CRAIG BROWN: Yours for just £600, a replica shrunken head… and other ghostly and ghoulish items on sale in the weird world of auctions
A blue Raleigh Traveller bicycle that once belonged to Princess Diana is up for auction. She owned it before her marriage, when she was working as a nanny. Three years ago, it sold for £9,200, and it is now expected to fetch £20,000 or more.
If this sounds a little steep, you should remember that the see-through dress Kate Middleton was modelling when she caught Princess William’s eye at a St Andrews University fashion show sold for £78,000 back in 2011.
A few months earlier, Tommy Cooper’s fez fetched £4,750 at Christie’s. Compared with Diana’s bicycle and Kate’s dress, it was a snip.
I myself am the proud owner of a selection of Tommy Cooper’s stage flowers, which I bought at auction soon after he died, in 1984. Back then, two suitcases full of Tommy Cooper’s flowers cost me just over £100. What a bargain! One bunch is particularly special — with a discreet push of a lever, it bursts into bloom.
Those in search of celebrity memorabilia should not be put off by the high price of Princess Diana’s bicycle. There are plenty of cheaper options (and all available online). For instance, this week in Hertfordshire, Excalibur auctions are offering a hand-signed Christmas card from Christopher Biggins, with the caption ‘Have you stuffed yours yet! I have! And a Very Happy 1995 (Batteries not included) All my love Biggins,’ for an estimate between £20 and £40.
If Biggins is not your cup of tea, there are plenty of other bits and pieces from the same year on offer at the same price, including a signed photograph of an awkward-looking Monaco royal family — Prince Rainier, Prince Albert, Princess Caroline and Princess Stephanie.
Others might prefer the less pricey option of a pair of ‘Rolf-a-Roo’ cartoons of Rolf Harris as a kangaroo, signed by Harris himself, with an opening bid of just £5.
In these days of selfies, autographs are a thing of the past. At the same auction, a job lot of signed cards from eight notable politicians, four of them former prime ministers (Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, John Major) is estimated at just £30 to £50. A batch of autographs of fairly minor comedians — among them Charlie Drake, Derek Nimmo, Stanley Unwin and Ray Allen — is on offer for more than the politicians at £40-£60.
Are these different auction prices an indication of society’s priorities? If so, it’s worth taking a look at the catalogue for next week’s spooky auction, billed as ‘Out of the Ordinary’, run by Sworders in Stansted Mountfitchet in Essex.
Personally, I wouldn’t know what to do with a stuffed bat, ‘also known as a Malaysian Flying Fox’, 69cm wide with its wings outstretched. But clearly others do: it has an estimate of between £350 and £450.
Even more costly is a hideous stuffed Hammerhead Fruit Bat — ‘scientific name Hypsignathus monstrosus’ — which has an estimate of £500-£700.
A 19th-century replica shrunken head, ‘adorned with shells and feathers, mounted on an ebonised base, under a Victorian glass dome’, is going for £400-600. Judging by the catalogue picture (left), its long hair and know-it-all expression make it a dead ringer for Russell Brand. I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning, but it’s been a long while since Brand was last seen in public.
Even less savoury objects are on offer, including a 19th-century mantrap (£100-200), a 17th-century mummified hare ‘found on the Beverston Estate in an outbuilding’ (£400-£600), and a stuffed cobra, mounted in an upright position (£150-£200).
Perhaps creepiest of all is a 17th-century mummified cat (£600-£800), which comes with an explanatory note: ‘It was the custom in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries to place the body of a cat inside the walls of a newly-built home to ward off witches, evil and occult spirits.’
What will the proud new owners of these lots do with their purchases? A ride on Diana’s bicycle or a twirl in Kate’s saucy dress both have a certain cachet, but the line ‘Anyone want to stroke my mummified cat?’ is hardly an ice-breaker.
But perhaps that is the point. When your guests have exhausted you with their talk of Brexit, Boris Johnson and box sets, and you start longing for bed, what better time to reach for the shrunken head?
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