Sales at auctioneers Sworders of Stansted are similar to many in Cumbria – Victorian dining chairs and antique desks of little provenance or charm. Yet one item in September did cause excitement – a decidedly singular oak and gilt-bronze coffer on a stand, originally estimated at £300 – £500, which went under the hammer for £52,000.
The item remained something of a mystery until recently, when trade journal Antiques Trade Gazette turned up new facts about the curio, which valuer Guy Schooling had decided was a Victorian experiment in bad taste. A dealer had recognised it as a rarity of which only one other is known to exist, an incomplete version at the V & A in London. It was one of four mounted Roman sarcophagi coffers with Italian Renaissance detailing, made for Regency eccentric William Beckford to display his collection of artworks in Bath.
Beckford downsized from Fonthill Abbey to Bath to realise debts, promptly commissioning architect Henry Goodridge to build and furnish the neo-Renaissance folly of Lansdown Tower to house his treasures (upon his death, Beckford requested he be buried in the manner of the Saxon Kings from whom he claimed to be directly descended.)
The cabinet is one of those pieces you either love or hate. The vendor hated it. He had paid just £100 for it a week earlier, at another auction, before requesting it be sold without reserve as no way did he want it back.
As buyers of antique desks in Cumbria will know, the value of many antiques relies on their provenance. So if you see, at an antique dealer in Preston, some Victorian dining chairs of such unprecedented precociousness they can’t possibly be worth anything – it might be worth thinking again.
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