It is likely that Douglas Liddell purchased the 2,500-year-old Egyptian bronze at one of Spink's many antiquities sales, but unfortunately like is true in many, many cases during the 1900s, collection histories weren't prized, even as is the case with this collector, by those in the biz.  The family has no recollection of, or record for the purchase of the Bast statue so the context of this piece; where it came from and who it belongs to before it was purchased by Liddell has sadly been lost.

In fairness to Mr. Liddell and collectors in general, even Howard Carter, methodical man though he was, kept no systematic record of the antiquities in his personal collection.   The closest thing researchers have to a record of his significant collection is the valuation of Carter's property for probate prepared by Spink and Son on 1 June 1939.

It is not publicly known yet, if this feline statue has a similar record of valuation by Spink, but it is possible that it has.

Can we estimate the purchase price?

Not exactly, but an early Spink and Son catalog from 1924 has been digitized so we have an idea of how antiquities increase their value over time. 

This catalog features objects from the MacGregor, Hilton Price, Amherst, Meux & Carnarvon collections and on page twelve pictures a larger Egyptian bronze cat, almost twice as tall as the one in Mrs. Liddell's cottage.  This one was estimated at auction at £400, a healthy sum relative the other items in the catalog and one that included delivery anywhere in the world.
Photo Credit: Spink and Son Auction Catalog, 1924

Reproduced using an online inflation calculator that compares collector's prices in 1924 with the value of the British Pound in 2011, the scanned catalog illustrates the comparative values that continue to drive individuals to collect antiquities as financial investments.   Not only do these figures show that antiquities were worthwhile investments but their pricing gives ARCA's blog readers insight into how relatively easy it was for collectors to assemble large and diverse collections in the early years of the 20th Century with cheaply priced antiquities.

Back then you could even bring your mummy home for a simple £16  (See page 8).

While collectors are finding bargains today, which will appreciate in value just like this cat and this mummy did, we hope that today's contemporary collectors will begin to place greater importance on where an object comes from as well as better care of maintaining a collection history outlining their purchases.  That way the next generation of heirs don't toss grandpa's beloved kitty in the trash heap.

By Lynda Albertson


References Used in This Article

http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/bast.html
http://www.antiquitiesonline.co.uk/A-catalogue-from-the-golden-age-of-collecting_A10JF1.aspx
http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-cornwall-31524625
http://www.davidlay.co.uk/?_ga=1.59733733.991253984.1423311544
http://www.nicholasreeves.com/item.aspx?category=Writing&id=69
https://penzanceauctionhouse.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/something-quite-spectacular/
http://www.spink.com/news/newsletters/2003/200305coin_news.asp

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