The General Sale – Unexpected Treasures

The General Sales at David Lays frequently inspire questions, the most usual being an incredulous “Do you really sell all this in one day ?” and “Where does it all come from?” People come for the first time and see our sale of anything up to two thousand lots of Victorian to Modern furniture and effects. It is a room of people’s lives and there are many stories behind the goods, clearing a loved ones house, moving mum in with the family, upping sticks and moving to Spain in a camper van, and the perennial it was my mother’s, it’s been in the corner of the front room for twenty years and I’ve never liked it! The stories are as numerous as the lots.

It is a place where people come in search of one thing and leave with an unexpected bargain, and maybe another question: ” Why am I going home with a unicycle, a sword and a copper coal scuttle when I am a pacifist living in a centrally heated third floor flat?” This I don’t know but I do know that once people have been they usually come again and again not only to view and buy but to look and learn what things are really worth, what to buy for home and what to buy to sell.

I have been with David for over 25 years and am still fascinated and excited by our sales and the knowledge that comes with handling so much.  I still enjoy not knowing, maybe even cataloguing something as a thing of some purpose until an ancient soul explains what it does and then it can suddenly become blindingly obvious, wonderful! Where else but at David Lays General Sale.

By Phil Waller, Saleroom Manager


Something Quite Spectacular

SOLD FOR £52,000 – not too shabby

Sometimes, it can feel like you’re selling the same lots over and over again: another Royal Doulton  tea set, another Victorian bow-front chest, yet another set of Edwardian silver napkin rings, Birmingham, 1902.  However, once in a while, quite unexpectedly, you come across something really special.  It’s like Fate’s tapped you on the shoulder, gestured to a dusty box and said ‘chin up’, with an encouraging smile.

In this case, our ‘something really special’ was an unassuming looking Ancient Egyptian bronze cat’s head, discovered in a little old house near Penzance.  It’s a majestic thing, greened with age, but you can still just about make out the patterned engraving to the neck, its lightly modelled whiskers and the lines around its big, wise eyes.  It was sat on the mantlepiece, surveying the room, and when we first saw it, we couldn’t quite believe what we’d found.


We had a similar cat in our last sale, a very small Ancient Egyptian statuette, a little damaged but still well received by bidders – and this model is ten times more wonderful.  Cats were commonly revered in Egypt, partly due to their ability to combat vermin and cobras, but increasingly as a result of their supposed connection with the divine, and the cats of wealthy families were known to be dressed in elaborate golden jewellery.  Even our statue has two, probably original, gold hoop earrings as symbols of its reticent power.

The cat in Ancient Egypt was the earthly form of a goddess, Bastet. She began life in around 3000BC as Bast, a ferocious lion goddess, protector of Lower Egypt, but as time went on, she diminished in savagery, perhaps because Lower Egypt had begun to lose ground to Upper Egypt on the battlefield, thus she became identified with the domestic cat.  By the beginning of the Middle Kingdom in 2055 BC, she was being referred to as Bastet – a softer, more approachable version of her former incarnation, and was received as a guardian of music, dancing, love and perfume.

In the 26th dynasty (672-525BC), when our cat was probably created, it became common practice to sacrifice and then mummify sacred cats, who were then buried in special cemeteries with bronze caskets as a sign of devotion to the goddess.  Statuettes of cats, such as ours, were presented as votive offerings at temples, and sometimes placed in tombs to accompany their owner to the afterlife, which is most likely where ours came from. When David took it to the British Museum for authentication, their world expert was not only able to positively identify it, but he was genuinely excited to see it.

It’s outstandingly modelled, and tastefully engraved, suggesting it was commissioned by a patron on considerable means.  Quite a few have survived, because so many were made, but ours is remarkably fine – not quite what you’d expect to turn up in a small house in south western Cornwall.  So you see, the most wonderful things do turn up in the most unlikely of places.

Top 20 Antique Christmas Gifts

20. This huge, sparkly diamond ring for the light of your life


19. This stylish Cheetah fur cape, for impromptu Christmas cocktail parties


18. This sturdy cork screw, for opening endless bottles of wine


17. This sarcophagus wine cooler, for storing your Christmas bubbly at an adequate temperature


16. These Italianate goblets, perfect for drinking your mulled wine


15. These stunning cloisonné vases, equally suitable for drinking your mulled wine


14. This tiny ceramic piglet, who’s definitely had too much mulled wine


13. This must-have 1950s push along toy, for the young equestrian in your life


12. This bronze of a petulant satyr, who didn’t receive a push along horse for Christmas


11. This light-up Madonna stained glass window, to help us remember the religious sentiment behind the Festive season


10. This silver lamb, who’s totally up for attending the birth of Christ


9. This lobster, who wonders why he wasn’t invited


8. These brass candlesticks, for holding your M&S scented candles on the big day


7. This Banjolele, for Mumford & Sons-esque Festive entertainment


6. This extravagant ladies’ Rolex, to keep Christmas dinner timings second-perfect


5. This oriental bell, to summon guests to the table when it’s ready


4. This peony flower ivory netsuke, which looks disarming like a sprout


3. This celadon glaze bowl large enough for a whole sack of roast potatoes


2. This mahogany cheese coaster, for the obligatory Christmas stilton (is that a thing?)


1. And of course, the gift we’ve all been lusting after, this completely necessary utterly irresistible coconut grater in the shape of a turtle


Fine Wine Auction

I had considerable trouble working out how to write this post.  I planned to begin with something really brilliant, so that I could share my infectious enthusiasm, and then to list as many well known wines as I could legitimately fit into couple of short grange95paragraphs, and end with a sentence suggesting we might serve wine and nibbles, to lure you to the actual sale on Thursday evening.  But to be honest, any wine auction worth its salt has Chateau Margaux (1981), Chateau Latour (1973, 1980), Chateau D’Yquem (1958), Chateau this and Chateau that (various vintages), and besides, our catalogue is available to view online (see what I did there?) Instead I’m going to tell you about a couple of wines you might be less familiar with. The first is the Penfolds Grange, arguably Australia’s most celebrated wine, uniquely heritage-listed by the South Australian National Trust.  It has been perfected over the 60 or so years since its birth in an experimental vintage of 1951, and last year the 2008 vintage received 100 point scores from some of the world’s most influential wine magazines.  Its success lies not just in the craftsmanship and passion behind it, but also in that it has the longevity to stand up to its French counterparts.  We have vintages 1995 through to 2000, including three bottles of the rare millennial wine, and a case of the 1998 vintage, recognised as one of the best they’ve ever produced.1584-2014922174653_original My second wine of choice is South African, the Tete de Cuvee Galpin Peak Pinot Noir.  A blend of the most promising and inspiring top eight barrels from cellar, it’s an event which is intended to take place only in years where a superb vintage has been produced.  We have cases from 2001, 1999, and 1997, the first year when the Tete de Cuvee was released, and as such a very desirable wine, described as “bitter cherry and damson fruit laced with violet and rounded off with cedar and tar – complex, alluring and without doubt one of the best wines in a long time and certainly one of the best from South Africa.”  It’s really very special. And just in case you’re feeling your of your Western European claret comfort zone, there’s always a case of Chateau Lafite 2001 in its original case. You can view on Saturday morning or until 19:00 on Wednesday.  We’ve re-upholstered and painted our display tables, and it looks fabulous, so do come along.  We might even serve wine and nibbles.

Bearers of Bad News

The words “It’s a lovely piece, but I’m afraid it’s out of fashion in the current market” are never far from my lips when clients bring in items for valuation.  Blue and white ceramics, sporting prints, fur coats and ivory figures, gas lamps and pretty much the entirety of brown furniture are just a few names on a long list of undesirable items, a fact which often resigns us to the position of ‘Bearers of Bad News’.  Amongst such pessimism, this elegant silver sugar bowl, designed by Archibald Knox, offers a moment of solace.


Knox was one of the most important designers of the early 20th century, combining Arts and Crafts sentiment with the fluidity of Art Nouveau to form wonderfully dynamic, elegant pieces, which continue to spark the imagination of 21st century audience.  He worked predominantly for the prominent London retailer Liberty’s, using a large variety of mediums, but his designs in silver are particularly well known and appreciated, and in recent years have risen dramatically in price.  I have high hopes that our pierced and interlaced silver sugar bowl will soar above its £200-300 estimate.

2093 Knox

Why you should buy this painting

Why does anyone buy a painting?  I can’t tell you that.  It’s a question to which there are as many answers as works of art (probably more).  A painting can be a memory or a desire, a gift or adornment, an investment or an easy profit.

Garstin Sketch

Let us first satisfy the dealer.  Not signed, but superb provenance, the estate of the artist herself – a letter of authentication from the family and you’ll have no difficulty convincing a potential client of her legitimacy.  Have you seen the preliminary sketch for the work being sold in London?  You could bag both, and her value would soar.

The style is not typical, as such, but the brushstrokes which form the figure are undoubtedly accomplished.  The impressionistic background, if we contrast its brightness against the subtlety of her flesh and the pale satin of her bridal gown, speaks of an understated modernity.  Who needs history when the imagery is so striking?

But history she has, enough to please the connoisseur.  She has pedigree, being the daughter of the celebrated Cornish artist Norman Garstin, and her CV is impressive.  Born in 1894, she had very little formal training, she first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 18 when its president Edward Poynter admired her work so much he asked to meet her, and she’s widely recognised as the finest female impressionist painter in England.

(c) National Trust, Benthall Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘The Moroccan Bride’ was painted during her trip to the country in the 1920s, at the same time as this portrait of ‘The Reverend Charles Francis Benthall on Holiday in Morocco’.  See how the North African light casts patterns on his waistcoat in the same way that it plays on the hems of her gown.  I admit, the work differs from her usual offerings, which could be described as quaint (farm houses and tea cups and bowling greens), but in comparison it’s nothing short of iconic. After scrutinising our databases, in my opinion it is the most important of her works ever to be sold at auction, and to miss a chance to own it would be criminal.

Convincing though these arguments are, they don’t quite cover why I would buy her, or explain why I am captivated by this strangely exotic girl every time I walk into the saleroom.  Moroccan bridal traditions are complex and very different to our own.  She would have bathed in milk with her family and attendants before her wedding day, worn a silken kaftan, darkened her eyes, painted elaborate henna on her hands and been adorned in heavy jewellery.  Moroccan BrideShe had probably never met her husband, who was likely chosen for her by parents or grandparents without her youthful opinion.

However, when you look into her downcast eyes as she ponders her future, you cannot help but think of how you felt or will feel on that pivotal day upon which the course of your future depends.  Her expression is not sad, but contemplative, and as I study the brush strokes which form her complexion, my face mirrors hers.  You should buy this painting not for the sake of investment or history, but because Alethea, with intense empathy, has managed to capture this moment and daub it swiftly onto canvas.

All the Best Things Come in Small Packages

1079I’m not particularly tall.  In fact, I’d say I’m of well below average height for an auctioneer.  But my vertically challenged friends reassure me on a regular basis that all good things come in small packages, and as far as our last antiques sale was concerned, I’d have to agree with them.

These ‘good things’ came in the form of a fairly ordinary looking cardboard box filled with scrumpled tissue and newspaper, part of a large consignment.  The newspaper was yellowing, and it looked to have been packed a number of years ago, and left mouldering in a loft through lack of usefulness, or perhaps for safekeeping.

As I began to unwrap, the first thing that struck me was how very tiny its contents were: miniature tea sets with cups the size of thimbles,  pocket sized porcelain boxes decorated with bumblebees and curling leaves, an exceptionally petite, brass, Clanny type miner’s lamp – items which would not have looked out of place in an expensively furnished Doll’s House.

My particular favourite were a pair of Worcester porcelain extinguishers (or candle snuffers if you want to use the charmingly old fashioned terminology).  Slip cast in plaster of paris moulds, the two ‘Town Girl’s were exquisitely painted in pastel colours, with bright eyes and rosy cheeks, their cuffs and the tips of their fans delicately enhanced with gilding.

They were stamped with both the Worcester and the diamond registry mark, allowing us to accurately date not just the year, month, and day of their design, but even the package number.  Having sat in the box for so long, they were in perfect condition, and ended up selling for £1,130 plus 15% buyer’s premium.

The next treasure was an unassuming glass casket. Less than 10cm long, it was made of translucent, ochre-coloured glass and decorated with red, white and black enamelled fleurs-de-lis.  It was unusual, and undoubtedly lovely, but it wasn’t until we turned it over to reveal the signature of Emile Gallé that we realised just what a curiosity it was.


Most famous for his floral glass vases of the early 20th century etched with bold, naturalistic designs, our little chest was an example of his early work.  Though it had none of the refinement of the pieces he was to go on to produce, its unusual design and bold repeating pattern saw it fetch £220, considerably exceeding its estimate.

The real jewels in our rather petite crown were four stoneware figures, tightly packed and tucked away at the very bottom of the box.  Two were of cheerful, salt-glazed ‘Merry Musicians’, one, a cherub playing a violin perched on a pink seat, but the most interesting of the four was a model of Henry VIII, pompously throned above the inscription ‘One who found marriage a failure and liked it to be so’.

The style of modelling was very distinctive, and the interlinked ‘GT’ to the back of each confirmed out assumption that they were by George Tinworth, the most accomplished and thus the most collectable of Royal Doulton’s designers.  Each figure measured only 10cm heigh, but the four combined went on to fetch over £6,000 – firm evidence that in the world of antiques, bigger isn’t always better.  There’s hope for me yet.

The Allure of a Good Pot

903I think studio pottery is wonderful.  Antique ceramics have a tendency to be fussy and excessively decorative, but pottery is solid, and tactile, and down to earth (literally) in a way which I find captivating.  I eat my breakfast out of a bowl of Jacob Bodilly’s which was made using St. Just clay and finished with a glaze from Church Cove on the Lizard, and it’s so much a product of its surroundings and the hands that shaped it.

When I was a child, every summer when we came down to Cornwall, my parents would buy a plate or a vase or a salt-glazed, stoneware mug to take home with us. I used to dread seeing a ‘Pottery’ sign nailed to a post as I knew it meant we’d have to trek down lane after endless leafy lane until we happened upon something brightly glazed and suitable for a window ledge, or a soon-to-be-treasured salad bowl.

It still amazes me that Cornwall is so full of potters, tucked away like mice in sheltered and secluded places.  Many of them, including the potters whose works currently fill our Saleroom, drew much of their inspiration from the St Ives ‘Father of Studio Pottery’, Bernard Leach. His Standardware, though highly sought after today, was intended to make pottery accessible to anyone who wanted to own it. Scott Marshall and Richard Jenkyns, who co-founded the Boscean Pottery in the 1960s, studied at the Leach pottery, and were famed for their traditional and functional earthenware pieces.

I had a lovely discussion last week with the wife of Richard Jenkyns about the difference in casserole dishes between the two potters.  She told me that a pot by her late husband could be recognised by the very slight lip at its base, and thus she was able to differentiate his work from that of any other.  It was lovely to think that, just as porcelain from different factories can be distinguished by the style of its floral decoration and dated by its marks, the same is true of studio pottery, each hand having its particular quirks and idiosyncrasies, a factor which now is contributing to studio pottery’s increasing interest to collectors.

Now that I’m older, I’ve come to appreciate each gleefully sought out prize, each subtly different style, and the memories associated with their acquisition. Even if it formed part of a wider set or was destined to be a receptacle for dry pasta or breakfast cereal, every one of the pots we bought was hand thrown and decorated, and was completely unique. Its blemishes and imperfections and the odd stray fingerprint made it all the more lovely.

The same is true of the pieces of pottery we’re selling on 10th July, the auction presents a chance for anyone to buy a little piece of the area’s rich history.  Our fondest wishes go out to Jacob and to all who’ve been fortunate to be touched by the life of the Boscean Pottery over the years. We are pleased that the sale has received such a positive reception, and hope that the tradition of hand throwing pots in the local area will remain vibrant for many years to come.


The Boscean Pottery has now closed after 52 years of production. The sale of its contents, including works by Bill and Scott Marshall, Richard Jenkyns, Jacob Bodilly and many others will take place on the afternoon of July 10th at the Penzance Auction House.

A Grand Tour

ImageOver the past few days, I’ve been reading through a beautiful old journal dating from the 1890s in which is written a young man’s account of his Grand Tour around Europe.  It’s a lovely object, bound in deep blue leather with ‘E.M. ITALY’ embossed in gold on the front, the corners and spine worn by a century’s worth of hands.  I open the cover to marbled crimson paper with flecks of purple and ochre, a little panel to the left hand side reading ’62 Great Portland Street, London’.   The paper itself is thick and creamy with thin blue margins and pale guiding lines, between which sit row upon row of carefully written words.  At the centre of the book is a little clutch of watercolours and sketches of the various places he travelled.  They’re charming to look at.

At first, I found it very difficult to decipher the Victorian handwriting, which despite its precision is very different to our modern hand.  I could read only the odd few words, and all of the important nouns were conclusively impossible to decipher – so few letters and so much ink!  Even the few sentences I could read sounded alien, the writing formal and uncomfortably lyrical – the author uses the word ‘picturesque’ five times to describe the same ‘tranquil brook’.  Also, his writing focusses heavily on the Christian faith with great swathes of text examining the intricacies of ecclesiastical architecture, and the middle of the journal tumbles into dense sermons about duty to God and the role of Judas in the Bible.  This indoctrinated, rich, privately educated man lived in a world so different from my own.  It made reading tiring and unrewarding.

However, the more I read, the more I began to understand.  I found that the less I focused on the individual letters, the easier getting the gist of the writing became (gin & tonic helped considerably), and when I looked back over sections, I could understand almost every word.  Although this boy was far removed from today, certain passages lessened the gap.  At one point, he describes an earthquake which happened when in Rome in 1895: “We were at dinner (8.54) when quite suddenly, we all felt ourselves moved and shaken by some unseen power […] the big lamp swung from the cieling [sic] and swayed unmistakably backward and forward, all the bells in the house rang!” after which they decided everything was probably fine and went back inside to finish their meals.

ImageThe most endearing section comes on the next page: “Carlotta told me in the house of a friend of hers that the (?) came down through one floor in their house, a mass of things (?) to fall on a bed where a child usually slept – but Lottie said they could not think of the shock at the time as they were all hunting for their pet cat, two years old, he fled upstairs, hiding himself behind boxes and they cannot recover him.  He is wild with terror as he sniffs the neighbour’s dog!”  In comparison to his pontification about escutcheons and vaulted arches and the fear of Hell, this passage is just so human and so sweet.

The writing continues beyond the end of the author’s Grand Tour, into the early 20th century.  He  talks about friends and Sheffield and his asthma, there are a number of lovely photographic postcards attached to the pages with bits of stamp booklets.  I must admit, I didn’t manage to wade through the whole thing, but skipped to the last few paragraphs of writing as I thought they might be poignant.  The journal ends on Sept. 3rd 1914 with an entry which reads “I never expect again to feel so fresh and free […] so able to enjoy life,” after which the pages are blank.


To be sold in the Antiques Sale July 10th-11th, lot 23.