The Independent Archive 13 September 1989: A dickens of a draw for literary fans

How much is Daphne du Maurier's writing table worth? John Windsor looks at the market in writers' memorabilia
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The Independent Culture
WILL THE late Dame Daphne du Maurier's writing table enter the league of writers' memorabilia - sold in replica at Fortnum and Mason's in London and Mitsukoshi in Tokyo? Fans of du Maurier, who died in April, will be heading for her home town of Par in Cornwall today, tempted by Phillips the auctioneers' low estimates on her William IV writing table (pounds 500-pounds 700) and her Sheraton Revival desk (pounds 800-pounds 1,200).

But, unlike other memorabilia - pop stars' belongings, or medals, for example - the possessions of literary names appearing for the first time at auction are traditionally estimated according to their lower intrinsic value other than their higher sentimental value. That is the cautious policy of the auctioneers. It also helps to pack the saleroom - where, in a highly charged atmosphere, fanatics are at liberty to bid each other up to ridiculous prices. It's a bit of a bagatelle.

Brian Luxton, one of Phillips' furniture specialists, expects the William IV mahogany table with leather inset top, two fitted drawers and reeded, turned legs, to fetch pounds 800-pounds 900 or more, about pounds 300 above estimate, without the du Maurier connection.

Lots sold above estimate always create a good impression, at least on paper. Sotheby's sold Virginia Woolf's desk for pounds 2,800 in 1980, against an estimate of pounds 1,800-pounds 2,000. The high price was due to its redolence of the author. It was a hand-painted, stand-up scribe's desk. She would, wouldn't she? Phillips sold the late Arthur Koestler's desk, estimated at pounds 1,200, for pounds 1,800 in 1983. Although he was known to have written more than 20 famous titles at the desk, including The Ghost in the Machine and The Roots of Coincidence, the auctioneers reckon that Koestler enthusiasm contributed minimally to the above-estimate price. His death by suicide may have discouraged bidders.

Pre-eminent in the authors' desk and chair market is Dickens. The fruitwood smoker's bow chair which he left empty at his death was immortalised in a watercolour and a globally distributed woodcut by his illustrator Sir Luke Fildes.

Identical reproduction chairs and accompanying desk are now the stock in trade of a business run by Dickens's great-great-grandson Christopher Dickens and his wife Jeanne-Marie, who own the originals. Replicas of the chair and the mahogany desk with sloping writing top, which Dickens is thought to have designed, are stocked by stores in Singapore, Tokyo and Fortnum and Mason's in London, where there is a pounds 4,500 price tag. They sell for $18,000 (pounds 11,764) at Marshall-Fields, the Chicago store. Reputable auctioneers always ask for provenance, preferably written, before accepting big-name memorabilia for auction. There was tut-tutting among Dickens enthusiasts this year when a "Dickens" desk, with all provenance lost but described as "William and Mary", made more than pounds 2,000 at a West Country auction. As any Dickens buff will tell you, Dickens disliked antiques.

London auctioneers often consult Dr David Parker, curator of the Dickens House Museum in Doughty Street, London. He recently dismissed as "an insufficiently cunning attempt at deception" a writing box of the 1820s fitted with a plate of later date inscribed "C.J.H. Dickens, 9 Bell Yard, Fleet Street". Dr Parker knew that in 1912, in an article in Nash's Magazine, Charles Van Noorden had located the office where the young Dickens had worked as a court reporter as 5 Bell Yard, Carter Lane, Doctors' Commons - a quite different place from Bell Yard, Fleet Street. The auctioneers were advised not to trust the inscription.

To make matters more complicated, many Dickens-inscribed brass plates pinned to memorabilia do indicate good provenance. It was the fashion in Victorian times to snap up the memorabilia of notables at auction and add a brass plate, just for good measure. Many such curios came from Christie's auction of Dickens's own effects following his death in 1870. It made pounds 9,410.0s.6d. A walnut writing case went for pounds 6.16s.6d. Somewhere, from the same auction, there may still exist Dickens's stags' heads and antlers with brass plates, added later, nailed to them.

From `The Independent', Wednesday 13 September 1989