30 September 2020

Stars in their eyes – when celebrity spectacles go to auction

Our Museum Curator, Neil Handley, reflects on a summer of celebrity spectacle auctions and discusses whether it may prove to be the ordinary things that retain the most resonance.

Not everything we cherish disappeared during lockdown. Some things remained as popular as ever. Over the summer, there was a particularly flourishing auction market. Among the many things you could have bought remotely were the spectacles of several famous people. 

On 21 August, a pair of Gandhi’s glasses sold at East Bristol Auctions for a remarkable £260,000 (rising to £316,000 with the added auction premium and tax). The price of these spectacles had been estimated, conservatively at £15,000; the price rose rapidly due to competitive phone bidding, much to the surprise of the vendor who had pushed them in an envelope through the auctioneer’s door one weekend with instructions to throw them away if they were not of interest. It’s not even as if these were unique. Apparently, Gandhi had a habit of giving away his possessions in the way some celebrities hand out autographs. Another pair of Gandhi’s glasses sold at Antiquorum in New York back in 2009 as part of an assemblage of items said to have been in his possession at the time of his assassination. That lot achieved £1.4m.

Elsewhere during the summer of 2020, you could have bid on a small magnifier belonging to President J. F. Kennedy (sold at Bonhams for £5062 including premium). Alternatively, you could have become the proud owner of the glasses of Ronnie Barker (for £637), The Duke of Wellington (for £2295), or the 19th century artist J M W Turner (estimated, as part of a larger lot, at £8-£10,000, but seemingly unsold). In each case, it is important to note that they were not really the glasses of the relevant famous person as each of them had several pairs, some of which are in the public domain and have been displayed in exhibitions. The other thing to bear in mind is that, on the face of it, all of these glasses looked very ordinary. If it were not for the provenance, there would be nothing special about them.

"Gandhi had a habit of giving away his possessions in the way some celebrities hand out autographs."

Here at the College museum we are lucky to have the glasses of, amongst others, Ronnie Corbett, Matt Bellamy of Muse, Shirley MacLaine and Daniel Radcliffe (as Harry Potter). We also have the spectacles of Dr Samuel Johnson (of dictionary-authoring fame). They are one of three possible pairs known to exist, and are certainly the most convincing of the three. They also happen to be of an unusual design that would merit inclusion in a museum of frame styles regardless of their believed owner. We are not so lucky when it comes to other famous glasses wearers. We are supposed to possess the spectacles of Field Marshal von Hindenburg, and the writer G. K. Chesterton, but because curators in the early part of the last century did not number the items properly, it is not possible to be certain which these are. Looking at photographs of these great historical figures, there is nothing particularly distinctive about their glasses. We have numerous items that could well be the ones, but how could we prove it? For that matter, we have a number of pairs that are an exact physical duplicate of the ones just sold as being Gandhi’s. What would stop us exhibiting them alongside a photo of the Mahatma and insinuating a connection? Now there’s a thought.

Although celebrity specs are undoubtedly a good draw to our museum, I believe that sometimes it is the ordinary and the mundane that resonates more forcefully. At the moment, we have on display a very bog-standard early-twentieth century pair of pince-nez. I could have selected any from about a hundred to illustrate the type, but what makes this exhibit powerful is that alongside it is a photo of its owner, Mr Francis Jacombs (1879-1939). He was an engine mechanic from Nuneaton and not important to anyone, except his family, to whom he was ‘Uncle Frank’. But there is his face on display, alongside the pince-nez that he used to wear on it. Suddenly the item appears altogether more real. We have done the same with a pair of 1950s contact lenses – far less visually attractive and not the sort of thing any auctioneer would sell, but these are the contact lenses of none other than Audrey Lewis (b.1930 in Consett). Who? Well, to our donor she was simply ‘Mum’, but a mother who told her the story of how she tried to wear the lenses at the cinema but because it was filled with cigarette smoke her eyes would water. Suddenly we are transported to that post-war cinema, where seeing the picture on the screen was a bonus. We also have her photograph from 1954, though of course it is impossible to tell if she is wearing her contacts, but it does reveal that she had a beloved white pet rabbit.

I’m not saying that if some generous benefactor had offered to deposit Gandhi’s glasses with us for display, I would not have been pleased to accept them. We made unsuccessful attempts in the past decade to secure the glasses of both Sir Winston Churchill and one of the Kray Twins using this loan arrangement. Concentrating on the vision aids of ordinary people, however, carries with it far less competition and yet can be just as satisfying. Identifying the human aspect behind what are otherwise inanimate objects, in a way we can all relate to, seems to me a very appropriate approach for a people-facing profession to adopt for its museum. In the current challenging period, where meeting our relatives or spending time with friends can no longer be taken for granted, it causes us to think. What wouldn’t we give right now to see Uncle Frank putting on his pince-nez or ‘our Audrey’ struggling with her contact lenses? These were real historical memories for people, as important to them as the deeds of any famous figure, and they merit preservation too.

Related further reading

The historian and curator talks about his 25-year career at the College.