21 NOVEMBER 1992, Page 60


Buttons and bows

Alistair McAlpine

More musical instruments are to be sold by Sotheby's on 26 November, the sec- ond part of a sale comprising a serious selection of string instruments, some of which were expected to fetch large sums. In the first part, on 8 November, there was a good selection of violin bows. These bows are worth collecting as objects of beauty whether you have any intention of using them or not. They have the same aesthetics as Japanese swords — just wonderful shapes whose beauty has come from a need to fit a shape perfectly to a purpose.

The second half of the sale will be much more fun, with some very curious items indeed. A gusle, a shamisen, a nafir and an ud are all ethnographical instruments, but from Europe there is a 48-button baritone aeola, a melophone and an extremely rare symphonium which is expected to fetch £1,200. This was made in 1830 in nickel sil- ver with ivory buttons and patented by Charles Wheatstone. It was, in fact, the very first mouth-organ. Charles Wheat- stone was later knighted for his services to science, a grateful nation I suppose having forgiven him for his invention of the most tiresome of instruments, designed to be blown aimlessly by small boys. Then there is a clarinet carefully carved to resemble a gnarled wooden walking stick, and another walking stick that converts into a violin and its bow. Maybe there was a call for items like these from strolling players.

Christie's are having a sale that I find truly fascinating. It is the private collection of the late John Kobal and forms part of their film and entertainment sale on 17 December. Kobal's collection is of Holly- wood memorabilia. Captivated by the glamour of the movies from a young age, he collected anything and everything from that world. The estimates on the whole appear reasonable: there are some wonder- ful items that will be sold from between £100 and £5,000.

Another Christie's sale, on 27 November, is the great Hornby 00 collection. It took its collector over 40 years to put together. He must indeed be a true collector rather than a man who liked to play with toy trains. Most of the items still have their original boxes. Buyers usually throw away the wrap- ping of their purchases: this man did not. He clearly had the obsessive nature that a real collector needs. So complete is his col- lection that the catalogue of his sale will very likely be the reference book on the subject for collectors starting in this field.

Sothebys are selling pedal cars, toys, trains, dolls and teddy bears in their Billingshurst rooms on 21 December. The plunder of children's toy boxes never seems to fail to fetch good prices. Memorabilia of childhood seem to attract all the interest these days: sales of expensive paintings become more and more boring, with the lots staggering towards their reserves, while the crowds come to look at objects owned if not by us then at least by our parents: they like them and they buy them.

It is always a shame when a library is broken up. At Sotheby's the Jeremy Nor- man collection of rare manuscripts and portraits concerning the theory of evolu- tion in the 19th century is to be sold on 11 December. There are over 1,000 items in the collection, among them a presentation copy of Richard Owens's Memoir on the Gorilla, published in 1865. It is inscribed on the fly-leaf to Charles Dickens, with a library label reading 'from the library of Charles Dickens, Gadshill Place, June 1870'. Estimated at £500, it seems very cheap. The Jeffrey Young collection is another library to go to the sale-room and is expected to fetch up to half a million pounds. It contains Charlotte Bronte's let- ters to her publishers amongst other won- derful items. It is worth remembering that however sad it may be to see great collec- tions sold, it is by the selling of books that new libraries are born.

The London Library are having a sale, not of their collection of books, thank the good Lord, but of books given to them dur- ing their appeal for an extension to house 100,000 new books. Here is a chance to buy some interesting material from the 20th century and to help a truly great library at the same time.