WHEN he died tragically in a walking accident in Vermont last October, John Stewart Parry was still in full flow as a collector. A former advertising executive who lived in Gloucestershire, he began to buy antiques in the 1980s first for his home, Abnash House in Stroud, and then for an investment trust of which he was the primary advisor.
His sources were many but primarily retail. John Parry – not to be confused with other well-known collectors of the same name – gave a lot of support to the Cotswolds trade but also opened his wallet in London and particularly in the USA, where he spent much time on business and had an apartment until the early ’90s.
On top of the 50 pieces of 17th and 18th century needlework sold at Christie’s South Kensington earlier this year, in two acquisitive decades Parry amassed more than 2500 objects across a wide range of collecting disciplines from clocks to canes. It was a collection with which local auctioneers and valuers Bruton Knowles were very familiar. They had completed inventories and valuations at regular intervals since the 1980s – often balking, said auctioneer Simon Chorley, at the prices he had paid at the top of the market. BK were thus the obvious choice to liquidate these assets when the executors made the call earlier this year.
Mammoth it may have been, but a country house sale it wasn’t. With almost all of the collection, in showroom – or “scruffy showroom” – condition, this was not an event to produce great ripples of excitement within the trade.
The phrase “quantity not quality” used by one dealer to describe the collection was perhaps a little harsh, but Mr Parry – a man who claimed credit for the naughty pin-up displays used by Big D Nuts – had chosen to spend his hard-earned cash on good-looking, middle-range antiques rather than the very best. It is unlikely, said Mr Chorley, that the phrase “antiques are a good investment” was applicable in this instance.
Nevertheless, The Collection of The Late John Stewart Parry Esq. did prove enormously appealing to private buyers, particularly after The Sunday Times had kindly previewed the sale during viewing days.
In all, 1750 people registered to bid (a record at Bruton Knowles since they introduced a paddle bidding system) and private buyers accounted for as many as half of the winning bids. They also bought many of the sale’s top lots.
These included an early 19th century sarcophagus-form specimen marble tea chest, 12in (30cm) wide, that blew away its £600-800 estimate to sell at £11,000.
The collecting of small boxes and caddies is a hobby currently shared by some big-spenders and the use of specimen marble embellished with gilt-metal lion-mask handles (and an interior including two metal caddies and a glass mixing bowl) made this quite a rarity. It was bought by a Continental collector.
Knocked down privately at £10,000 (estimate £6000-8000) was a walnut and marquetry 30-hour longcase signed Henry Harper, London. The features were typical William and Mary – flat spiral pillars to the four corners of the hood, a 12in (30cm) brass dial with silvered chapter ring and cherub mask spandrels, a bull’s eye to the trunk and foliate marquetry throughout.
While the price suggests this was not an untouched gem, Mr Parry had taken advice from the right people and clocks were perhaps the best element of the collection. The quality was consistently good.
A late Regency mahogany regulator with an arched glazed case showing a mercury compensated movement by Frodsham & Baker of Gracechurch Street, sold at £7500. This trebled hopes, as did an early 19th century mahogany stick barometer signed W. Harris, 47 Holborn, London which sold at £5000. A good maker’s name was reflected in the calibre of the case with a swan neck pediment, a flame mahogany bowfront strung with ebony and a cistern cover applied with a fleur-de-lis moulding.
A French late 19th century petite sonnerie half-repeating alarm carriage clock in a fine-quality, gilt-brass case with an engraved surround to the white enamel dial, 7in (18cm) high, sold at £2600 while a late 19th century double-sided goliath pocket watch in a domed ivory case, 5in (11cm) high, made £2100.
The latter, bought by Mr Parry for £860, turned a decent profit but more typical were the unfavourable differentials between retail prices paid in the late ’80s and prices realised currently at auction.
Mr Chorley estimated that Mr Parry had paid two and a half times the £8000 (plus premium) received for a Regency centre table with ebonised and gilt tapering triangular column and a specimen marble top with a pietra dura roundel of birds in a fruit tree.
But then, it was not a good day for the Grand Tour. One of Mr Parry’s favourite styles was 19th century Classical Revival but this is slightly out of kilter with today’s interior decoration tastes.
A number of such pieces struggled to bring a fraction of former glories.
The two exceptions were a 2ft 1/2in (62cm) high marble architectural model of the Temple of Vespasian which sold at £4800 (estimate £3000-3500) and a 15in (38cm) rendering of the Lion of Lucerne in golden Siena marble which made £3200 (estimate £1800-2200).
A 19th century carved and painted wood armorial figure of a greyhound which sold at £3600 was one lot to really excite the trade, receiving more phone bidders than any other of the 2500 lots.
Popular, too, was a 19th century Austrian carved wood figure of a coquettish girl with cocked hat and parasol, 3ft 5in (1.03m) high. Last sold in these rooms in 1977, it trebled hopes on this occasion making £4800.
Private money took the best-selling piece of furniture – an 18th century walnut bookcase. This was a relatively simple form with a pair of arched top, glazed bar doors above a pull-out slide, a pair of cupboards and bracket feet, 3ft 7in (1.14m) wide, which went way over the estimate of £4000-4500 to sell at £10,500.
One of several pieces of William IV mahogany to sell well was a sarcophagus-form cellaret with spiral carved borders and corners terminating in bold claw feet. Bought in 1991 from a sale at Roseboro House, Co. Kildare, it was knocked down at £6500 against an estimate of £3000-4000.
Also going way over estimate was the pick of the vernacular pieces – an early 18th century, 2ft 6in (76cm) wide oak half-round table with a folding top, baluster turned legs terminating in Spanish toes and united by curved stretchers. Carrying hopes of £1500-2000, it sold at £5800.
In better condition, a George III upholstered two-seater settee with scrolled arms and carved cabriole legs with carved pad feet might just have raced well away from its £10,000 top estimate but it was one of many lots that required a certain amount of auctioneer’s discretion to get away at all.
Its needlework upholstery was now rather tired – the owner’s love of animals had taken its toll on many of the soft furnishings – and it was allowed to sell at £6600.
An unsold lot at Christie’s South Kensington reoffered here was a late 17th century needlework picture of a king and queen with attendants, flora, fauna and two palaces in the background.
To the reverse of the 101/2 x 153/4in (27 x 40cm) piece was an inscription dated 1888 stating that the picture was purchased in France at the beginning of the 19th century and was included in a needlework exhibition in Edinburgh in 1882 – which may or may not have helped bidding to £6200.