Before television it was the gas cooker, ornate and effulgent, that was the British household's hearth god, propitiated with pennies by the million. In 1911, 231,636,536 pennies, weighing 1,993 tons, were collected from domestic meters by London's Gas Light and Coke Company. Some would have passed through a gas company money box like the John Wright company's tin miniature of its New Century Eureka No 410 gas range of 1899.
The gas companies looked after the pennies; Christie's South Kensington will look after the pounds. This tiny stove is expected to fetch pounds 90- pounds 120 at the auction which will be held on Wednesday, 30 September (12.30pm), of Reuben Reubens's unique private collection of 60 gas cookers, boiling rings and other appliances of Victorian and Edwardian ingenuity.
If you want a real No 410, with its miniature version thrown in, it might cost an estimated pounds 700- pounds 1,000 . . . for the one that Mr Reubens bought for pounds 80 only last year. Workmen, who had removed it from the porter's lodge of Grove House on Clapham Common, turned up at his shop in Honor Oak Park, south London, bearing their trophy in a van.
'Quite an important cooker,' said Mr Reubens. The only doubt is: how much are such things really worth? There are few price precedents for historic cookers at London auctions, no guidebooks and, as far as Mr Reubens knows, no other cooker collectors.
Toppled from their tiled plinths, gas cookers are almost (but not quite) the only old household objects not yet part of the established canon of antiques. Although people stopped smashing up cast-iron baths in the mid- Eighties, the desecration of gas cookers continues.
What with two world wars hungry for scrap iron, the casting out of old cookers incapable of keeping up with the Joneses (especially after the introduction of the Regulo in 1922), and the mass 'conversions' of the Seventies, gas cookers have suffered iconoclasm after iconoclasm. 'In 20 years' time,' said Mr Reubens, who is 52, 'historic pieces like these will all be smashed up.'
Some appliances are minor masterpieces of the carver. Resplendent with swirling decoration, every part had to be carved in wood, which was then plunged into casting sand to form the mould for the molten iron.
Mr Reubens and I sat amid the Eurekas, Eclipses, Puritans and Cheerfuls in his shop, drinking sweet tea with evaporated milk (every dealer drinks tea with evaporated milk), contemplating why fashionable society appeared to have so little faith in old cookers.
I ventured that, although the man in the Victorian villa might wish to add authenticity to it by carrying home an 1853 cooker by Hare and Co (the collection's oldest, est pounds 1,000- pounds 1,500), no wife would put up with having to cook on it, still less attending to its baser needs such as blacking.
He demurred. 'I've had more interest from women than men. Only the other day, a woman came in here and said, 'My gran had one of those. I'd love one.' She had just bought an Edwardian house.
'And it can't be because of the weight, either. People buy big things like vintage cars, don't they?' He glanced at his red Volvo estate parked outside - only two years old but already 'knackered', he said, through carrying gas cookers. He has driven it to Scotland, Wales and East Anglia in his searches.
'People use cookers for lots of things besides cooking,' he volunteered. 'I've seen them as cocktail cabinets, and I know two artistic types who have painted theirs in bright colours and used them as cupboards in their living-rooms. Good conversation pieces. But I wouldn't do it. Horrible.'
The woman yearning for granny's cooker had been disappointed. Mr Reubens told her, truthfully, that he did not sell cookers. His shopful will remain his cherished private collection until it is auctioned to allow him to move house. Then he will be off to Ireland, this time to bring back cookers to sell.
It is not the first collection he has lovingly accumulated, then dispersed for want of a change. There were the antique musical instruments, the phonographs, the early light bulbs and electrical apparatus and most recently the tribal art. His collection of 3,000 wooden figures, vessels and weapons made pounds 89,000 at Bonham's in May 1990, but he reckoned it left him out of pocket. 'I put them all in one afternoon sale and that was the end of it,' he said. 'I flooded the market, made what was rare common.'
The first cooker he bought, in October 1989, was a rare 1897 gas range, model 140, New Pattern, by Richmond and Co. it had been in use at the Brayard Road, Peckham, warehouse of Austin's, the antique and furniture dealers, since being bought new when the building was a dairy. It is intact, with the original copper hot-water urn and five boiling burners. It cost pounds 12 13s 6d new, according to an old catalogue. He paid pounds 100. In the sale it is est pounds 1,000- pounds 2,000.
Mr Reubens's average spend per cooker has been pounds 100. They are knocked out at pounds 10- pounds 200 at small auctions. Christie's South Kensington hopes for a sale total of pounds 40,000- pounds 60,000.
His most expensive purchase, for pounds 250 from a specialist dealer, was not a cooker but a cooker catalogue. Only three copies of the Carron catalogue of 1898 are known, including one in the British Library. It is est pounds 150- pounds 250 in the sale.
Many Victorian cookers, having resisted conversion to North Sea gas, are still in use - which gives British Gas the horrors. Mr Reubens reckons virtually all old cookers can be converted. But British Gas, full of advice about how not to break the law and blow yourself to smithereens at the same time, urges owners of old cookers to consult their regional office of Corgi, the Confederation for the Registration of Gas Installers.
As the auction approaches, Mr Reubens is trying to alert buyers in Germany and Japan. He has already found a market in Germany for turn-of-the-century electric toasters. A porcelain Eclipse toaster, which he bought for pounds 40 three years ago and sold to a German dealer for pounds 200, made pounds 1,200 at auction in Cologne a year later.
What next? He might start snapping up early electrical goods such as fires and fridges. 'I have just bought my girlfriend a 1952 Frigidaire. She likes Fifties things. They're collectable for interior design. The fridge is playing up a bit but she's going to use it.'
As for those boiling rings in our picture, they are the most flamboyantly ornate appliances and a typical estimate at the auction is pounds 100- pounds 150. Picasso once rescued a boiling ring from a scrapheap and turned it into a 'natural' artwork simply by naming it Venus. He knew a goddess when he saw one.
Reuben Reubens (081-291 1786). The Gas Museum, Twelve Trees Crescent, Bromley-by-Bow, London E3 (071-987 2000 ext 3344). Viewing by appointment.
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