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September 2011

Before I turn to the main points of my newsletter, I would like to congratulate John Banner on being the first person to send me a correct set of answers to my Summer Quiz.  He was not the first to send in answers, but his were all correct.   Interestingly, one answer I received from one of the others was not what I was expecting because I knew nothing of a German inventor who invented a ‘mountain gun’ which bore his name, and he also patented corkscrew; he was Henry Ehrhardt.    The answer I was anticipating as the inventor of a nasty piece of artillery ordnance - and a corkscrew patent was Henry Shrapnel.  Peter Straton mentioned Ehrhardt which is not so surprising in view of his having  been the Managing Director of the UK subsidiary of Rheinmetall.  Peter gave chapter and verse about this brilliant man, the founder of his company in the 19th century, and who registered no less than 128 patents.

Incidentally, examples of the Shrapnel corkscrew are considerable rarities, and sell for substantial 4-figure sums.  Arguably the most famous of all British corkscrews is a Shrapnel.   It was finely crafted in silver-gilt by Charles Reily and George Storer and presented by Shrapnel to Prince Albert in 1840, and is engraved to that effect.  I understand it may be seen at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

I was offered a less grand version of the Shrapnel corkscrew recently, but at nearly £8,000 I declined the opportunity.   I have to say that I gave the corkscrew as good an examination as was possible without taking the mechanism to pieces.  I could see nothing untoward except that possibly the worm or helix - the business end - may have been replaced, but even this I felt was probably not the case.   It was in very good condition, but all elements, the handle, mechanism and general appearance were equally good.  Excellent condition is never a sign of something not being genuinely antique.

When I saw the Shrapnel corkscrew, I was told that I was the first to be offered it.  The following day, I was told by a good friend of mine that it had been previously offered to several members of a major corkscrew-collecting club, and it was in this arena that it was declared to be a fake.  I should also say that my friend, like me,  thought it was genuine and I still think so - unless someone can give me convincing evidence to the contrary.   I have been on vetting committees at antiques fairs and witnessed established authorities making sweeping statements about the genuineness or otherwise of objects.  Such statements are as often wrong as they are correct, and it is always much more difficult to prove something genuine than it is to condemn it as fake.  I have an open mind as to whether the Shrapnel is genuine or not, but as my old headmaster used to tell pupils, "keep an open mind, but make sure it is not open at both ends"!

Several recipients of this newsletter will probably know more of this story.  It will be interesting to see if they have anything to add.  What is certain is that if someone has something that is unique, or even extremely rare, it may be de-valued if further examples come to light, so there could be a pecuniary advantage in declaring newcomers to be fakes.  Another certainty is that I will never again trust the man who offered it to me; there is no excuse for telling me I was the first to be offered the corkscrew, when one telephone call revealed he had shown it to not one, but many other people before me.

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Now to brighter things!  During March and April most Bordeaux chateaux released their 2010 wines for the world wine press to judge, and for wine merchants to offer en primeur.  The reviews were bordering on ecstatic, but everyone had said the previous year, 2009, was magnificent, too.  While it seems that a  widely-held view is that the French wine growers are given to an excess self-praise of their current offerings, it really does seem, if all the principal wine writers are to be believed, that there has been another very fine pair of vintages.  The 1981/2, 85/6, 89/90,95/6, 2004/5 were all excellent in different ways and in degree, but the universal opinion seems to be that 2009 and 2010 are as great a pair as any.  With prices reaching the skies, they have to be, but I am assured that there are wonderful wines at modest prices - if you consider £20-£30 a bottle ‘in bond’ to be modest.  Some first growth wines are selling for £500 - £1,000 a bottle - and they will not be mature for a decade or two!

With wine prices escalating as they have, it does make me wonder about  the prices of antique decanters.  When a good bottle of wine can cost as much as a good pair of antique decanters, and that the wine will be a memory by the end of dinner... .  Need I say more?

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