Bone up on the chain saw market

Collect to invest: medical instruments, although gruesome, are gaining popularity, writes John Windsor
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Another glass dish of Sir Alexander Fleming's penicillin mould is for sale, this time at Christie's South Kensington, estimated at pounds 6,000 to pounds 8,000. Last March, a similar one, inscribed by the Nobel prizewinner, fetched pounds 23,000 at Sotheby's.

One cannot help wondering whether these neatly boxed specimens are about to become as common at auction as Charlie Chaplin's canes or Queen Victoria's knickers. How many mouldy dishes did the frustrated Fleming press upon sympathetic colleagues in the years between 1928, when he discovered the non-toxic antibiotic, and 1940, when Professor Ernst Chain finally devised a way of manufacturing it?

At least this one has an impressive provenance, having got a mention in Fleming's biography, thus acquiring sensation value. It is almost as sensational as the 1830s hand-cranked surgical chain saw in the same sale of medical instruments as the mould next Friday (10.30am). The contraption avoided the tissue damage caused by to-and-fro sawing but surgeons complained it "went too far, too fast". Estimate: pounds 20,000-pounds 25,000.

Four years ago, in South Ken's first sale of medical instruments, an earlier chain saw, also by Heine of Wurzburg, was bought for pounds 23,100 by the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds. Since that sale, museums and fascinated medics have bought medical instruments at South Ken twice a year, making it a modestly rewarding field for investment. About 60 per cent of buyers are private collectors: some 30 per cent of the lots go to the United States and 20 per cent to Europe.

Not everybody hankers after a dish of mould or a surgical chain saw, especially at those prices, but both are clues to the way the medical instrument market works. The earlier chain saw, though less sophisticated, was the more decorative: it had ivory handles secured with gilt-brass bands. Buyers favour the decorative.

But those gilt-brass bands are the kind of hidey-holes that infectious bugs love. Such charming but potentially lethal decoration tailed off around 1830-40 when Joseph Lister's pronouncements on antiseptic surgery began to be taken seriously. Author and dealer Elisabeth Bennion, who has written the three definitive books on medical instruments, says she seldom deals in post-Lister instruments.

Fleming revered Lister's antisepsis research. So, in a sense, his dish of antiseptic could be seen as a market spoiler. Modern surgical instruments - undecorative, stainless, easily sterilised - are not as desirable as, say, the iron 17th century German bone saw with carved ivory eagle's head handle, estimated pounds 3,000-pounds 4,000 next Friday.

Sensation and decoration are valuable selling points, especially in combination. Both the chain saw and the eagle's head saw will hold their value as talking points. These days, it is increasingly difficult to buy sensational but not uncommon 19th century ivory-handled tooth keys (one twist, and it's out) for under pounds 200 and prices are rising steadily. Do dentists brandish them at their dinner parties as the sugary desserts are served? And whoever paid pounds 322 at South Ken last December for a gruesome Victorian oak mortuary trolley must be having hours of fun.

For under pounds 300, to amuse, amaze or horrify your friends, you could buy at South Ken next Friday a human foetal skull, a French glass breast pump, a Chinese ivory anatomical model of a woman, a cased post-mortem set including hammer and chisel to sever joints, or a veterinary lamb castrator.

One London dealer in scientific and medical instruments, Peter Delehar, organiser of the annual International Scientific and Medical Instrument Fair, refuses to have surgical tools in his shop. "They make me feel uncomfortable," he says. His stock is strong on ingenious ophthalmic devices such as, for pounds 190, a unique Dunn's colour blindness test of 1890 consisting of coloured glass discs back-lit by a candle and a hand-held colour chart. Puzzle: do the colour-blind see illuminated and printed colours differently?

In this market, there is surprisingly little "cross-over" value - that is, prices hiked by competitive bidding between medical collectors and, say, collectors of silver, porcelain, glass or antiquities. Many of Mr Delehar's and Mrs Bennion's customers are strictly medical specialists. A GP who collects baby-feeding devices, for example, might prefer a curio that is a missing link in the evolution of baby feeding to an expensive 18th century silver one by Paul Storr (if he ever made any).

Mrs Bennion reports that specialist interest in antique stethoscopes and hearing trumpets is pushing up their value. They are popular retirement and birthday presents, often beautifully crafted and do not challenge the squeamish.

You would not err in paying pounds 5,000-pounds 10,000 retail for a fine-condition cylindrical wooden stethoscope by the instrument's French inventor, Laennec, who taught himself wood turning in Napoleonic times. The price 10 years ago was about pounds 6,000.

At pounds 150, a humble 1890s wooden conversation tube (ear trumpet) would be good value. Or invest pounds 300-pounds 500 next Friday in a silver-plated London- dome trumpet with fancy scrolled grille.

As for antiquarian medical instruments, they are cheap and, according to London antiquities dealer Chris Martin, as yet undiscovered by medics. He will sell you a 14cm long Roman 1st to 3rd century AD bronze spatula for pounds 60.

Americans are going for Civil War cases of surgeons' instruments - the first-ever standard issue. Some collectors are hoarding them. Ten years ago they were pounds 750-pounds 800, now they are around pounds 1,200 and still rising. Christie's South Ken auctioneer Mark James reports consistently strong demand for 19th century cases of surgeons' instruments: they have risen about 30 per cent in value in four years. Next Friday's sale has amputation sets with estimates between pounds 300 and pounds 800. Do not try these at home.

As if cued by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, many collectors see medical instruments, notably the obstetric and gynaecological, as the history of thought materialised. In Victorian times, anaesthesia delivered childbirth into the hands of the surgeon as well as the local midwife. Fearsome cervical dilators and forceps (under pounds 200 a set in Friday's sale) were wielded by men who were familiar with the 19th century pathologist Virchow's opinion that "woman is a pair of ovaries with a human being attached, whereas man is a human being furnished with a pair of testes".

Christie's South Kensington (0171-581 7611). International Scientific and Medical Instrument Fair, Radisson Portman Hotel, Portman Square, London W1, 26 October (10am-4pm), entry pounds 3. Peter Delehar (0171-727 9860). Elisabeth Bennion (0181-543 0043). Chris Martin (0181-882 1509/4359).

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here