David Rayvern Allen
You might imagine that all collectors of cricketana would be, to say the least, enthusiastic about the game. But increasingly there is a new kind of bidder at cricket auctions.
In times of prosperity, City of London banks and other institutions now pay such huge end-of-year bonuses to their senior staff that outsiders can only look on with envy, and the recipients don't always know how to spend the money. This partly accounts for the seemingly unstoppable London property boom. It also helps explain the state of the cricketana market. City types are diving in, because they see cricketana and other sporting paraphernalia purely as a long-term investment, without necessarily having the slightest knowledge or appreciation of what they are buying.
The Exeter solicitor Guy Curry sold his huge cricket library at Christie's. Why? "Well, partly, as a form of protest against new money pushing up prices dramatically, thus preventing established collectors being able to purchase the rarest items." As Curry himself was only too aware, his protest only strengthened the trend: the auction made £437,800.
Forty-eight hours before the sale, six lots were withdrawn. These were mainly early and virtually unprocurable Australian annuals, which the Melbourne Club (belatedly) claimed had been stolen in the mid-1980s. Curry had innocently purchased these items from a reputable dealer, but immediately agreed to return them to Melbourne for the estimated prices. Another similar case was resolved during the year. Kent's claim that minute books about to be sold by the widow of collector Roy F. Arnold had been misappropriated, apparently by an official (see Wisden 2006 pages 1556-1558), was settled amicably. Thirty-eight of the 51 items have now been returned to Canterbury.
Kent willingly sold another of their treasures: Albert Chevallier Tayler's marvellous oil painting of Kent v Lancashire, 1906, which had been on loan to Lord's. It made £600,000, equalling the cricket-picture record set by an L. S. Lowry two years earlier; the money is intended to fund the redevelopment of Canterbury. The purchasers were the Andrew Brownsword Art Foundation, who agreed to return the picture to MCC on long-term loan. A rather more humble cricketing treasure trove was at the end of a culde- sac in Stepney, until the sudden death in January of the statistician and historian Irving Rosenwater. More than two lorry-loads of cricket-related material were conveyed to a warehouse in Cheltenham. Rosenwater never threw away the merest scrap of paper connected to the game, and bookdealer Christopher Saunders, who was in charge of the operation, was expecting to take many months to sift the material before any could be sold. He estimated there was eight tons of it.
Another death, that of the popular collector of cricketing ceramics, Keith Crump, led in September to the largest sale of such a specialist collection since the 1980s. The highlight was £26,000 for a scarce set of five superbly sculpted bronze cricketing figures by Joseph Durham. Overall, the sale made just over £174,000, which some thought disappointing. Certainly, had a previous offer for the whole collection been accepted, the return would have been considerably more.
The previous month New York-based internet auctioneers "igavel" sold online the Karl Auty library of cricket books, held at Ridley College, Ontario. Auty was a Yorkshireman who emigrated to the US, and kept his Wisdens on metal rollers under his bed, so that he could reach them easily. His 1875 edition fetched $48,000 (more than £25,000).
But auctions and controversy do seem to go together. In November, Christie's auctioned what was definitely a cricket ball. It was said to be the one that Garry Sobers clobbered for the last of his six sixes in an over at Swansea in 1968. But how do we know it was that ball?
Christie's had done a great deal of research. A 17-year-old spectator, Richard Lewis, searched for the ball as he was leaving the ground and found it in the gutter. The ball was handed back to Sobers and was believed to have been destined for the Trent Bridge Museum. But it never got there. For a time it was on display in one of the bars there, then supporters' club secretary Josie Miller popped it in her make-up drawer for safe keeping. The ball arrived at Christie's with a certificate of provenance signed by Sobers. But some players from the match say Stuart Surridge balls were in use. This was a Dukes. On the other hand, at least two balls were used in that over, so the replacement could have been a different make. Whatever, it made £22,000.
With relief, one can report there were no arguments at all about the burr walnut Victorian kidney-shaped pedestal desk sold by Bonham's in March for £54,000 to an anonymous bidder. Barry Johnston, son of Brian, has fond memories of his father sitting at the desk in his study.
"Every morning, he would religiously sit at this desk and sort through his post," he recalled. "He would receive countless letters from cricket fans and people asking him to open fêtes and so on, and he would scribble replies on the back of Donald McGill's saucy seaside postcards - whether it was to a cricket fan or a bishop."