I ended my last blog piece like this:
“When Mary’s sister-in-law heard that Mary was going to take a stall at the flea market, she got an old suitcase out of an outhouse and asked her to sell it for a few pounds. And guess what? Both the suitcase itself and its contents turned out to be Random Treasure! In my next blog piece I’ll tell you the extraordinary story of what was in the cigar box.”
“Oooohhh”, I hear you saying, “a cliffhanger! How exciting”. I hope you will indeed find the story exciting. It’s been keeping me enjoyably and usefully occupied for the last several weeks, and it will be some more weeks or even months yet until the full outcome is known.
First, some background. Who’s Mary? Mary and her partner Ron are long-time friends of Frances and me. We meet weekly for a meal and a chat, we go on all kinds of more or less bizarre outings, and we share an interest in art and antiques. Mary and I sometimes go to auctions together, ostensibly to restrain each other’s insatiable appetites for purchasing dubious bric-a-brac, but in reality to egg each other on to make ever-increasing bids for ever-dodgier items.
In her other life, Mary is a semi-retired academic with a world-wide reputation in her subject, honorary professorships from three universities, three honorary PhD degrees and an OBE presented to her by the Queen. She comes from a large and distinguished family and has an almost unlimited supply of brothers and sisters. The owner of the suitcase in question is the wife of one of Mary’s brothers. I’m not sure that she would want to be identified in this piece, so I’ll call her Sally, which isn’t her name. Unless she has a middle name Sally, which I doubt. To tell you the truth I hardly know Sally, and believe I have only met her once, and briefly.
Sally is a relative of a wealthy Scottish landowner who lived in a mansion house on a large estate in the west of Scotland. I regret that I’m unable to provide more information or a detailed genealogy, not because there’s anything mysterious about Sally or her antecedents (as far as I’m aware), but because I haven’t asked or investigated. I feel sure that if I did ask she would be more than willing to fill me in about the forebear who owned the suitcase. But I am currently so committed to other biographical projects (i.e. researching the lives and works of a group of potters who are going to be the subject of my next book) that I am reluctant to let myself get too interested in the life of this particular gentleman, enthralling as it may be.
I do know, however, that he was rich, that he was well-travelled, that he was of a sporting disposition and in particular a follower of horseracing. I don’t know when he was born or when he died, but I do know that he floruit from around 1890 to 1935-ish. And that he floruit in pretty lavish fashion.
The mansion house in the west of Scotland was sold by the family in 1999, and the suitcase, which had presumably lain untouched in an attic or storehouse since its owner’s demise, found its way to Sally’s only marginally less grand current house in the east of Scotland. There, it was stored in the unheated folly in the grounds until just a few weeks ago when, for whatever reason, Sally got it out and handed it over to Mary for disposal at the flea market. It was damp and mouldy, and, until Mary cleaned it up, decidedly unprepossessing.
When Mary opened it she found that she was probably the first person to have disturb its contents since the 1930s. It isn’t simply a suitcase. It’s a time capsule. And it’s a window into a disappeared world.
The suitcase is heavy. You wouldn’t carry it yourself. That would be work for your manservant or a porter. It is of brown leather stretched over a rigid frame, probably wood. The owner’s initials are stamped on the lid. Opening it, you find that it is fitted out as a leather-lined travelling dressing case with compartments for every personal item that a high-living late Victorian gentleman might wish to take with him on a grand tour of the luxury places of the world: silver-topped glass bottles and jars for medicines, ointments, hair oil and unguents; combs and hairbrushes; clothes brushes; smelling salts; shoe-horns, bootjacks and button-hooks; cut-throat razors and shaving brushes; a writing section for stationery, pens, ink and blotter; and one or more hip-flasks in case of the need for a quick snifter, a pick-me-up or a hair-of-the-dog.
You would expect to find a maker’s label on an object such as this, but there isn’t one, which is slightly frustrating. However, there are clues to be found in the sterling silver hallmarks on the bottle-tops. A spot of googling soon reveals that the hallmark is for London, the date is 1883, and the silversmith’s FP initials are those of Frederick Purnell. Reading further, I find that Purnell was in partnership with Pittway Brothers, manufacturers of dressing bags, cases and fitted portmanteaux at 23 Hatton Garden. So there’s one mystery solved: we can be confident that Pittway was the maker of the case around 1883 or soon after.
In addition to the fitted pieces which belong in the case, there’s a miscellany of personal items which the gentleman either took with him on his travels, or kept as souvenirs, or perhaps secreted away from prying eyes. His cheque book, containing cheque stubs for frighteningly large amounts; his handwriting is illegible but one somehow suspects that this particular bank account was used to pay debts to bookmakers. A pipe and some dried-up cigars. A letter from his doctor dated 26 July 1900 with four handwritten pages of medical advice which boil down to one brief sharp message: cut down on the booze, chum, or else. A leather wallet with 9 carat gold corners by Leuchars & Son of Piccadilly, London, containing his betting notebook showing horses backed, names of bookies odds and race results (mostly big losses).
And there are two further objects of interest in the suitcase: a box and a large manila envelope. The box I’ll deal with here. The envelope I’ll cover in a future blog piece.
The box. It’s an old wooden Havana cigar box, which contained the gentleman’s smoking choice: only the best, of course: La Corona cigars by Alvarez Lopez y Ca. The box itself is a thing of beauty, covered and lined with highly decorative paper labels including the Alvarez Lopez lion symbol. Having smoked the cigars, he has retained the box as a receptacle for leftover pocket change brought home from the various countries visited in his world travels. Perhaps 100 coins in all, some loose, some in envelopes labelled in pencil “Italian change” or “Dutch money”. You know the sort of thing: you come home from holiday with a few foreign coins in your pocket, you take them out of your trouser pocket or purse, and you keep them in a box or a drawer and then forget to take them with you the next time you visit that country, if you ever do. I do it. I have a drawer-full. Expect you have too.
Now, I don’t know if the gentleman travelled on business or purely for sport and leisure; but travel he did, and widely. There are coins and a few banknotes from the Netherlands, France, Italy, Spain, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Singapore, India, Japan, Ceylon and the USA. The earliest is dated 1848 but is heavily worn, so was already old before it reached his pocket. The latest date is on a US dollar bill of 1934. I guess we’re looking at world travels over the period from the 1890s to the 1930s.
And then the box was closed, the suitcase was closed, and nothing was touched until late in 2018 when Sally gave it to Mary to sell for a pittance at the flea market.
I know a bit about coins, which were my first collecting interest (obsession?) from the age of seven. Knowing my interest, Mary brought me the cigar box to have a look at, asking if its contents might have any value.
The three questions to ask about coins are: (1) is it rare? (2) is it in good condition? and (3) is it a desirable coin? If the answer to two or more of these questions is yes, then you’re on to something. And as soon as I opened the box, I knew at once that I was indeed on to something.
The first ones that caught my eye were the US coins. Some half-dollars, a couple of quarters, a dime, several nickels and some pennies. Pocket change of negligible value compared to the breath-taking sums that we know the gentleman was staking on horseracing bets. But if you empty your pockets of loose change into a box and put the box away for more than 80 years, then you prevent its condition from deteriorating, thus transmuting it from small change into potential treasure. Money is for spending, and most coins, of course, pass from hand to hand and from pocket to pocket constantly throughout their lives. In countries such as the USA where the currency has mostly been strong over many decades, the sizes, weights and face values of coins change very little over time, and the life of a coin in circulation can be a very long one. As a result, the very large majority of older US coins that you find are heavily worn.
Not so with the coins sequestered in the cigar box. Many were in virtually new condition when put away and remained so. The only deterioration was that the ones with silver content had taken on a deep burnished tone from their long period in dark, damp and unheated conditions. If anything, this would have improved the appearance of some of them in the eyes of some collectors.
Among the US examples were Walking Liberty half dollars and Buffalo nickels: two of the most beautiful and desirable coins for US collectors, and very rarely found in decent condition. A brief glance at these was enough for me to say to Mary that the coins should not, absolutely not, be sold for almost nothing at the flea market. If they were to be sold, I knew I could sell them much more successfully on eBay, which provides an excellent market for coins because they are so easy to pack and post all over the world.
So Mary consulted Sally, who very generously said that if there was any cash to be generated from the coins, then she would be happy for the proceeds to be donated to local charities for the homeless. I volunteered to help with the fundraising effort by listing them on eBay, with only their commissions and other unavoidable charges to be deducted.
That’s what happened. I sorted out the saleable items into 28 separate lots of individual coins and small groups (including two lots of banknotes). Then I carefully photographed and described them in listings on eBay, including (for bidders’ interest and to stimulate competition) a brief description of the suitcase and the gentleman and how the collection was discovered, and stating that all proceeds were to go to charity. It involved a lot of work, but it was very successful.
All 28 lots were sold. Even the cigar box itself was sold. I posted packages to Scotland, England, the USA, China, Singapore, Spain and France. £251 was bid for one of the 1918 Buffalo nickels (face value 5 cents); £205 for another dated 1920; £211 for a 1917 Walking Liberty half-dollar; £415 for a collection of seven 10-cent banknotes from Singapore; £81 for a 1920 4-annas coin from India. Lesser but still surprisingly high bids for all the other lots.
Total proceeds (gross): £1,769.59.
Total proceeds (net after deduction of eBay, PayPal and postage charges): £1,383.32.
An impressive return for the charities! And yet another example of how it’s possible to find random treasure in the unlikeliest circumstances.
Moreover, the story still isn’t finished. I’ll have three more reports to make in future blog pieces:
1. I said earlier that the cigar box full of coins wasn’t the only collection that we found in the suitcase. There was also the manila envelope which contained an entirely different kind of collection. This too will be sold for charity, but I haven’t started trying to sell it quite yet because I know nothing about this type of object and will need to do some fast learning before I can start selling. And then I’ll report on it to you.
2. And of course the suitcase itself is to be sold. Because it’s incomplete and not in the best condition, it’s going into a local auction and we don’t expect it be of great value. I’ll let you know the outcome.
3. Finally, I’m intending also to write a further short piece about yet another envelope found in the suitcase. Merely a dirty, crumpled, torn piece of ephemera, with zero value, but a little research reveals a fascinating back-story and an almost spooky connection to one of my previous blogs.
It’s remarkable what you can find in an old suitcase. Well, I find it remarkable. Hope you will too.