He served during one of the greatest periods of social and industrial change in the 20th century and an archive offered at Hansons last week serves as a time capsule from that era.
Described by Hansons’ valuer as a “50,000-piece jigsaw puzzle”, the sale of the collection of Harold and Mary Wilson encompassed letters, photos and memorabilia from his time in office with reminders of his connections with the rich and famous of his day.
A watercolour painting by Prince Charles with letters gifting it to Mary Wilson, was hammered down at £10,500 against an estimate of £2000-3000 to a buyer on the saleroom.com. It is a price that auction house Hansons believes could be a record for art by the heir to the throne.
Photographs of Wilson meeting former US president Lyndon B Johnson took £3400, a photo of Wilson with the Beatles made £170, while a signed photo of the crew of the fifth manned Apollo Space Mission including Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, and another photo of Wilson with the men, took £6000.
Wilson’s personal copy of a first edition of John Maynard Keynes The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and A Treatise on Money that he had while at university at Jesus College, Cambridge were estimated at £700-1000. Both are signed 'J. H. Wilson, Jesus, 1936' and sold at £2400.
Bidders, largely private collectors, on the internet, phone and in the room helped the hammer total to £226,000 at the Hansons’ auction (20% buyer’s premium) at Bishton Hall, near Stafford on May 10.
Hansons’ associate director and head of books and works on paper Jim Spencer, said he spent nearly eight weeks cataloguing seven van loads of material on his own.
He said: “I was transported back in time. In boxes, bags, chests of drawers, wicker hamper baskets the various components of some huge part of our collective history were waiting. Some of these slips of paper hidden away turned out to be important letters and photos.”
He added: “I don’t think Harold and Mary ever threw anything away so it really was a time warp. From dinner place cards to letters, every piece had a story to tell.
“It felt like a lonely struggle at times. I was alone cataloguing in a wing of Bishton Hall. But looking back and seeing the results I can say it has been the highlight of my career.”
Hansons said every lot has now sold with post-sale bids coming in for a handful of remaining items.
Spencer has had a busy few months. He single-handedly catalogued Hansons’ Library sale on April 11, the Leonard Fryer archive of stamp designs on May 9 and the Harold and Mary Wilson sale on May 10.
The sale, A Prime Minister's Life: Sir Harold and Lady Mary Wilson Collection, was sold on the instructions of the executors of Lady Wilson's estate. She was an accomplished poet whose books sold in the many thousands during the 1960s-70s. She died last year at the age of 102.