Robin Butler on Twitter

February 2011

I am sure it will not surprise anyone to hear that there is an excellent weekly newspaper for the antiques trade, and it is entitled ‘The Antiques Trade Gazette’. It has been running continuously now for nearly 2,000 editions, and is highly respected by museum curators, dealers, auctioneers and collectors around the world. Over the years, as it has been continually up-graded with better quality paper, printing (it is now in colour throughout), and the quality of journalism has improved, too. One feature is the top right-hand quarter of the front page, where a recently-sold item is given the spotlight, whether it is a Polynesian war club, a Chinese vase, or a Chippendale cabinet. The criteria for receiving this seal of approval are that the object has to be exceptional in its field, and has recently sold at auction for much more than expected.

Several wine accessories have qualified for this front-page treatment recently. The issue that started this year, featured a mechanical corkscrew by Robert Jones, which was estimated by a Gloucestershire auctioneer to sell for £300 - £500, but which actually sold for £11,000 (that’s a few pennies short of £13,000 when the auctioneer’s premium and VAT are added). There is no doubt that it was a rarity to a degree quite unrecognised by the auctioneer. However, the worm or helix (the business end of the corkscrew) had been shortened, which is a serious shortcoming reducing its practicality and its desirability as a collectable - unless, as in this case, it is thought to be unique.

Only a month or so previously, a mahogany, velvet-lined cellaret containing two of its four (original ?)double magnum decanters of c.1780 also featured as the lead object, and the ensemble was sold for £17,500 against an estimate of £3,000 - £4,000. Last August, I drew your attention to a magnificent silver wine cistern which sold for £2,500,000, another front-page feature. These are not the only wine accessories to have been given star treatment - the wine bottle dug from beneath a Cornish tree sold for £24,000 a couple of years ago, and more recently, a glass punch bowl and cover featured on the front page because it sold for over £45,000. Clearly antique wine accessories are increasingly considered a major discipline within the antiques world.

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If the equipment made to enhance our ancestors’ appreciation of wine is so highly esteemed, then ought there not to be a museum in Britain devoted to the subject? Harveys of Bristol had just such a museum, and 20,000 visitors a year were delighted by what they saw there - not to mention the glass of sherry afterwards! In the name of budgetary control, but actually a moment of corporate crass stupidity, the museum was closed and the contents sold. All the goodwill that had been carefully nurtured over many years (the museum was part of the PR and marketing department) was destroyed at a stroke. I was asked to supply Harveys with a good many exhibits, and with help in other ways. I felt disinclined to support the firm by making any purchases at the auction - where there was VAT added to the full price, as well as commission, resulting in over 40% being added to the bid prices. I understand that many people who successfully bid £1,000, say, for an object, were mightily unamused when presented with an invoice for slightly more than £1,400. But that was some years ago.

It seems to me, and to the few I have mentioned it to, that a new Wine Museum of Britain is needed. Britain produced more, and better quality, wine accessories than any other country and there are good reasons for this, but that is another story. Showing our own people and the rest of the world how we British developed our appreciation of wine with sensible accessories is, to use the vernacular, a no-brainer. A couple of years ago, the Victoria & Albert Museum put on a very small display entitled ‘The Art of Drinking’, which toured some provincial cities, and which was accompanied by a book of essays, but the display only scratched the surface of the subject, and was concerned with all alcoholic drinks, not only wine. And it was only temporary.

Of course a new museum would have to be financially self-supporting by sponsorships, an attached income stream from a shop/restaurant, and gate income, but if sited in a central London location, it should prove to be a huge attraction. I have asked a few friends, including some well-known figures in the world of wine about the idea, and all have been very enthusiastic, and strongly of the opinion that such a museum would be an excellent visitor attraction for the city. So to take the idea one step further, I am asking you for your thoughts, ideas, encouragement - and possibly help. All bright ideas you may have will be thoroughly welcome.

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