Sunday - 21 December 2014

Lawrence leads Christie’s to £220,000 auction oasis

02 October 2006Written by ATG Reporter

“I leave to my dear friend Taffy my Compass so that he may occasionally know where he is going/ My Watch which almost cost me my life so that he may occasionally arrive at an appointed time / With Regards from his erstwhile passenger Lawrence.”

These are the words that T.E. Lawrence had engraved inside the lid of a white metal cigarette case before presenting it, along with the compass and watch, to Corporal Albert ‘Taffy’ Evans of the Machine Gun Corps, the soldier who had volunteered to act as his chauffeur at the Paris Peace Conference. As part of the unaccredited Hejaz delegation, Lawrence was given no official support and his hotel was 30 minutes walk away from that of the British delegates. He was not short of sympathisers, however, and he was quick to show his gratitude to a soldier who had given up his Paris leave to act as his personal driver.

The leather-cased, pocket prismatic compass was that which Lawrence had used on his great desert crossings during the Arab Revolt (and is documented in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom) and the pocket watch, a cheap copper cased timepiece that he had picked up for 10 francs in Paris in 1910, while en route to Syria to study Crusader castles for his university thesis. But to a Turkman villager on the banks of the Euphrates the watch appeared to be gold and he ambushed and knocked Lawrence down before putting a Colt revolver to his head and pulling the trigger. Only his assailant’s failure to understand the safety-catch mechanism saved him from instant dispatch, and though an attempt was made to batter him with stones, the arrival on the scene of a local shepherd caused his attacker to run off.

The cigarette case that bears the affectionate inscription reproduced above is of Arab manufacture. The cover decoration, a niello-work engraving of Lawrence in Arab dress and mounted on a camel, is based on a 1917 photograph taken of Lawrence on a racing camel at Aqaba and is engraved with the words “T.E. on a racer from a Few Friends”.

These Lawrence relics were all included in last year’s Lawrence of Arabia: the Life, the Legend exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. They also included a pencil sketch of a camel’s head made by Lawrence at the time of the Paris conference and medals, papers and other personal effects and ephemera relating to Corporal Evans’ military service. As part of one of Dominic Winter’s regular collectors’ sales of aviation, military, naval and motoring books, pictures and memorabilia sales in December 2003 in Swindon, the lot sold for £4200. When re-entered for sale by the buyer as part of a Christie’s travel and exploration sale of September 27, they commanded six pages of full colour, lavishly illustrated promotion, but even then was estimated at only £12,000-16,000.

Things worked out very differently. Taffy Evans’ mementos of his brief spell as Lawrence of Arabia’s chauffeur, relics that had sold less than three years ago for just £4200, were bid to £220,000.

By Ian McKay

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