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
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
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
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
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.
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
A Chinese Zhou Dynasty bronze helmet in
excavated condition was bought by the Royal Armouries for
Above: a Japanese articulated iron carp of
the late Edo or early Meiji period, 10½in (27cm) long -
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
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
The most threatening of the creepy-crawlies,
a praying mantis, sold with a grasshopper for £8500.
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.
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
There were two 18th or 19th century steel
corsets that sold together for £4500, while a 19th century chastity
belt made £5200.
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
Bidders registered to internet: 301