Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Portable Altars at Auction; Guest Post by Andrew Marlborough

This week, I present another guest article by my friend, Andrew Marlborough, who worked in the art gallery business for 10 years before joining seminary in England. The hope here is that more people will start to look at auction houses so that such pieces might remain in Catholic hands.

Andrew writes: It was a great joy to discover the superb portable altars crafted by Rick Murphey at St Joseph’s Apprentice, which Dr Peter Kwasniewski has already written about.

The inspiration for these most likely came from examples used by First and Second World War Catholic and Anglican military chaplains. These were often cleverly designed to fold into a small flush-sided rectangular shape and be as strong and lightweight as possible, with compartments for candles, chalice, paten, linens etc. Several surviving examples have appeared at auction in the UK over the past year, at good value.

The first was sold by John Goodwin auctioneers in Ledbury in October 2020. It was of plain form but made of fine oak and velvet-lined. The interior contained a small silver chalice and paten, along with a host-box. An accompanying letter of provenance affirmed that it had been used by a chaplain in WWI. It realized just £190 (excluding buyer’s premium). 

On 7th October this year, Swan Fine Art in Tetbury offered a very fine example, also in oak, and with a beautifully carved reredos. The interior was velvet-lined to accommodate many accessories, including a silver chalice and paten, spoon, candlesticks, host-boxes, cruets, and linens. The case was made by Mowbray & Co., of Oxford and London, a well-known firm for small ecclesiastical work, whilst the silver was by Frederick Wray of London and hallmarked for 1910. It sold for £500 (excluding buyer’s premium).
A third portable altar was sold on 27th October by Plymouth Auctions. This example was later in date and more compact, though also made of oak, and contained in a leather carrying case. It included candlesticks, Crucifix, pyxes, paten, and other items, and realised just £150 (excluding buyer’s premium).
Andrew Marlborough is a 6th-year seminarian for Plymouth Diocese in the UK, studying at Allen Hall in London. Before entering seminary he worked for 10 years in the auction and art gallery business.

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