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Assembled over many years by the dealer, expert and advisor Jane Penrice How (née Benson), the incomparable group of silver spoons from the Roman period to the 17th century have been on loan to the  Ashmolean Museum  in Oxford since 2007.

Harry Williams-Bulkeley, European head of Christie's silver department, who has been instructed to sell by the How family, describes the collection as "the Holy Grail for spoon collectors" and anticipates it will realise in excess of £500,000.

The 45  spoons  and one fork, formally published last year in David Constable's detailed work, The Benson Collection of Early Spoons, include rarities such as a Henry VI spoon with a Wodewose or wild man finial (one of only four known, it is estimated at £40,000-60,000) and a set of six Edward IV parcel-gilt silver Apostle spoons from the 15th century (among the earliest extant and estimated at £150,000-250,000).

Early Spoons

Another survivor from some of the most turbulent eras of British history is an acorn-knop spoon that pre-dates the hallmarking system established by Edward III in 1300 (estimate £8000-12,000) and a diamond-point spoon from c.1350 (estimate: £30,000-50,000), which is struck with one of the earliest representations of the leopard's head, the first English hallmark.

Williams-Bulkeley said he was not aware of any institutional attempts to buy the collection. Instead the sale provides a unique opportunity for connoisseurs and new collectors around the world to acquire rare historical spoons with an impeccable pedigree.

Jane Penrice How (1915-2004), known as "Ben" to her friends, and simply as "Mrs How' to acquaintances, was a character that none who knew her will forget. A long-standing member of the Antique Plate Committee at Goldsmiths Hall, where her forthright opinions were aired with some regularity, she met her husband, Commander George Evelyn Paget How, when cataloguing the Ellis spoon collection for Sotheby's in 1935.

Silver Dealers

Together, they built up a formidable dealership, How of Edinburgh (which had moved to the heart of the West End before the War) that was the training ground for a whole generation of silver dealers. Tom Lumley, Hugh Jessop, John Bourdon-Smith and Brand Inglis all worked for How at some time in their careers.

Mrs How's lengthy obituary in The Times also remembered her wide-ranging enthusiasms: wine, opera, fishing, shooting, edged weapons, beekeeping, dogs, cricket and motorcars.

Woolley & Wallis of Salisbury conducted the How of Edinburgh stock sale in October 2007 - a single-owner catalogue totalling £550,000.