As the catalogue note for the Macclesfield sale of Militaria, Scientific Instruments and Curios wryly notes, his “passion for history, antiques, scientific instruments and militaria became an obsession rarely seen”.
His collection is so large in fact that it is being offered over two days this week, on January 18-19, and involves (take a deep breath) about 1800 lots including more than 500 guns, over 400 swords and edged weapons, more than 200 telescopes, over 200 pairs of binoculars, scientific and optical instruments, uniforms, toys, Morse code equipment, mid-century lighting, books, clocks and even more.
Imagine walking into Cheetham’s two-up, two-down house in Liverpool, where all this was stored… Every possible nook and cranny was stuffed full of memorabilia, reflecting a lifetime’s collecting.
Chris Surfleet, who will share the auctioneer duties with Adam himself on the sale days, says: “I started with Phillips Chester in 1992, so 26 years ago, and with every year that goes by you get thinking that these kind of jobs are not there any more, and then, blow me, it is there.”
In many ways an auctioneer’s dream, such a consignment does also have its difficulties, however. The saleroom had to be alert, as Cheetham’s engineering background “does surface in parts. His ability to make a knuckle guard, sword grip, lock plate, dagger blade or helmet strap has certainly kept us on our toes while cataloguing, and he also enjoyed shooting and making his own ammunition.”
Surfleet adds: “I am just gutted because as ever in these situations, sadly, you don’t get the opportunity to know the collector or even meet them. Coming in after he has passed away is hard. I think it would have been both fascinating to meet Reg and speak with him and very helpful when it comes to cataloguing… a lot of things I am sure he knew chapter and verse on, but us mere mortals do not.”
Man of many interests
Cheetham was born in Prescot, Merseyside, in 1924, and was an engineer by trade. As a keen cyclist, his early days of collecting featured purchases of a large number of penny farthings and high wheelers, all of which he then sold to fund his main interest: militaria.
Another passion developed through his eagerness to learn to fly. Not content with a few local lessons, he bought his own plane and mastered flying and radio communications. Again, this inevitably developed into collecting, such as Morse code machines and military issue transmitters.
In the mid-1990s Cheetham realised he had a large collection of telescopes, but frustrated by the lack of related literature, he wrote his own book: Old Telescopes (1997) is a guide still very much in demand.
As the auction house says, however, it was his fascination with the military that “developed into the heart of his collection”. Surfleet says: “Even the things that on face value you don’t think have a connection with militaria did in fact, such as binoculars, telescopes, radios, where you get that crossover. It is clear that militaria was his main passion.”
Fresh to the market
The market-fresh collection is being sold on behalf of quite distant relatives of Cheetham, whose wife died within a few weeks of him (they had no children). The lots are being offered without reserve, so every item should find a new home.
The collection was revealed when police were called to Cheetham’s house after he had not been seen for a while, and they discovered he had passed away. They were amazed to find more than 900 guns among the items crammed into the tiny property.
The saleroom has strong links with the police and experience in holding firearm sales and were consulted about the guns. A friend of those more distant family members also knew Partridge’s Liverpool saleroom and the collection was consigned.
Surfleet says: “I have just been into the saleroom for the first time in a week and seen everything laid out, and I went to the house several times, and it is genuinely staggering to walk round the saleroom and think ‘how on earth did this fit in a two-up two-down?’
"We have apart from Tennants [North Yorkshire auctioneers] probably the biggest square feet saleroom in the north of England and half of it is full - I think 58 trestle tables, all cabinets full – it is immense. It is staggering to think it all fitted in to that house."
Although the collection offers a wide variety of items, Surfleet anticipates most interest emerging for the guns, on the 18th-19th century side of things. “These things turn up but not so many as this - there are hundreds.”