Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Around the Auctions

Here is another in a series of occasional articles from Fr Andrew Marlborough, who prior to joining the clergy worked in the world of art sales. Our hope is that these articles will raise awareness of the sort of liturgical artifacts that might be found in auction houses, so that more can be saved for Church use.

Fr Andrew writes:
There continues to be an overwhelming amount of Catholic sacred art appearing on the auction market. Dozens and dozens of sacred vessels, monstrances, relics, vestments, and other items appear at auction every week across Europe and America. Although alarming, this is a material expression of the crisis in the Church, but also provides an opportunity for those looking for well-crafted traditional items, often at reasonable prices when compared to the cost of commissioning something new today. For a longer report on this situation, see my previous article.  
A few recent examples show the broad range of what can be obtained. Firstly, a real bargain was this charming Continental silver chalice sold in a small UK auction in September. It was catalogued rather vaguely as simply ‘antique’ but the foliate detail around the foot-rim, gadrooned knop, and the overall style, reflect chalices made in the Low Countries in the 17th and 18th centuries. A good size at 20cm, and in need of a good polish, it sold for just £130 (excluding commission). (Images credit Andrew Smith Auctions) 
From a similar place and period, but a finer example, was this silver-gilt chalice made by Joannes van Sychen in Ghent in 1728. The stylistic similarity to the above chalice can be seen in the foot rim detail and gadrooned knop design, but the lively modelling of cherubs among heavenly clouds around the lower bowl is unusual and quite stunning. At 24cm high and 530g in weight it was still great value, selling in October for 2600 Euros (excluding commission) at a provincial auction in Belgium. (Images credit Flanders Auctions)
A superb quality chalice in the same auction was this Gothic revival example made by Jean-Baptist Van Dam of Bruges in 1893. A highly-regarded maker, Van Dam was well-known for this style of work and the quality of craftsmanship visible in the details is first-class. Complete in original case with paten and scruples spoon, and with an impressive combined weight of 951g, and good height of 21cm, it realised 5000 Euros (excluding commission). (Images credit Flanders Auctions) 

Although often ignored in the post-conciliar Liturgy, the presence of relics on the altar for public veneration during Mass, is a venerable and important tradition. Whilst many relics appear at auction, and single reliquaries for display and veneration, it is hard to find pairs or sets for use on the altar. Another good buy was this pair of ornate gilt-bronze reliquaries, which sold at a regional auction in Germany in early November for 400 Euros (excluding commission). (Images credit Auctionen Heidelberg)  

A very interesting group of 17thC recusant period pewter chalices also appeared at a provincial saleroom in the UK. These may have been functional altar vessels given the difficulty of commissioning silver and gold pieces in penal times. It is interesting that there was much discussion in the tradition about whether pewter constitutes a sufficiently precious metal for sacred vessels. The Council of Reims in 803 permitted its use for poorer Churches, and this was reinforced at the Synod of Rouen in 1074. However, the Council of Westminster in 1175 specified that only silver and gold could be used. This perhaps points to a more likely identification of the present group as ‘sepulchral’ grave wares made specifically for priests’ burials. The V&A in London and the Corinium Museum in Cirencester both have such examples in their collections, and a few have appeared on the open market over the years.   
These four pieces came from a significant private collection of pewter sold in October in a UK provincial saleroom. The best was undoubtedly the example which included a paten, which is a very rare survival. This sold for £4600 (excluding commission). Another similar chalice made £4100 (excluding commission). These two were both early-mid 17thC in date. There were also two later examples made around 1700. The most interesting of these had an unusually large knop and stepped base, realising £1800 (excluding commission). The other of more ornate form, sold for £1500 (excluding commission). (Images credit Bishop & Miller Auctioneers) 
Whether used in Mass or solely grave goods, this group of pewter chalices is a rare and important record of the survival of Catholicism in penal times and the witness to the life of priests operating under persecution.  

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: