Treasure from the deep

fishing lines
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The Independent Online
A SHOAL of fish that have spent 70 years in the sea without learning to swim are set to sell for a great deal of money this week. It is not their ability to master a fish's basic skill that makes them so attractive (they are, after all, made of brass, which is a bit of a handicap when it comes to swimming), but their extraordinary history.

The six fish, varying from 9in to 13in, are made of articulated segments so that, if you waggle them, they simulate a rather clumsy swimming action. Goodness knows what fish they are meant to represent: I can't think of any species that lacks dorsal, pectoral and anal fins but wears a manic grin. Quite why any angler would want to own such creatures is hard to know. Their original owner, Thomas David Gibson, Lord Carmichael, can't tell us because he died in 1926. My only guess is that it could be something to do with getting away from his wife who, from the pictures I've seen, looks like Wade Dooley in a dress.

Be that as it may. Carmichael, whose main claims to fame were being Governor of Madras and having a species of daddy-long legs named after him, was made Governor of Bengal in 1911. George V, who had sailed to India on the SS Medina, P & O's most modern steamship, was behind the move. The Medina, built at Greenock in 1911 for the mail run to Australia, had been fitted out in red, white and blue as a royal yacht. (This may seem inconsequential, but the Medina plays a key role in this story.)

In 1917, the Carmichaels prepared to leave India. They had collected a few bits and bobs (80 cases of them) which they loaded on to the Medina, then travelling back from Australia with a valuable wartime cargo of tin and meat. At Port Said, the Carmichaels switched to HMS Sheffield, while their belongings stayed on the Medina. It was a fortunate move. The Medina was torpedoed off Start Point, Devon, on 28 April, 1917. Five members of the crew went down with the ship and the Carmichael's possessions.

The Medina's cargo of tin was salvaged in 1932 but it was only in late 1986 that divers, working in a diving bell 220ft down, finally retrieved a box marked GCIE, signifying Knight Grand Commander of the Indian Empire. It was the first of Carmichael's chattels. As well as the first, divers hauled up a large oriental art collection, ancient Egyptian beads striped with gold, an Assyrian cuneiform seal, Japanese porcelain and Carmichael's 2.5in Hardy reel. Although the moving parts of the reel had fused, its brass construction meant it was relatively undamaged. An engineer, Christopher Wilson, brought it back to working order while retaining all the original parts.

The reel and undamaged fish were brought by an avid tackle collector, Graham Turner. They are the star items in a sale of fishing tackle in London this Saturday. The reel is pre-1900 but not that rare. It would normally sell for about pounds 300, but the auctioneer Neil Freeman reckons that its history makes it worth far more, and that it would attract bids up to pounds 2,500. It is being sold with Lord Carmichael's hip-flask and his personal seal (the stamp, not a black thing with whiskers). The six fish are being sold separately and estimates range from pounds 800 to pounds 1,200.

Angling Auctions, Grand Hall, Chiswick Town Hall, London W4, 30 March, 1pm. Catalogues from Neil Freeman (0181-749 4175).