Saturday, October 07, 2006

Unique Auction Sales at Stevens’s Auction Rooms, LTD
By Robert A. Doyle, CAI, ISA, CES, CAGA

50th President of the National Auctioneers Association
Principal Auctioneer/Appraiser Absolute Auction & Realty, Inc.

Robert A. Doyle


We all know that the finest things in the world sell at public auction. The auction method of marketing dating back to the earliest civilizations has worked for the disposition of all types of assets from the spoils of war to fine art. In the historical theater of auctions and auction companies lies a tremendous wealth of information. It has been said that the auctioning of any item gives it new life. The object starts over under new management. The sale establishes a new value, a different owner, fresh location, and possibly a different use. The lot is moved from one place to another and either comes out into the light for display or is put away in the darkness for security.

The auctioneer and auction companies over time have been responsible for uncovering, researching, cleaning, displaying and selling diverse material to the buying public. The auctioneer sets the stage for the rebirth of every item. This “rebirth” could be a great celebration or go unnoticed depending on the imagination and skill of the auctioneer and auction company handling the event.

If you had a unique collection to sell in the early 1800’s and you wanted those items to be noticed and promoted in their best light you would have contacted J. C. Stevens’s of 38 King Street, Covent Garden London. Steven’s started as an auctioneer in 1820 by buying into an established auction business at the same location. It will be seen that Steven’s created many new and unique markets utilizing the auction method of marketing that included the sales of the most bizarre and unusual items and collections ever held. He auctioned mummies, shrunken heads, major insect collections, seashells, bird eggs, crocodile skins, witch doctors “Basuto” bags, Tibetan Yak tails, carved coconut teapots, Graeco-Roman bronze lion masks, exotic plants, even complete menageries of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. His auction sales were the most unusual in the world until Stevens’s Auction Rooms. Ltd. was blasted off the face of the earth during World War Two.

But let’s not jump to the end so quickly. According to catalogs in my collection the Stevens’s Auction Rooms, LTD was established in 1760. However, a chapter in a book titled “Going, Going, Gone!” by Bellamy Partridge claims that the original Stevens’s Auction Rooms were started by an auctioneer named Samuel Paterson. He was a well-known bibliographer. Paterson was credited with starting the third oldest auction room in England in 1776. The auction room was the same address of the later Stevens’s rooms, 38 King Street Covent Garden, London, England.

Paterson primarily sold books, manuscripts and prints. He cataloged and sold many important collections at auction. Paterson was credited with starting the practice of selling books in lots, rather then one at a time. Paterson’s love of books made 38 King Street the hang out of many a famous bibliophile. According to Bellamy Partridge, “A few years before his death Mr. Paterson was succeeded by Messrs. King, Collins and Chapman. Soon Collins withdrew and the concern went under the name and style of Chapman & King; by 1796 Chapman had withdrawn and the firm continued as King & Son.” Through the transitions the business thrived with the sales of books, manuscripts and prints. At the auction room in 1806 a first edition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” sold for three pounds and three shillings. Also a uniquely titled book “Rules to get Children with Handsome Faces, so that their children may not have such Strange, Prodigious, Ill-boding Faces as their Fathers, 1642” sold for seven shillings.

J.C. Stevens had come into the firm in the 1820’s, and by 1834 his name was on the door as sole proprietor; from that time on the King Street rooms continued in the control of the Stevens family, passing from father to son until the institution was well past the century mark”, claims Partridge.

There was a major change to the atmosphere of 38 King Street with the introduction of Stevens. As a child he was fascinated with insects and nature. It was said that in his youth, he assembled a large collection of cherry pits (I’m still watching for that catalog to surface on the market). The first deviation from books was the announcement of a major auction of seashells gathered by William Webber. The conchologists crowded into the auction rooms forcing out the old conservative book dealers. Bidding was enthusiastic and spirited, plowing the way toward more shell auctions. The William Broadrip collection brought in from Bristol lasted 5 consecutive days.

Next, Stevens introduced auctions of mineral collections. Mineral collections became another mainstay at 38 King Street.

Books were being shelved as the first significant collection of insects flew through the doors. The substantive collection of John Francillon was auctioned over a nine-day period and every serious naturalist was on hand for preview. According to Partridge, “A single beetle, Prionus giganteus (sex undetermined) fetched a record price of over five pounds. A butterfly, Papilio homerus went for six pounds, and Phasma, described as a giant insect from New Holland, went for one pound two.” Later, Stevens sold the Haworth collection of bugs; over 40,000 specimens collected over half a century and dispersed to find new homes at an eleven-day auction.

Stevens went on to auction the Leverian and London Museums. The Leverian auction lasted sixteen days and boasted many items of ethnological interest. A tremendous amount of bidding was witnessed for the Captain Cook collected specimens from his three voyages of discovery.

Next, Stevens built a great following on the auction sale of birds and their eggs. He was an amateur ornithologist and an ecological preservationist. The story goes that he was appalled at the exterminated of the Auk by human hands. The Auk was a game bird. They were good eating and easy to catch. In 1853, after their extinction, Stevens conducted a census on known Auk eggs. He found that 75 existed in the hands of collectors. (Stevens sold 25 of the existing 75 at auction). His initial survey documented where all 75 were located. “Forty-four were in Great Britain, seven in France, five in Germany, two in Holland, fourteen in the United States and one each in Denmark, Portugal and Switzerland. The highest price the auction room ever received for one was three hundred and thirty pound, and the last one sold at the Stevens auction rooms went under the hammer in 1900”, according to Partridge. Because of Stevens’s interest in the bird he became known as the “Auk King”. Steven’s was so proud of his title that he incorporated it into his telegraphic address. The address, “Auks, London”, was recognized among ornithologists just as “Ford, Detroit” was known to motorists.

The next area pioneered by Stevens was auction sales of “ethnological” items. The first items were Egyptian and included 4 mummies, one of which was supposed to have been the remains of Queen Nefertari, wife of Rameses II. The publicity was fantastic on the auction. The crowds were great. The queen fetched twelve pounds; the others were sold in one lot. Stevens ordered more mummies from Egypt, Peru and Ecuador (Is this like bringing in containers of antiques from Europe today?)

Hearing of the success of the mummy auctions, a man brought in his collection of shrunken heads acquired in trips to Africa. He had been keeping them in his bedroom for company at night. “He reported that he found them a great comfort and explained that whenever he had a wakeful night it was his practice to get up out of bed and comb the hair of a few of the Maoris, which he found soothing and relaxing”, according to Partridge.

Next, Stevens’s opened the gates to auctioning complete menageries and aviaries of live animals. He dispersed the collection of Lord Derby’s menagerie consisting of deer, antelopes, goats, sheep, llamas, rodents, lemurs, and armadillos, even a duckbill platypus. Birds included parrots, songbirds, falcons, vultures, owls and kingfishers. According to Peterson, “A Brahman bull went for fifty pounds while a yak brought one hundred and a quagga surprisingly enough, brought fifty.”

Evidently the excitement of the menagerie auctions did not turn off Stevens, as he went on to put the entire Surrey Zoological Gardens under his ivory hammer. Giraffes brought up to three hundred pounds each, while elephants were bringing a hefty three hundred and thirty six pounds each.

At a time when Stevens’s auction business was in full bloom he met a man by the name of Skinner that introduced him to flowers. He soon cultivated auctions of orchids to the point that every Thursday became “Orchid Day”. Skinner searched the jungles of Guatemala for the magical flowers that reaped a fortune. An American syndicate paid twelve thousand pounds for only part of a collection; the remainder fetched another twelve thousand.

Stevens’s long success was in selling specialties in many diverse markets. There is evidence in existing catalogs that he sold old Masters paintings, Chinese import porcelain, oriental rugs, silver, firearms, furniture, glassware, bronzes, coins and yes, even books. The latest catalog I have in my possession is dated July 11th 1933 and was their 14,955th auction conducted.

What made Steven’s Auction Rooms, Ltd so interesting is the fact that they sold with flair. Their auctions were cataloged. They produced sensational events. Each auction received a lot of publicity and each and every item received the recognition it deserved. If I was an artifact destined for auction, I should like to be placed in the hands of an auctioneer like “stevens” so that my rebirth would be celebrated in it’s proper light.

As an example of how his work has sent beams of light from the past to enlighten today I’ll share excerpts from a January 30, 2000 Sunday Times article titled “London bidders go ape over gallant simian of the siege of Mafik” “Henry Stevens was an auctioneer in King’s Street in London. On this particular day (August 1, 1900) he sold a monkey known as General Synam. During the Siege of Mafeking (Anglo-Boer War) the monkey was trapped in the town with the inhabitants. It had been taught by the soldiers to ring a bell as soon as the Boers began to fire and after sound the alarm, he then followed the example of the people and sought shelter himself. When the Mafeking monkey came up for sale, “forty guineas made him the property of Mr. Wilson of New Oxford Street and afterwards he was sold to Mr. E.H. Bostock of the Scottish Zoo, Glasgow. I wonder whether this gallant animal was ever awarded the Queen’s South African medal with the Defense of Kimberley bar – an award he obviously deserved?”

The Stevens family deserves recognition for keeping the auction method of marketing alive for over 175 years. They introduced many new commodities to the auction block. Their history is rich in the preservation, study and sale of natural history.

In the end, I find it ironic that Stevens’s bloomed new life into so many natural objects for humankind and that it was man’s unnatural objects that snuffed the life from Stevens’s. Today, Stevens’s is extinct – Auk!



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