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.

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Author: Neil Handley, Museum Curator
Date: 30 September 2020

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.

Neil Handley MA AMA FRSA
Museum Curator, The College of Optometrists

Neil Handley is recognised as one the UK’s principal historians of spectacles, vision aids and opticians. He has been curator of the British Optical Association Museum at The College of Optometrists in London since 1998 and is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers.

The Curator is available for lectures and informal talks off-site as well as guided tours of the museum gallery and College Meeting Rooms. Considered to be an authority on ophthalmic history he can also advise on items on optical and optometric heritage including their identification and dating. He has been awarded the medal of the Ocular Heritage Society of America on several occasions.

Neil was awarded the Associateship of the Museums Association in 2002 and was one of the first 17 museum professionals in the country to gain the AMA+ qualification in May 2007. He now serves as a Museums Association Mentor for younger curators.

Neil was elected Chairman of the prestigious London Museums of Health and Medicine (2011-14), widely considered within the profession to be one of the most dynamic and go-ahead museum specialist networks. During this time he oversaw that organisation's first strategic review for fifteen years. He is also a past Vice Chairman of the Scientific Instrument Society and became a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA) in 2012.

Front cover of the book Cult Eyewear 2011

Neil  has published articles on spectacle frame design, the history of opticians, artificial eyes and facial prosthetics. He has contributed to a number of books on the history of the subject, including a chapter on artificial eyes for the book Devices and Designs (2006) and the major German publication Treasury of Optics (2012). He spent much of 2009 and 2010 writing a book on Cult Eyewear, the first serious analytical study of the historical development of branded fashion spectacle frames, published by Merrell on 27 September 2011. He also co-authored, with David Cartwright, the second volume of the College History, The College of Optometrists: A History 1998-2015, published in October 2015. He has also written articles for journals as diverse as Optometry in Practice, Contact Lens and Anterior Eye, Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, From the Master and Wardens (newsletter of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers), Ophthalmic Antiques, Gewina (Dutch Journal for the History of Science), Antiquarian Horology and Pharmaceutical Historian.

Contact the Curator by email

Or follow him on Twitter @neilhandleyuk

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