Tuesday - 21 October 2014

Polar explorer awards underline high demand for ‘heroic age’ medals at auction

08 July 2013Written by Tom Derbyshire

Even in the collecting field of the ‘heroic age’ of Polar exploration where items reflecting incredible stories of human endurance seem to come thick and fast, there are still some that really take the breath away.

One such lot - the Polar Medal awarded to Apsley Cherry-Garrard - nearly doubled the top estimate to take £58,000 at Dix Noonan Webb (20% buyer's premium) of London on June 19.

He was not only a vitally important member of the 1910-13 Scott Antarctic expedition but also author of the remarkable The Worst Journey in the World, regarded as one of the best books on exploration and travel - and indeed human endurance - ever written.

The Polar Medal 1904 with one clasp for Antarctic 1910-13, in its original card box of issue, was sold with Cherry-Garrard's Royal Geographical Society Scott Memorial Medal, and is now going into a private collection.

DNW specialist David Erskine-Hill said: "Bidding was frantic; this was very sought after. Ultimately, of course, as always it came down to two bidders but this was a notable item from the outset and frankly I think the price reflects that - a very strong result indeed."

 

13-07-08-2099NE05B Polar Medal.jpg 

Above: 'Birdie' Bowers, Dr Wilson and Apsley Cherry-Garrard beside their sledge.

 

He added: "It is one of the most famous Polar Medals ever issued and comes from the golden age of Polar exploration which basically encompasses Shackleton and Scott. He had a major part to play in all the major stages of Scott's last expedition, from assisting in the scientific work when he made that fantastic - as he calls it 'worst' - journey in the world with 'Birdie' Bowers and Dr Wilson, both of whom ended up in the Polar team with Scott, and then he assisted that team south all the way to the top of the Beardmore Glacier.

"Then, of course, there was the terrible moment in his life when he withdrew when, as it transpires, Scott and his surviving team were only about 12 miles away. That must have been emphasised when again he was there at a famous moment when they discovered the final Polar team's tent."

Witte Collection

Cherry-Garrard was responsible for the epitaph on the cross placed over the bodies of Scott and his companions ('To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield') and that for Captain Oates, who famously said he "might be some time" as he left the tent ('Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman').

The Polar Medal came from a superb collection of awards. "Dick Witte has been a collector for at least 40 years and his primary interest has been awards to the Royal Navy and awards for Polar exploration," added Mr Erskine-Hill.

"This, I believe, will be the final part of the disposal of his collection and what a collection it has been.

"Like a lot of collectors he has reached that age or point in life when so many of them feel they want to share these emotional objects with others. In his time he really did assemble a phenomenal collection."

Mr Erskine-Hill has a long-standing connection with Polar Medals coming up at auction (and, it is fair to say, something of a passion for such lots). "The hardship they reflect is just amazing. These were remarkable men - imagine sledge hauling in minus 50, with the kind of equipment they had in those days. They show amazing willpower, strength and, of course, courage."

Frank Wild Medal

DNW have sold many 'heroic age' lots, such as the Frank Wild Polar Medal and CBE group that made £132,000 in 2009. Wild was a key figure when members of the Shackleton expedition were stranded on Elephant Island, but his four clasps in total (1902-04, 1907-09, 1912-14, 1914-16) reflect his overall Antarctic involvement.

Mr Erskine-Hill has encountered incredibly significant 1910-13 awards before. "The Polar Medals of Captain Oates that I was involved in selling during my time at Sotheby's made £55,000 at auction in June 1984, nearly 30 years ago, so what's that worth now?" he added.

"Having been consigned the Oates medal I was called to the front counter at Sotheby's just before we went to press with that sale catalogue and, lo and behold, I was given the medal of 'Birdie' Bowers, also in Scott's final Polar team.

"They came together in June 1984 but then, because of the publicity from that sale, I was consigned the Polar Medal of Edgar Evans, also in the team, so all three came together."

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