The combination of a single-owner collection in a specialist niche corner of the market with a not over-large and mostly market-fresh selection of realistically estimated material were the keys to the warm reception that greeted Sotheby’s (20/12% buyer’s premium) sale of Scientific instruments in their Olympia rooms on May 28. All bar 15 of the 155 lots, just short of 90 per cent (92 per cent by value) changed hands for a total of £262,350.
At 69 lots the specialist collection provided not far short of half the sale. This was the optical collection of the late Hugh Orr (1905-2002) a trained optician whose interest in this field started back in 1935 when he found three pairs of iron spectacles in a junk shop. His aim seems to have been to assemble a representative collection, spanning leather spectacles from the 17th century up to the kind of eye-catching frames sported by Dame Edna Everage.
Hundreds of pairs were crammed into his bungalow and following his death last year, his widow decided to sell them. Sotheby’s offered some of the rarest pairs singly but put many more into multiple lots featuring anything from two or three items to small groups of spectacles offering the buyer a ready-made collection.
Although the breadth of the material was undoubtedly a draw, Mr Orr, who was honorary curator of the B.O.A. Museum at the British College of Opthalmic Opticians, was well known in optical collecting circles, and there was a certain amount of memento-seeking amongst the huge crowd, many of them unfamiliar to Sotheby’s, who packed into the saleroom. There were Americans, Italians, Germans and British amongst the spectacle-seekers which gave a welcome, buzzy atmosphere to a saleroom where much is often conducted by absentee bidders, although, interestingly, Sotheby’s specialist Catherine Southon said that people in the room were quite often thwarted by the substantial bids that had been left on the book.
Given that this was an executor collection with things there to be sold, within reason, estimates were not over-bullish, so it is no surprise that prices were often far in excess of expectations and that virtually everything found a buyer. Top lot at £6000 was a pair of leather spectacles with twine ear loops and the original lenses, thought to be from Nuremburg, c.1690. These demonstrate how spectacle design evolved from a one-piece, optical aid balanced on the end of the nose, via spectacles that were secured with a headband, to those that wrapped around the ears. Also in demand was a pair of silver spectacles marked London 1799 with folding drop-down adjustable lenses and a lozenge-shaped red morocco case. These were by George Adams, signed Adams Patent, to the arms and as such had crossover scientific interest which no doubt also helped to propel them to a treble estimate £5000.
The scientific section that followed was almost as strongly received, and the top lot of the day here demonstrated once again that it is the rare unrepeatable buying opportunity that carries the price premium these days. Sotheby’s were offering a rare marine navigational instrument, or, more accurately, part instrument – a 2ft 51/2in (79cm) long engraved ebony staff from a cross staff signed J*V*K for Johannes van Keulen of Amsterdam and dated 1706 and engraved on each side by four five-point stars. The staff was missing all its sighting vanes but cross staffs, even fragmentary ones, are exceptionally rare. The missing link between the earlier mariner’s astrolabe and the later backstaff, only around 95 are known to have survived although thousands must have once existed and Catherine Southon reckoned that this was only the second to be offered for public sale in decades. Van Keulen is recorded as a chart and instrument-maker who was admitted to the Guild of Booksellers in Amsterdam in 1678 and although 1706 is quite late in date for a cross staff, the all too obvious scarcity of the piece meant at least three people, one on the phone and a German and a British dealer in the room, were prepared to contest it to double the estimate with the hammer falling to the British dealer at £17,000.
Another unusual and keenly contested entry was a 23/4in (7cm) high signed orrery globe by George Adams Senior, c.1760 in its domed shagreen case. The preservation of the tailor-made case was something of a rarity in itself and its quality, coupled with the globe’s size, implies that the orrery for which it was made must have been an item of considerable grandeur. This was secured by a private collector for £10,000, over double the modest £3000-5000 estimate.
Not everything flew away. A particularly fine and extensive cased set of late 18th century silver and metal drawing instruments by George Adams went to the same buyer as the cross staff for a mid-estimate £12,000, although given its quality Catherine Southon had hoped it might have made rather more, and an English brass horizontal equation of time or dial (a complicated form of sundial) dated 1715 with particularly fine engraving went for a low estimate £5500. As well as the date, this last piece bore the inscription ON delineavit Londini. While this could simply be the maker’s initials, one suggestion is that the ON is a form of word play for name Owen and there is indeed a John Owen whose working dates (1683-97) roughly correspond to the date on this piece.
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