Saturday - 19 April 2014

Higgins Armory proves irresistible force

08 April 2013Written by Mark Bridge

The Higgins Armory Collection offered in London by Thomas Del Mar in association with Sotheby’s proved an irresistible draw for enthusiasts in this field.

A major attraction was the combination of a Higgins inventory number and a well-documented provenance from his often illustrious suppliers. Names like Duveen, Ernst Schmidt, William Randolph Hearst and Bashford Dean meant prices held up well, not only for the highlights illustrated here but for the long run of lesser-value pikes, halberds and small arms. Everything was sold.

Many of the estimates for the sale on March 20 were enticing rather than challenging, but they were also roundly exceeded on many occasions, with bidders in the room competing against an unprecedented number on the internet and telephone.

Massachusetts Museum

John Woodman Higgins (1874-1961) was an American industrialist of the old school. With a family fortune based on the Worcester Pressed Steel Company (founded 1905), he set out to create a museum that was a celebration of all things steel. The result was the Higgins Armory Museum, a ground-breaking steel-framed structure that opened in 1931 in Worcester, Massachusetts, with an Art Deco exterior and a gothic interior.

This interior was the backdrop for the impressive number of full armours that Higgins amassed, but the museum also became home to an idiosyncratic collection of metalwork of all kinds including the products of the modern era. The sale included German helmets (£170 and £190) riddled with bullet holes which Higgins himself collected from Verdun in 1926. This may seem macabre, but he took a professional interest in such things, as demonstrated by several experimental pressed steel helmets for the US army from his own factory.

In recent years steps have been taken to rationalise this cabinet of curiosities and the sale last month ranged well beyond arms and armour, calling on a number of specialists from Blythe Road.

The sale also heralds the end for the museum as it was conceived. The building is scheduled to close on December 31, with the now refined and world-class collection of arms and armour transferring to the nearby Worcester Museum of Art. This move has not gone without protest, both local and from the wider museum world.

 

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Above: a knight in armour was adopted as the company logo long before the museum was created. This 13¾in (35cm) branded miniature armour was brought back from Venice by Higgins in 1907. It was bought at the Del Mar sale by his granddaughter for £1300.

 

At the sale, just as massed ranks of knights in armour were the essential element of Higgins' museum, so the sight of 12 full suits of armour in one auction gave a real sense of theatre to the proceedings. Overall the dozen armours contributed nearly £180,000 to the total, ranging in price from around £30,000 for the three most complete and original to £2400 for a German cuirassier's armour in early 17th century style.

In terms of the most expensive, a composite German cap-a-pie field armour in fluted 'Maximilian' style sold to a private collector at £32,000. It had been bought from the collection of Frédéric Spitzer of Paris at auction in New York in 1929 and incorporated a high proportion of original elements combined with well-made or restored additions.

The same was the case with a composite North Italian cap-a-pie field armour of c.1540 from the collection of William Randolph Hearst bought at Parke Bernet in New York in 1952. It sold to a private collector at £30,000.

Bronze Helmets

Three 6th century BC Corinthian bronze helmets proved another of the highpoints of the Higgins sale. All were collected during the great spate of buying for the museum in the late 1920s. They were in a delicate state, but had the compensating advantage of being in largely untouched condition. The most compromised of the three (a strong nasal bar but severe pitting and losses to the skull) took £14,000, but two others had a combination of form and detailing to make more than twice that at £30,000,and £38,000.

A Chinese Zhou Dynasty bronze helmet in excavated condition was bought by the Royal Armouries for £2800.

 

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Above: a Japanese articulated iron carp of the late Edo or early Meiji period, 10½in (27cm) long - £26,000.

 

Perhaps the first indication that some of the more unusual lots were going fly came when the Japanese articulated iron fish illustrated above was bid to £26,000 against an inviting top estimate of £1500. This was the most substantial and best worked of a group of such animals and insects acquired for the museum in the 1930s and '40s, all of which proved popular. 

A metre-long snake made up of over 200 segments reached £25,000, and a hermit crab and a prawn around 6in (15cm) long took £12,000, as did a lot containing a dragonfly and a butterfly. A larger single dragonfly 8in (20cm) long sold at £13,000.

The most threatening of the creepy-crawlies, a praying mantis, sold with a grasshopper for £8500.

Ottoman Finery

When Higgins was assembling his collections European armour took centre stage, but in today's market interest is much more widely spread and it was not so surprising to see strong interest in the best Islamic lots.

A brilliantly coloured silk saddlecloth embroidered in silver with bold arabesques, was estimated at £2000-3000 but sold to a collector for £50,000.

There were also two steel shaffrons in the sale. Both retained their hanging cheek guards linked by a curtain of mail and both bore the mark of the Ottoman Court Arsenal at Hagia Irene. They sold at £36,000 and £31,000.

Novelty Values

The sale also included numerous thumbscrews and other instruments of torture, as well as some military oddities like a scattering of 16th/17th century iron caltrops, spikes designed to maim cavalry horses, bought from the Bashford Dean sale at Parke-Bernet in 1950 and sold here for £650.

From a museum that set out to highlight not only the warlike uses of steel but also its many domestic and other applications there were some other crowd-pleasing novelties.

There were two 18th or 19th century steel corsets that sold together for £4500, while a 19th century chastity belt made £5200.

Sale Statistics

Number of lots offered: 484

Lots sold: 100%

Buyer's Premium: 20%

Sale hammer total: £1.18m

Lots sold to internet: 100 (21%)

Value sold to internet: £140,000 (12%)

Bidders registered to internet: 301

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