In 1973 I was working in a junior office job for a large housing association. My department was based in three large and rather grand inter-connected terraced Victorian houses in Edinburgh’s fashionable West End. The offices were on the ground and three upper floors, and the basements were used as storage space for old broken furniture and equipment. One of my roles was the management of the office premises, and this gave me good excuses to spend time ferreting around downstairs to see if I could find anything interesting amongst the detritus.
The only thing I found, other than trashed desks and dead typewriters, was on its own in a long-abandoned cupboard. It was a rolled sheet of stiff paper, 74 cms by 59 cms, attached to a sheet of plain canvas of the same size. Printed or painted on the paper in strong colours was a religious picture entitled Easter Morning, depicting Mary Magdalene kneeling in front of Christ after the Resurrection. It was in poor condition, the paper chipped and frayed all round, and the whole dirty and damp-stained. I noticed in passing that the picture had been superimposed on a pre-printed grid of tiny squares, and that the edges of the image were finely squared to fit within the grid. This made me wonder vaguely if what I had was a pattern for an embroidery or tapestry.
I took my find up to the office, unrolled it and attached it to the wall, and was almost immediately ordered to take it down by the boss, who was normally a genial and easy-going sort of chap but who in this instance didn’t take to the idea of having a large and rather forbidding religious image irreverently displayed in his offices. I didn’t want to take it back to the damp basement, so I re-rolled it and kept it by my desk. When I left that job in 1974, I took it with me. It wasn’t stealing because from my employers’ point of view it was nothing but a piece of rubbish to be thrown out. It must have been left in the house by previous occupants decades before my employers moved in, and could only conceivably have been of interest to a seeker of random treasure.
The picture stayed with me through various house moves for the next 42 years, rolled up in a plastic tube, forgotten at the back of a bookshelf. Earlier this year, I decided to clear the shelf to make room for other stuff, and came across it. Before putting it in the bin or giving it to a charity shop, I thought I’d do a quick investigation, but by now I had two big advantages over my younger self from 1974: time (due to being retired) and resource (fast broadband).
Helpfully, I found that the paper sheet was printed with the printer/publisher’s names, Hertz and Wegener of Berlin. Within a few seconds of entering these names into Google I found myself immersed in the arcane world of Berlin Woolwork.
“Berlin wool work is embroidery with Berlin wools or any type of thread or beads on canvas by means of copying a coloured chart known as a Berlin pattern. Almost exclusively confined to the 19th century, Berlin wool derived its name from the wool that came from Merino sheep in Saxony. It was taken to Gotha to be spun and on to Berlin to be dyed. The production of this wool was discontinued in the 1930s. Prior to the introduction of Berlin patterns it was very rare to find any indication about the choice of colour or threads. Berlin patterns were always coloured by hand at first, until the emergence of industrial printing techniques. The names of a few Berlin pattern makers are often seen on examples such as … Hertz and Wegener.”*
This type of embroidery became a very popular pastime for ladies of the middle classes in the mid-19th century, and I was astonished to find that there is still huge interest in the Berlin patterns. There are collectors all over the world, and some of of them run businesses digitising early patterns for sale to today’s needleworkers. But while there are lots of examples of completed Berlin Woolwork pieces, the original paper patterns from which they were produced are rare and highly collectible.
Who knew? Not me!
I usually but not invariably tend to the view that if there are specialist collectors out there and if I possess an object that might be of interest to them but is not of particular interest to me, then it’s appropriate to sell it on the open market. Occasionally I decide to donate it to a museum or public collection, but experience suggests that it’s often much easier to sell an item than to give it away. And of course if you sell something then you might get money to spend on something in which you do have a special interest.
So I decided to sell my pattern and thought about a suitable channel for the sale. Sometimes I’ll use a local saleroom, and sometimes a specialist auctioneer. My best-ever piece went to an auction in Paris. But on this occasion I thought eBay was the ideal outlet. Using eBay you can easily see from past sales how much interest there is in the type of object you’re selling, you can get ideas from past listings about how to describe it, you can judge what starting price would be attractive to bidders, and you can get easy and cheap exposure to an international marketplace of collectors. This is especially useful if you have an item which is lightweight and easily packaged for sending anywhere in the world.
A little online research showed that there was plenty of old completed Berlin Woolwork on sale, including a few unused patterns, and that good pieces attracted many bids and encouraging prices. Small floral patterns had sold in the recent past for £40 or £50. Encouraging. But I couldn’t find records of any patterns showing religious subjects, and was unsure whether I’d be able to attract any bidders at all for the rather gaudy, in-your-face, old-fashioned Christian iconography in my picture. And I was concerned in case the tattered condition of my piece might also put bidders off. However, I hadn’t spent anything to buy it and would have been satisfied with more or less any price. So in my eBay listing I started the bidding at £30.
The outcome? Remarkable! Thirteen bids from seven bidders, including two in the USA, two in the Netherlands, one in Italy, one in Norway and one (the winner) in the UK. And the winning bid? £499.00. Yes, four hundred and ninety nine pounds. Result!!! Now that’s what I mean when I talk about random treasure!
* Quoted from Victoria and Albert Museum Collections website at http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O132121/design-for-berlin-wool-work-design-unknown/