Emma Hamilton's hair, a (don’t say Fabergé) egg, and a cool bike
And a ridiculous dragon brooch
Hi all, and welcome to the Part II edition of Monica is Wordy AF! Before I get stuck in, I have an update for you about Mitzi Perdue’s Atocha emerald ring: last Wednesday’s auction saw the ring start out with around 15-20 bidders, but it ultimately came down to a nail-biter of a battle between two (anonymous) people — one online and one on the phone. The winning bid was $950,000, so with fees, it sold for just under $1.2 million. All proceeds will go to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. Well done, lady!
But enough of that! The circa 1900 fluted gold egg above is Russian, and if you press that old mine-cut diamond at the center, it opens to reveal a whole array of tiny golden objects, including a pencil, scissors, perfume flask, mirror and notepad, as well as various sewing implements and other items. It’s called a “nécessaire” because it holds the sort of “necessary” things one might need in everyday life. Just, uh, in gold. What’s that line from The Philadelphia Story? “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”
The egg is going up for sale today in Hindman’s Important Jewelry sale in Chicago, and it has an estimate of $8,000 - $12,000. I’m curious about that, though……
The exterior of this circa 1900 egg is quite similar to the exterior of the Fabergé 1887 Third Imperial Easter Egg, which was famously rediscovered in 2014 when an American scrap dealer decided to hop on Google. The dealer had previously found a little golden egg at a junk shop somewhere in the Midwest, and the egg (which also had its own ornate stand) opened to reveal a gold watch inside. He figured he could flip the whole thing for an extra few hundred dollars, so he bought it for its gold melt value of $13,300 — BUT, when he offered it to some of his fellow scrap dealers (seven of them!) for $14,000, they all told him that was waaaay too much. Nobody would touch it. So he took it back home and decided to see if he could find out more about it. He googled “egg” and the brand name of the watch (Vacheron Constantin), and up came an article in the Telegraph about a missing Fabergé egg — and that egg looked exactly like the egg that was sitting in front of him.
He basically lost his mind (as one would), and despite never having left the United States before, he decided take a ton of photos and literally GO TO ENGLAND to talk to the expert mentioned in the Telegraph article: Wartski’s Kieran McCarthy.
[McCarthy spoke about the discovery of the egg back in 2015 at the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg. His talk starts at 12:47, and his description of the scrap dealer nervously turning up unannounced at Wartski in his jeans and sneakers begins around 1:06:05. The video is long, but if you have some time, it’s a heck of a story. McCarthy provides the full, extraordinary history of the egg, which includes a loss of attribution, a yard sale at a Southern plantation and a handoff at McDonald’s.]
The photos intrigued McCarthy enough to travel back to the States with the scrap dealer, and it was there, standing in the guy’s kitchen somewhere in the Midwest, that he identified the egg as legit. “The gentleman fainted,” he said. McCarthy had the egg couriered back to England, and within two days Wartski sold it to one of their clients. The firm has never released the names of the scrap dealer or the buyer — although McCarthy says that both men were “charming,” and the transaction was “seamless.” They also never revealed the price, although McCarthy mentions that “everyone else” says it sold for $20 million, ruefully observing that “there are no performance-related bonuses at Wartski.”
Now, back to the Hindman nécessaire egg. Just like the 1887 Third Imperial Egg, this egg features the maker’s mark of Fabergé head jeweler August W. Holmström — remember Alma in last week’s email? August was her granddad! — but also like the 1887 Third Imperial egg, it does NOT have a Fabergé mark. As McCarthy says in his lecture, some pieces just don’t. *shrug*
In those cases, experts must rely on documentation and examination to be sure, and one of the key clues to the identity the 1887 Imperial Egg is a 1902 photo that shows the egg in a display of the Empress Marie Feodorovna’s Fabergé collection. It doesn’t look like anything that helpful has surfaced for the Hindman nécessaire egg, so they are simply listing it as “attributed” to Fabergé. (Note: there is an actual missing Imperial Fabergé Nécessaire Egg, but it doesn’t look like this one.)
Also (and I’m not casting any aspersions here, because what the hell do I know?), looking back on my 2021 email about the Fauxbergé eggs at the Hermitage and knowing the amount of fakes on the market, it’s probably better to be safe than sorry.
Fabergé mark or not, this will be an interesting one to watch.
Even if you’re not into old books, it’s always good to look though book auctions because you never know what interesting things might turn up. For example, Charles Dickens’ pickle fork (?!) will go up for sale today in the Bonhams New York Fine Books & Manuscripts auction.
Also happening today is the Books and Manuscripts, Medieval to Modern sale at Sotheby’s London. It features a large collection of items related to Emma, Lady Hamilton, and the lock of her hair above is believed to be “one of a group of locks of hair presented by Emma Hamilton to Sir William Hamilton in Naples in 1790-91.” It’s the only one out of the group to have been framed.
I didn’t know much about Emma until I browsed through the letters in the collection, and some of this shit is straight-up horrifying. Like how — at age 21 — her lover, Charles Greville, shipped her off to his uncle (the aforementioned Sir William Hamilton) in Naples. Emma was unknowingly the object of a trade: Greville basically gifted her to his uncle, and in return it seems that Hamilton made Greville his heir. From the lot notes:
In April 1786 Hamilton writes to Greville in anticipation of Emma's arrival, promising to “comfort her for the loss of you” although he knows he will “have at times many tears to wipe from those charming eyes”. Emma had not been told of these arrangements, and only discovered that her visit to Italy was more than a holiday after her arrival. She was, however, quick to adapt to circumstances. In 1789 Hamilton writes to Greville saying that "hitherto her behaviour is irreproachable"…
BRB, vomiting forever. The poor woman.
Hamilton did eventually marry her, so let’s all give him a prize. There are a ton of additional letters in the collection, including many between Emma and her later love, Viscount Horatio Nelson, but it’s all just really sad.
Let’s switch to some fun stuff. I LOVE the sleek Art Deco lines of this restored Elgin Bluebird Bicycle made by Sears in 1936. A Bonhams auction in 2011 called the Elgin Bluebird the “holy grail of vintage bike collecting,” and went on to state that:
Records indicate that about 4,000 of the bikes were produced from 1935-1937, at the height of the Great Depression; they sold for about $52. Due to the high cost, very few of these bikes were sold. With the advent of World War II and the resulting need for scrap metal, Americans were required by law to turn in old bikes for scrap. Very few of these bikes are surviving today as a result.
This one is included in The Gentleman’s Auction ending today at Bonhams Skinner in Boston, and it’s a very luxe bike, complete with a battery-operated horn and headlight, and a speedometer “connected by gearing to the back wheel.” Not sure what that means, but it sounds cool. The bike is estimated at $8,000 - $12,000.
Of course I didn’t know the famous British designer, restaurateur and all-around trendsetter Sir Terence Conran (1931-2020), but tomorrow’s Bonhams London sale of items from Barton Court — his family’s home for more than 40 years — makes me wish I did. Alongside all the furniture, paintings and wine, there’s an undercurrent of whimsy and an appreciation for everyday objects that anchors the whole collection. I don’t know if Conran was a tyrant or not — visionaries can be difficult! — but the pieces he bought and arranged around himself and his family are delightful and inspirational.
Conran is best known for bringing modern design to the masses as the creator of the design-and-housewares Habitat stores, and his sleek furniture dominates the auction alongside quirkier items, including glassware, turned bowls, Michelin man memorabilia, vintage models of insects/steam locomotives/greenhouses, and highly individualized collections of unrelated but cohesive items that formed “shelfscapes.” There’s even a full-size wooden saddler's model of a pony.
It’s a wonderful jumble of stuff and I’m having a difficult time deciding which piece I should highlight. I think instead of showing his own work, I’ll highlight a piece that — as part of a larger collection — exemplified his own playful personal approach to interior design. According to an article in the Financial Times, Conran bought a collection of vintage model Bugatti pedal cars from a neighbor, but instead of displaying them on shelves or in cabinets like uninspired mortals such as myself, he hung the cars vertically along the wall of a hallway at Barton Court. (There’s a photo in the article and the display is wonderful — although I wouldn’t want to have to dust it.)
One of those cars is shown above. It’s a circa 1930 Bugatti pedal car with rare spoked wheels that was restored by French racing driver Henri Chemin in the 1990s.
In general, if you’re a design fan, I highly recommend a browse through the full auction. You can also see photos of many of the items in situ at Barton Court in the Financial Times article above, as well as compare the interior design of 1984 in these images from Town & Country with more recent arrangements in Vanity Fair, circa 2019.
I know I feature a lot of René Lalique in Dearest — but how can I not? Look at these grasshoppers! Circa 1920, this Art Nouveau brooch features two 18k gold and enamel locusts/grasshoppers supporting a large square-shaped citrine. It’s included in the online Joaillerie auction ending on Thursday at Christie’s Paris, and is estimated at €40,000 - €50,000 ($42,000 - $53,000).
This tiny owl cameo stickpin is included in the Small Wonders: Early Gems and Jewels auction at Sotheby’s London that closes on Thursday, and it’s attributed to Wilhelm Schmidt, a master opal carver active during the turn of the last century.
The piece is estimated at £2,000 - 3,000 ($2,466 - 3,699), and Sotheby’s quotes a letter by Schmidt in which he mentions the cameo and his technique: “I may mention the date of 1874, when I invented the new process of cutting opal cameos in such a manner as to utilise the matrix of rough opal for the ground...” I’m always a sucker for owl motifs, but in this case, I think the eye of the carver — and the way he let the stone itself determine the composition — makes it worth including here.
I wasn’t going to include this guy, but LOOK AT HIS FACE. He’s included in the Phillips Jewels & More: Online Auction sale ending tomorrow, and they say he’s a dragon, but I don’t know — those webbed ears and wings are giving me a sea monster vibe. Perched on a carved oval cabochon emerald, he has a diamond-studded 18k gold and enamel body, a wonderfully goofy brilliant-cut diamond-set face, cabochon ruby eyes, and a pearl drop hanging from his mouth. Be sure to click through and see a photo of him pinned on a lapel — the model’s trying to do a smolder face, but she knows it’s useless with that little derp under her chin. He’s brilliant.
On that note, that’s finally it for me today! I will hopefully send out an email to my paying subscribers sometime before Christmas, but otherwise this is it for me in 2022. I can’t thank you enough for reading, commenting and replying — you guys keep this odd little newsletter going, and I adore you all. I hope you can find some time over the holidays to rest and relax before we have to face the inevitable horrors of 2023.
Take care of yourselves and thank you all again — so, so much.
Love, M xx