Richard Westwood-Brookes, Mullock's Auctions interview (Part 1)
The man behind last week's Gandhi auction discusses Nazi memorabilia, the most collectible Royals, and 'rock solid investments'
Paul Fraser Collectibles, Friday 27 April 2012
Richard Westwood-Brookes is the historical documents expert at Mullock's Auctions in the UK.
These are exciting times for Richard and Mullock's. In February he presided over the £40,000 sale of a Charles II wanted poster and last week oversaw the auction of several superb Gandhi artefacts.
Richard kindly gave us the benefit of his lifetime's experience earlier this week.
PFC: Last week's Gandhi sale was big news worldwide. Did the success of the spectacles (£34,000) over the headline grabbing blood (£10,000) surprise you? How do you explain the difference in values?
RWB: The difference in price didn't surprise me at all. The soil sample was only valuable to followers of Gandhi. If you believe in Gandhi then the soil was priceless, if not then it was worthless - those were the two parameters, and the actual price achieved was obviously between them.
As far as the glasses were concerned, they were one of the iconic artefacts of the 20th century. If you think of Gandhi you think of his glasses - particularly as they were of that particular shape, and it didn't surprise me that they went for considerably more than anything else, because of course, the market potential worldwide was that much greater.
PFC: Gandhi was assassinated 64 years ago in 1948, yet values for his artefacts are at an all-time high. In your years in the business have you become aware of a "sweet spot"- a point in time after an event or life at which a person's collectibles are most in demand? Or will artefacts of the most famous figures always appreciate with age?
RWB: I'm not surprised that demand for Gandhi material is still extremely strong, because of his iconic status in history. He has always been high in value, but now of course we have the emergence of the Indian economy, and what will change considerably over the next years will be the values achieved for items of history and heritage from new and emerging markets which in the past never used to achieve much in European markets.
Economies and auctions are very much linked together and the emergence of India, China, Russia, Brazil and other nations will definitely affect auction prices for documents and artefacts relating to their own particular heritage and figures in history. European auction houses should take particular note of this.
In the case of Gandhi, he was, after all, the man who almost single handed founded the Indian nation - and what's more he did it via peaceful, non-violent protest. Many people in history have a dark side, but in the case of Gandhi it is impossible to detect it, and for that reason I am sure his memorabilia will continue to soar in value.
As far as "sweet spots" are concerned, I think this is very much associated with the "entertainment and celebrity" autograph markets. These markets are linked to generations and material associated particularly with performers tends to peak when the generations they most affected become old enough to have the money to pay high prices for their material.
The rock solid investments, to my mind, are the producers of great art - particularly the written word and music. There will always be a market for the likes of Beethoven and Mozart, and in this country for the likes of Elgar, Dickens, Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy.
And there will also be a constant market for those figures from a historic past who are sufficiently in the past that the events in which they were involved are now regarded as iconic history - such as the British monarchy, figures like Oliver Cromwell, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln.
PFC: You sold a Charles II wanted poster for £40,000 in March. Which British monarchs have the most allure for collectors? Is the present Royal Family a good investment?
RWB: The British monarchy is always a good area for collectors and investors. Monarchs are the iconic representatives of their age and a document signed by any particular King or Queen can easily evoke all the events which happened during their reign.
Of those figures whose documents are obtainable clearly the most allure lies with those who made the greatest mark on history - during the Tudor period this is basically Henry VIII and Elizabeth I - though from an historical point of view Henry VII and Mary I are just as interesting figures, and of course documents signed by Edward VI will always command a vast price because of their rarity. The Tudors always remain high in price and will continue to do so.
Of the later Monarchs, again the value will be in the more glamorous figures such as Charles II, rather than the solid administrators such as George I and George II. Charles I will always be a draw because he was the only one who lost his head, as well as his fame being bound up in the English Civil War. George III will also continue to be highly sought-after because he was the last King of America. Thereafter, Victoria has vastly increased in value and will continue to do so mainly because, I think, there has been a total re-evaluation of the Victorian Age which is now seen as an era of supreme scientific achievement, considerable social reform, and an era which spawned the likes of Dickens, Browning, Elgar, Darwin and the rest. Thereafter the main man is Edward VIII because of his abdication (though no other reason for this weakling wastrel).
Oddly enough the lure of the Monarchs is somewhat overshadowed by the allure of those who wanted to be Monarchs but never made it - such as "Bonnie" Prince Charlie and Oliver Cromwell.
As far as the present Royal Family is concerned there will be continuing interest but the problem with them is that there is so much memorabilia around that the market will never achieve the same levels as those from the past. Also collectors must be careful about the growth of facsimiles and documents signed by autopen - a practice now fairly common with the modern Royals. Oddly enough documents signed by the Queen do not make anything like those sealed by her, mainly because the seals of all the 20th century royals are so rare. I have seen the Great Seals of virtually every Monarch since William III, but those of the present Queen hardly ever appear on the market - one to watch out for I think.
PFC: There are moves within the British government to ban the sale of Nazi memorabilia, an area that Mullock's has dealt with in past auctions. Labour MP Fabian Hamilton stated that a recent sale of Nazi memorabilia at another auction house was "profiteering on items promoting and glorifying hatred and violence". What is your view?
RWB: I do wish politicians would get their facts right before leaping onto an emotional bandwagon. It all sounds very PC and justified to come out with stuff like that but if the MP would only take a few moments to review what he said he would see that his comment could apply to almost anything relating to history which comes up for sale. My criteria for everything I put through my sales is whether it can be classified as "historic" or not, and I defend that position absolutely.
To condemn and ban the sale of this or that item because it doesn't fit into the moral attitude of any one time is treading a very dangerous path, because it leads inevitably to the censoring of history. There are many in Japan for example who do not know that the events of the second world war took place at all because it has been expunged from history as the schools don't teach it. The Nazi era was a time in which terrible atrocities were committed, but it was not the only time in history when terrible events occurred and while it might appear right and morally justified to condemn or ban the sale of memorabilia from that time, then if you apply the MP's condemnation of "profiteering on items promoting and glorifying hatred and violence", then you must also stop the sale of memorabilia from virtually every other period of history. Would it be wrong to sell documents of Henry VIII because he mercilessly persecuted Roman Catholics? Would it be wrong to sell material of Charles II because he promoted slavery in the growing American colonies? And how about the Victorian era which saw the enslavement of most of the world under the yoke of the British Empire?
I sold a letter last year in which an army officer enthusiastically reported to his wife that they had rounded up some resistance fighters who had carried out a sabotage operation against them, and he reported the truly horrific method in which they killed them. Was this the letter of a Gestapo officer of the Nazi era relishing in the torture and killing of French or Belgian resistance fighters? No. It was the letter of a British Army Officer describing the equally horrific killing of Indian freedom fighters in the Indian Mutiny (1857).
The fact is that you cannot apply any moral judgement to history. A passable definition of history that I have heard is that it is always involving "someone doing bad things to someone else". In this regard would MP Hamilton have a moral judgement on other figures in history? Hitler was a monster, no question, but not the only one in history. Would Mr Hamilton have a similar viewpoint on Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, Lenin, Napoleon, Idi Amin, Hiro Hito, and the like - all of whose memorabilia is sold by auction houses who won't sell Nazi material on moral grounds?
At any rate the intervention at the auction house to which you refer led them to announce that they would no longer offer material to do with the Holocaust - but would continue to sell Nazi medals, emblems, daggers etc. So in other words because of the moral indignation created the auction house would no longer offer material which reminded people of the evil of the Nazis but would continue to offer material which could be seen to be glorifying them.
Recent and related articles
· Gandhi's blood sells for $15,940 at auction in the UK | 17 April 2012
· Mary Queen of Scots 'sick note' beats estimate by 66.6% | 16 March 2012
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