Robin Butler on Twitter

March 2012

"There shall be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm, and one measure of ale and one measure of corn, namely, the London quart."  This is a rough transcription of clause 35 from Magna Carta of 1215, put before King John by the Barons of England, and agreed by him.  I confess I did not know that the first weights and measures legislation was directed at wine, but a version of the above sentence appeared in last week’s Antiques Trade Gazette.   I find it extraordinary that at that date, wine should have preceded corn and ale, but that was the order in which these staples appeared in The Great Charter.  It is by reading and assimilating fresh little nuggets of information that one gradually builds up a sound knowledge of a subject, and where a general book on it is not freely available, such knowledge as this is often difficult to find.  It was for this reason that I wrote the Book of Wine Antiques in the 1980s, and followed it up with Great British Wine Accessories two years ago with so much fresh information I had gathered in the interim.  There simply was no single volume which encompassed the subject.

I have had a bronze ‘Wine Half Pint’ ‘standard’ measure on a couple of occasions (dating from c. 1820 and illustrated), but what is interesting about wine measure is that it is less than Imperial measure, and when, in in the summer of 1776, the USA shrugged of British colonialism, they kept the wine gallon, and ditched the Imperial version. Hence the disparity between British gallons (and pints) and those in the USA (which are 20% less).  Wine was, until 1861, sold by the measure, so having set standards was crucial to the wine trade.  It was only when bottles being made in three-part moulds of a given standard capacity were accepted as reliable measures themselves, that the law was changed and wine was sold by the bottle - which in turn saw the advent of the paper label.  Other countries made the change earlier.

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The first of the ‘serious’ antiques fairs has just finished in London - the BADA Fair.  It was its usual posh self - an air of grandeur pervading the aisles, with smart suits and dresses strutting their stuff.  While there was a plethora of good antiques to be seen - and bought if you had the inclination - I have to admit I found it rather uninspiring.  The format of the layout and house style has barely changed in 20 years (it was the anniversary year), while the exhibitors and customers, whether potential or real seem to have changed little either. While maintaining a house style can promote a brand image, it can also tire after a period of time; the fair has simply become a little too predictable.  But that can be an advantage to anyone who cares to look assiduously.

I had gone to the fair for two reasons.  First, I had to deliver some stock for exhibitors (other dealers do buy from me!), and second, it is always possible to buy even at the most unlikely venue.  I have always considered that as a dealer from the provinces, I should not expect to buy in London because the higher expenses of running businesses in the capital usually mean I cannot afford the prices.  But that argument does not take one important issue into consideration.  Dealers do not always stick to their areas of expertise; they buy what comes their way when they think there is profit to be made.  It is when they stray from their usual dealing patterns, it can be to  the buyers ‘s advantage.  Sometimes those purchases are over-priced, but equally they can be under-valued.

On the stand of a furniture dealer at the BADA fair that I saw pair of green decanters which were quite special on account of their very rich colour and their larger-than-usual size.  They had been shown at the Grosvenor House fair many years previously, but the exhibitor at the BADA fair had mis-described them as mid-Victorian, and priced them accordingly; they were actually pre-Victorian.  I was delighted to have found something so unusual, good, and superb value.

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Restoration can be a contentious subject.  While it is argued that it is commendable to return an object to its original specification, appearance and use, such a piece should not be sold as if it were perfect.  Alteration or enhancement over the original specification is utterly unacceptable, but of course where there is money to be made, it will happen.   Last month I mentioned two rarities I had bought which were in need of restoration, and I have to say that work done has been superb.  I had a stopper made for one of the pair of magnum claret jugs, and it is almost impossible to tell which one I have had made.  Similarly the restoration to the pair of decanters with ‘tasting stoppers’ has been done to an exceptional standard to the extent that it is all but impossible to tell  what has been done from an initial inspection.  Of course, the fact that they are restored is reflected in the price being considerably less than it would have been if they were entirely original.  The work done certainly disproves those who say workmanship is not what it was.

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