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Why would a Frenchman during the depths of the Napoleonic wars construct a bone model of an enemy warship? Given that he was a prisoner-of-war at the time, and wanted to sell it to his captors, the Brits, the answer becomes obvious: money.

The model labelled HMS Caledonia which came up for auction at Charles Miller (24% buyer’s premium) in West Kensington on April 30 was a classic example, which tempted a modern-day EU collector to bid £48,000 against an estimate of £25,000-35,000.

Impressive price today

Back in the pre-2008 crash days Miller remembers selling a POW bone ship model for £65,000 and one when he was at Christie’s for around £120,000, but given present market conditions this was an impressive price.

“It has been a while actually since we’ve had a decent-sized bone POW ship model of this quality, the market has been a little bit starved,” he said. “There have been a couple of wooden ones but they don’t have the same draw. POW collectors are always after bone.

“This one was a top-quality model of an excellent size, very handsomely carved and in fine overall condition.”

The rigging was restored about 20-30 years ago but Miller said it had been done to a high standard to match the rest of the ship – which had a 22in (56cm) hull and was on a “lovely marquetry base”.

The model was consigned by a private collector who bought it from London dealer Trevor Phillips & Sons in 1998.

It came in a later case, measuring 2ft 3in x 3ft 1in x 14in (70 x 95 x 36cm) overall, with plate inscribed HMS Caledonia First Rate of 120 guns, circa 1810.

Miller said although it is named on the case as Caledonia, no name appears on the ship itself.

“Relatively few were named in fact,” he added. “The models usually carried British flags and if named they were for popular British ships – Caledonia was one of them – the reason simply being that prisoners were trying to find a market.

“In the prison camps were market places where once twice or week the doors were open – and so of course they aren’t going to sell many French ships, are they? That’s not to say that some French ships weren’t made, but certainly towards the end of the war private commissions must have been struck.”

Little touches count

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Model of SS Mexico – £37,000 at Charles Miller.

Another stand-out result in Miller’s Maritime and Scientific Models, Instruments and Art auction was a builder’s model of SS Mexico sold for £37,000 (estimate £20,000-30,000) to a US collector.

This represented one of the ships caught up in the infamous ‘Dresden Affair’ that marked the end of mass Irish emigration to Argentina – the vessel by then under new ownership and re-named Duchessa di Genova.

However, Miller felt its appeal was primarily because it was “just a ripping model. It is very rare to find a model of this quality and condition, which had clearly been out of direct light all its life, and it was unusual in that it came with a letter from the builder selling it – a very nice little touch.”

The 9ft 10in (3m) model in laminated pine, built by Napier & Sons, Glasgow in 1884, represented a vessel in the intriguing transition period with both rigging and funnels as ships moved from sail to steam.

The letter from Scottish shipbuilder William Beardmore showed it had been sold to William Bowker in 1925 and it had come to auction by family descent – “Literally one owner since new, which is amazing,” said Miller.

Boat race rarities

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These winning blades from the 1859 and 1861 boat races, inscribed with the crew’s names, colleges, weights and positions, sold for £2800 at Charles Miller's auction.

Early photographs, blades and pennants from the Oxford and Cambridge boat race 1859-65 formed an unusual section of Miller’s auction.

The collection was owned by winning Oxford boat race crew members and brothers, George and Allan Morrison, who also captained the boats, winning four out of five races. They were two of 10 children of entrepreneur James Morrison, who when he died in 1857 was described as the richest commoner in England. The items came to sale through family descent.

A highlight was these winning blades from the 1859 and 1861 boat races, above, inscribed with the crew’s names, colleges, weights and positions, sold for £2800 (estimate £700-1000).

The name of a great-nephew of George and Allan, HC Cumberbatch, provided an enticing detail on a later, 1906 lot: a Trinity College, Oxford, rower thought to be related to actor Benedict.