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Friday the 13th Fun: Oddities and curiosities at auction

Are you a superstitious sort of person? Whether you are or you aren't, there's no harm in spending a little time this Friday the 13th enjoying some of the oddities and curiosities of the auction world.
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By Antoinette Rahn

Happy Friday the 13th!

There are various ways to ‘recognize’ this superstition-rife day if you so wish. I’ll admit I can be a bit superstitious from time to time. I’m not going to run out and look for any ladders to purposely walk under today, but being Friday the 13th, I figure what harm can come from examining a few select curiosities and oddities from the auction world.

curiosity shop diorama

Clarke Auction Gallery,, and LiveAuctioneers,

I love dioramas, and there are some uniquely constructed examples within auction archives. This includes this antique English diorama of an old curiosity shop. The piece, which measures 18 ¾ inches wide by 12 ¾ in diameter by 13 ¾ high, sold for $225 during a 2012 auction presented by Clarke Auction Gallery.

Eye Wonder About Curiosities

Carved fake eyeballs

Rago Arts,

With my little eye I spot a velvet-lined case of hand-blown glass eyes and corneas. The case, reportedly dating to early 20th century Germany, contains 14 glass eyes and 10 corneas. It is paired with an oculist’s chest that houses multiple glass taxidermy eyes as well. The oculist’s chest hails from England was actively in use in the late 19th century. The two items form a single lot in Rago Arts ‘Curiouser and Curiouser Auction’ slated to take place Oct. 21. The lot carries an estimate of $1,200 to $1,800. 

Unicorn shields

Sterling Associates, and LiveAuctioneers,

I guess if you are looking for mythical protectors to guard your living space a pair of unicorns seems like a sound choice. This pair of French hand-wrought steel shields showcases mirror image unicorns who appear to be ready for battle. Each shield is 29 ½ inches high by 22 ¾ inches wide by 2 ½ inches deep. As a single lot it brought $800 during an October 2014 auction presented by Sterling Associates.

Take A Walk

curiosity cane

Kimberly Sterling Auctioneer & Appraiser, and LiveAuctioneers,

This rare item is worthy of a double take. The auction description refers to it as a cabinet of curiosities cane. Yes, that makes sense. The late 19th-century cane is made of the vertebrae of a reptile and the skull of a primate. According to the auction catalog description, the can was believed to have magical properties that. It's said to transfer the hunting skills attributed to animals to that of the owner of the cane and provide the bearer with protection from sickness and danger. Apparently more than a few bidders felt drawn to the presentation and perhaps the reputed magical powers of the cane, because a bidding battle drove the price to $3,200 before the gavel fell during a 2016 auction through Kimball M. Sterling.

Shell Seating

 Rago Arts,

Rago Arts,

I’m not entirely sure how comfortable these chairs might be to sit on, but there’s no question of their eccentric appeal. The song ‘Under the Sea’ has been on a loop in my head since I spotted the pair. These carved and Venetian painted and silvered grotto chairs are in the form of shells, with dolphin figures on the forearms. The Italian chairs, in the manner of Pauly et Cie, date to the early 20th century. As a single lot, the pair carries a presale estimate of $700 to $900 into Rago Arts Oct. 21 auction.

African parade knives

Sterling Associates Auctioneers & Appraisers, and LiveAuctioneers,

This collection of half-a-dozen African parade knives caught my eye because of their unique design, and my curiosity about the ceremonial African parade of which they are associated. The engraved blades appear in unique shapes - including decorative elements - and include wrapped handles made of wood. The surface rust on the blades, in my mind, speaks to the knives’ legacy. The group of six sold for $1,000 during an October 2014 auction at Sterling Associates.

Legend and Lore

Lincoln the Imp doorstop

Bertoia Auctions, and Live Auctioneers,

If you haven’t spent much time looking at antique doorstops, perhaps this example will prompt you to consider them more closely -- it did me. This antique doorstop sold for $100 in November of 2016 through Bertoia Auctions. It is labeled ‘Lincoln Imp’ on the front of the base and the inscription on the back reads: "Curiosity tempted the imp to alight in a cloister in Lincoln Cathedral. It cost him dear for in a moment he turned into stone (1255)." In an article for The Lincolnite, journalist Cory Santos explains a bit of the myth and legend of The Lincoln Imp.

“According to the legend (sometime in the 13th or 14th century), the devil spawned a pair of mischievous imps to wreak havoc upon the north of England.” After stirring up trouble at St. Mary’s, “They then continued their path of mayhem in Lincoln, entering the cathedral where they began to make a mess of it, turning over furniture, tripping up the Bishop and throwing things. It was during this time that the angel of The Lord, removing itself from the Bible upon the altar, commanded the imps to halt their wicked ways. One of the creatures, fearful of the angel, duly hid under the altar. The other, however, mocked the angel and began throwing stones at it. The angel, in a fit of anger, cast a spell upon the imp instantly turning it to stone.”

Clever Quint

Australian 18th century quint coin

Heritage Auctions,

By far the most monetarily valuable oddity and curiosity in this list, the 1783 Nova Constellatio pattern silver quint, is the focus of this comment by noted numismatic expert Q. David Bowers (Stacks Bowers) speaking about a four-piece denominational set:
"In my opinion -- and I have no vested interest of any kind -- the 1783 Nova Constellatio patterns are candidates for the very most important (and I won't even mention value) American coins."
The coin rose to $1.18 million during an April 2013 auction presented by Heritage Auctions.

Manning the Mannequin Reins

Articulated horse and rider mannequin

Rago Arts,

This 19th-century French articulated horse with rider mannequin, made of walnut with an iron rod and wooden base, is one of six lots of articulated mannequins featured in Rago Arts Oct. 21 Curiouser and Curiouser auction. The horse/rider mannequin measure 23 inches high and have an estimate of $3,000 to $5,000.

Cigars and Stakes

Winston Churchill's cigar

RR Auction,

Just the other day a curious item sold for $12,262 through RR Auctions. The object is a half-smoked cigar belonging to Winston Churchill. As history explains, Corporal William Alan Turner acquires the cigar while on assignment with the 24 Squadron Transport Command in May of 1974. Turner and his crew flew Churchill and his wife to Paris and home again. The cigar, which retains the “La Corona/Winston Churchill” red-and-gold band, accompanies a photo of Churchill taken before boarding the plane. The photo, in which a cigar is visible in Churchill’s hand, is signed “Winston S. Churchill.”

Vampire hunting kit

Sterling Associates Auctioneers & Appraisers,

While zombie apocalypses are among the most worrisome type of 'otherworldly' attack today, throughout history vampires are the source of fear. In turn, this prompted some intense planning to avoid an assault. Case in point, this 19th century European vampire hunting kit. The gear and gadgets in this wooden coffin-shaped box include, but are not limited to, hand-carved wooden stakes, holy water, garlic, weaponry including a dagger, rifle, pistol and club, several crosses and what appears to be a bible or a type of religious book useful in fighting the night stalkers. This kit commanded $9,000 during a 2014 auction offered by Sterling Associates.

Here’s to staying steady and curious this Friday the 13th!

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