Tips on antiques and collectibles. Paul Martin discusses snuff boxes with expert James Lewis.
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I want to share some of the knowledge that we've picked up
over the last 11 years of filming "Flog It!"
That's hundreds of programmes under our belt and many
thousands of your antiques and collectables sold under the hammer.
There is a whole world of trade secrets out there for you to know.
Over the years on "Flog It!", we've come to realise that sometimes,
the most fascinating antiques can emerge from the most
inauspicious looking containers, so today, we're looking at boxes.
That is quite special, isn't it?
And lifting the lid on some items to which
there is more than meets the eye.
On today's programme, we'll be unwrapping some useful lessons.
Firstly, always take a good look inside the box.
"First pair of boots.
"Too small for her little feet."
That's dated 1873.
He hadn't even looked in the boots!
And secondly, never be surprised by what you might find there.
This is kind of a mechanical version of a leech, I guess.
On "Flog It!", we've had over 900 valuation days,
and during that time, we've seen all kinds of antiques and collectables.
But there's one thing that still gets me very excited when I see it.
And that's boxes!
Yes, you bring them in, boxes of all shapes and sizes.
Boxes made of wood, boxes made of antique ivory and leather.
And there's something quite satisfying about opening up a box
and peering in and seeing the treasures that lie there.
So if you've got an old box gathering dust in your house,
it may be worth getting its contents valued.
Here are a few of the surprises we've found
when lifting the lid.
You often find that a very tatty exterior
can be protecting a jewel of an interior.
When I first saw this in the box,
I thought we'd have half an hour while you set it up.
-But you've put it together like an expert. You've done that a few times!
-Two or three!
It was towards the end of the valuation day
and he almost didn't bother bringing it along.
Whenever we're looking at optical instruments,
and in particular, microscopes or telescopes,
there's one name that really does ring out above all the others.
And that's Dollond of London.
Dollond of London are one of the most important optical instrument makers
of all time in Britain.
They're now Dollond & Aitchison, spectacle makers.
If we look at this box that this microscope came in,
we see these wonderful flush brass handles on the sides.
And that indicates that it was made to be packed away for travelling.
Look at that box. Wonderfully fitted.
'The more you looked at this microscope,'
the eye pieces were there, the slides were there...
You often find the most gruesome things. What's that?
A leg of something, by the looks of it!
But they're contemporary with the microscope.
So it's what we call a monocular microscope, for obvious reasons.
It has one lens. Binocular or monocular.
And this alters a rack and pinion. There we go.
-But we've got a couple of bits missing.
-Tell me how you came to have it.
-It came out of a skip.
-Who on earth would put this in a skip?
-Your son put it in a skip?
-When they cleared the house.
-And then he took it back out and looked in it and said, "My dad would like that."
So he said, "Here's part of your Christmas present."
Really, it is the most fantastic quality thing.
You've saved it, and I'm so pleased.
But it is the best of makers. In its original box.
OK, we've got a few bits missing.
But you've got a lot left, too.
So I think we ought to put an estimate of 400 to 600.
I've seen them sell before, complete, at £1,000 to £1,500.
Thanks very much for bringing it in.
Been nice being here. I love it.
But that was a classic example of putting a low estimate
to try and get the best end result.
I don't ever like to get people's hopes up.
But come on, just stick your neck out!
-You're with friends!
I think it should make 1,200-1,500.
-Dave, are you shaking?
Early 19th-century monocular compound brass microscope.
Lots of interest here.
I have to start at £380.
380. 400 now. 420.
Telephone bids on it, internet bidding, absentee bidding.
-Yeah, keep going!
-It's making a good, steady climb.
900. And 50.
1,300. 1,300 in the room.
At £1,300. We have £1,300.
That's auctions for you!
Fantastic! And to find it in a skip!
Why don't I ever find those in skips?
Not every box is full of delights,
as Elizabeth was to discover with this macabre medical instrument.
This is a very unusual item, Lynne. What can you tell me about it?
Well, as far as I'm aware, it's a cupping set.
And it's for blood-letting.
It actually belonged to my great-grandmother,
who used to assist with births.
-So this was hers, was it?
So it will have seen a certain degree of hard work in its time.
-You've never seen it actually used?
-No, no. No.
It had served a cause and had a few stories to tell probably.
I'm sure whoever saw this being put together would have been daunted!
Victorians loved the concept of blood-letting.
Letting out badness from the body by cutting and drawing off blood.
They used leeches a lot.
This is a mechanical version of a leech, I guess.
We draw back the little knives by this lever here
which primes it, a bit like priming a flintlock pistol.
You hold it onto the skin, and by releasing the button,
the little knives shoot through
and score the skin.
At which point you rush up with this
and put it onto the skin and draw back to pull out the blood you require.
In some cases, they would take dangerous amounts of blood out.
They were so carried away with forever attaching leeches or sucking out the blood
that actually it was making the patient too weak.
Not for the faint-hearted, is it?
So you've inherited it, have you?
No, it still belongs to my mother, but she's happy to sell it.
She wants to sell it. OK.
-Has it been pride of place...
-No, not at all.
It was, unfortunately, until very recently,
it was down the chicken shed!
It had been carefully passed down the generations
until the recent ten years when it was in the chicken shed!
Well, you've obviously got a very clean and dry chicken shed,
because it's in surprisingly good order.
Value, I think, will be limited to around about...
I'd think on a bad day £40.
On a good day, it might make £80.
I based my estimate on not enough knowledge, as it turned out!
You can play the game properly at home now.
Doctors and nurses!
40 quid? 20 I'm bid. 20.
Five. 30. 35. 40.
45. 50. 55. 60.
65. 70. 75. 80.
-At 80 now.
180. 190. 200.
210. This side at 210.
The auctioneer did very well.
He kept encouraging people to bid that little bit more
and that's the sign of a good auctioneer.
Going to burst a blood vessel in a minute!
340. At 340 now.
-It wasn't even named.
I did think that to find a name
would have given it quite a significant uplift in value. I couldn't find a name.
So kept the estimate very modest at £40 to £80.
-It's a lucky charm.
£420. Finished and done at 420.
If one's going to be caught out,
it's better to be too pessimistic than over optimistic,
and have a positive result rather than a terrible flop.
Your last chance at 420. Who have I missed?
Oh, and it's all down to Great-Gran there.
She brought you luck today.
Absolutely. Mum will be over the moon.
There you go. Live and learn!
But sometimes there are clues to what might lie within.
As Catherine found out in Plymouth.
I remember this gentleman coming up to me
with this rather rugged tin box.
And he plunked it on the table.
It was a little bit rusty.
But it had the name painted on the top, of a naval officer.
So I thought, "Hmm. This is going to be something quite exciting."
Chris, what's inside this rusty box of tricks?
It's a naval bicorn hat, or a cocked hat.
Oh, this is quite special, isn't it?
It really got me going. Very exciting!
And I just remember the epaulettes, a sort of golden colour.
And they were really shining through.
So when you opened this box,
it was just like you were looking at treasure!
There are two of these epaulettes.
Just in the most fabulous condition.
-This pops out like that.
-What a great colour, as well.
-Wonderful amber colour.
The braid coming down here and the lovely buttons with the anchor on.
And as you say, the epaulettes, which were obviously worn on the shoulder.
How did you come about this? Was it passed down through your family?
No. I was doing a house clearance with a friend of mine,
and this was part of what was being thrown out.
I think we should give it a conservative estimate of probably 150 to 250.
Let's hope that it attracts a lot more interest and really surges up.
'And Chris has unearthed some useful information about the name on the box.'
Did you do any research to find where he was, where he was stationed?
Yes. He served on lots of ships during his time.
-One of them was the Hood.
HMS Hood, which was an important ship during the Second World War
which had been sunk by the Bismarck.
This is it. This is your lot now.
I'm bid £160. Against you all at 160.
Five if you like. 165. 170.
Five. 180. Five. At 185.
Wow! This is exciting!
And ten. 220. 230. 240.
250. 260. 270.
At £290 there.
-At 290, then.
All done at 290?
-Bang on top. 290 quid.
That's what was nice about this box.
It had the name of the naval officer on.
So you could research it. I think that's what people really picked up on.
There are boxes for tea, boxes for snuff and boxes to carry clothes.
But it's not always about what's inside.
Sometimes, the beauty is the box.
You've been standing in the queue holding this very heavy box for rather a long time.
It's always thrilling to see a box. You automatically think there must
be something rather special in there.
-It used to belong to my grandmother.
And it was handed to my mother when she died in about 1970-ish.
-My mother handed it on to my daughter.
-So it's the fourth generation in the family.
-Your daughter's instructed you to bring it along?
-To sell it?
-She's getting married next year
and it would be useful towards the honeymoon.
-Does it come with any story?
-All I know is it must be something like 110 years old.
That's pretty accurate. It's late 19th century.
-But where does it come from?
-I don't know.
-Put your hand over it. It's Indian.
-Do you know what it's made of?
It's very black. I thought initially it was probably ebony.
But I can see a bit of flecking in there.
I think it's a wood called coromandel.
Coromandel has this wonderful flecking of brown through it
which gives it a particular charm.
It's not easy to carve because it is so hard.
But if you can do it well,
it then has this wonderful patination.
It's exotic to look at.
Look at that fantastic workmanship.
It's got the most wonderful ivory inlay.
When I say wonderful, it's not Japanese quality.
And then it has different woods laid into it.
There's some probably tiger wood in there.
There's some rosewood, I think.
'And it was complete.'
I think every lid to every compartment was still there.
Which is a rare thing in itself.
There should be a compartment in the bottom.
Oh, my gosh. It's full, isn't it?
-I don't know anything about them.
-You don't know anything about them?
Well, lo and behold, inside one of the bootees
was a name.
"Dear Rosa". Does that ring a bell?
-There was an Aunt Rosa, yes.
-My mother's Aunt Rosa.
"First pair of boots. Two small for her little feet."
And that's dated 1873.
He hadn't even looked in the boots to see that piece of paper himself.
I find that quite extraordinary.
No wonder he wanted to sell it. He had no interest in it at all.
Well, coming back to the box,
did your daughter say, "If it's worth more than ten quid, sell it"?
-Or 500 quid or...
-She just said, "Take it and sell it. I have no use for it."
-I suggested it might be worth in excess of 100.
-Well, I think it's worth about £100.
-How does that sound?
Reasonable? Were you hoping for more?
Let's hope the bidders are excited about the box and its contents.
Next up, the embroidery box with a value of £100 to £150.
It belongs to Michael. He's brought his daughter Heidi along.
-I love the hair! What does Dad think?
I had a shock when I saw it!
It's going under the hammer now.
Numerous commission bids here. Start me straight in at...
..£160. 160 I have to start.
I think when I got to the saleroom
I really had thought to myself,
"Charlie, you've undervalued this lot."
210. 220. 230. 240.
-Heidi, it's because you're here!
290. 300. 310 takes me out.
Because it's a rare wood, it's particularly collectable.
-Oh, they like this.
-Charlie, what did we miss?
I know nothing!
£410. Back of the room at £410.
At £410. Are we all done, then?
How exciting was that?
-Oh, my word.
-That'll go a long way towards your honeymoon.
Yeah. I can eat, now!
So when it comes to boxes, what are the key points to look out for?
The box, although it was a beautiful object in its own right,
it was actually made to protect what's inside.
People often say, "Oh, dear, the box isn't in very good condition."
That doesn't matter. If it's done its job,
what's inside has survived really well.
Just because it's tatty doesn't mean it's worthless.
We often call it "country house condition" if it's a bit shabby.
I like to have a really good look at it and think about the material that it's made from.
So if you've got something that's made from quite a rich material,
I think that's going to tell you you've got something special inside.
Always look inside your boxes - no matter how fabulous,
there could be even more valuable treasure hidden within.
-I don't know anything about them.
Whatever your item, look for a name.
A known maker will always attract the collectors.
It just goes to show, there's a market for almost everything.
So think before you bin!
As you know, provenance is key in antiques.
So if your trunk or suitcase has a name or monogram,
as they often do, check it out.
The previous owner could be very significant.
But sometimes it's just the box itself which is of interest.
Something I learned more about in 2008 when I visited an old snuff factory.
I've come here to Wilsons & Co,
one of the last remaining independent snuff manufacturers left in the country.
The family-run business, here at Sharrow Mills in Sheffield,
has been producing snuff from a secret recipe
which dates back as far as 1737.
The original machinery used to grind the tobacco to make snuff still survives.
It's left as a testament to a bygone age.
Although snuff-taking isn't as popular as it used to be,
one aspect of it still is very popular and extremely collectable.
And that's snuff boxes.
And to tell us a bit more about it
is a familiar "Flog It!" face and good friend of mine, James Lewis.
James, thanks very much for bringing a small part of your collection.
-I know it's massive.
I think I've got about 300-500, 400-600 altogether. Something like that.
-I'm not sure exactly.
-When did you start to collect snuff boxes?
Well, when I was younger, I had a passion for wood, just like you.
And the problem is, when you're a schoolboy or just about to go to university,
you've got nowhere to put furniture.
If you're going to collect wood, or treen, or anything like that,
you have to collect things that are small.
I thought, "What better than snuff boxes?"
So I had an interest back as a teenager.
But the passion for snuff boxes
really came from one of my first ever visits I made as an auctioneer.
I went to see a lady in a little tiny cottage
and halfway through the valuation, I heard this...
I turned round to see this lady
with snuff dribbling down the nostrils!
All over herself.
And she went, "Want some, lad?"
-And did you?
-No, I didn't.
I didn't. Today I probably would have done.
But back then, I was too shy and I said, "No, thank you."
And I left her to it.
But it started a strange sort of fascination.
Gosh. Let's talk about some of the varieties.
-Maybe pick on half a dozen.
There are two types, really. You get the pocket snuff.
It always has a very tight fitting cover, for obvious reasons.
And then you have the table snuff.
Table snuff is normally bigger and sometimes has a loose cover.
These three at the front are all table snuff boxes.
They're by one of the most important snuff box makers
of the early 18th century,
a chap called Jean Obrisset.
He was the son of a Huguenot silversmith
and he specialised in working in horn and tortoiseshell.
He was snuff box maker to Queen Anne.
Really? So that's a name to look out for.
Queen Anne herself was a snuff-taker.
Can we have a look at one of those?
-That's nice, isn't it? Hold it up to the light.
You can see right through it. Look at the detail.
Just as we find today that smoking is a really controversial subject,
snuff-taking itself was controversial throughout the ages.
And although Queen Anne was a snuff-taker,
100 years earlier, King James, he despised it with a passion.
So if you were caught taking snuff in the presence of King James,
-you'd end up in the Tower.
Oh, he loathed it.
In its heyday during the 18th century,
snuff-taking developed into an important social grace.
It remained popular well into the 20th century.
It was said you could tell a lot about a man's social status
by the way he took his snuff.
Open the lid and take a pinch between the finger and thumb.
Hold it there for a moment
so the warmth of the finger brings out the bouquet of the snuff.
So you get the benefit of the flavour. And inhale it.
Close the snuff box.
And then, if you like, just a little flourish with your handkerchief.
I'm not a snuff box snob.
I know a lot of these people say, "It's a silver gilt",
"It's solid gold", it's this, it's that.
"It's encrusted with rubies."
To be honest, that actually leaves me quite cold.
-You like the tactile items.
-The working man's snuff box.
I've seen a few of those. That's the poor man's pinch, isn't it?
Yeah. You generally call these Scottish snuffs.
I'm pleased YOU said that!
I can get away with it because I'm 100% Scot!
-I can get away with it.
-A mean pinch.
-That's what they're called.
A mean pinch. They were made in brass and horn and treen.
The idea was that you would close the gap in the centre
so that when you take the pinch of snuff, you can't take too much.
Very eye-catching. I love the rams' horns.
A classic Scottish ram's horn snuff mulls, they were called.
With a lovely silver mount.
That's quality, isn't it, all the way through.
I think I've got about 30 of those, altogether!
They come in different shapes and sizes.
Interesting - somebody has attached a silver watch chain to that.
So they can carry it and put it over their arm.
Because that one doubles as a snuff box on the top there,
but also the end screws off and you can fill it with whisky!
That's a good idea, isn't it?
A lot of these are English and continental. Where else in the world were they made?
They were made almost everywhere.
The interesting thing is that in China they don't have snuff boxes,
they have snuff bottles.
Simply because a sign of status in China was to have wonderful, long, decorative fingernails.
If you have massively long fingernails, you can't take snuff from a snuff box.
-You can't pick the box up.
-No. You have a little shovel and straight up!
Now you're talking about that,
we're in the best location possible
to show this sort of thing.
This is obviously ground down tobacco. Should we try some?
-I didn't know you were a nosologist!
-Is that what it's known as?
A snuff-taker in the 18th century was known as a nosologist.
-I don't fancy trying any of this stuff.
No, no, no. I think we should try some fresh stuff when we get outside.
-Otherwise we'll sneeze our heads off.
-We're antiques people. We should try the old stuff!
I don't rate that at all!
No. Whatever you do,
don't try that at home!
The great thing about boxes, like other small items,
is they're a perfect starting point for a budding collector.
And it doesn't have to be expensive
if you know what you're looking for.
If that's inspired you, here are some tips on collecting the small and the beautifully formed.
Look for an area you find interesting.
It could be nutmeg graters.
It could be Vesta cases.
But don't be narrow-minded
and look for a year.
Look at that whole section of nutmeg graters or Vesta cases.
The key word when collecting treen
is the patina, the colour of a piece.
That's really what buyers of this kind of thing are looking for.
Serious collectors are a special breed.
We tracked down a few to get their take on the art of collecting.
Douglas came to our Stroud valuation day in 2009
with a beautiful print and an extraordinary story.
Doug, I'm a big fan of Paul Nash.
Tell me how you came by this Shell poster.
Many years ago, in the late 1970s,
we were on holiday with some ruralists, Graham Ovenden and so on.
And he brought a friend along.
And this friend went into the sea. A bit daft, cos it's a very dangerous coastline.
And my wife looked out and said, "This guy is in trouble. He's drowning!"
So we clambered over the rocks, the tide was coming in.
I held on to his legs, and he grabbed this guy by the hair
-and we both pulled him out.
This poster came from him as a thank you present for having
rescued him from drowning.
And to me, it was a great joy.
What can I say? Paul Nash was a war artist in the First World War.
He worked for the Air Ministry in the Second World War.
He was a great advocate of British Modernism.
He really pioneered the surrealist thing in the 1920s. Pushed it to the forefront.
-It's rather a large furnishing picture.
I could see this in a big studio.
Right. That's why we're going to sell it, cos our sitting room wall is too small for it.
-If we put this into auction, I'd like to put it in at £1,000 to £1,500.
Lot 312 is the Paul Nash.
900. 920 there.
940. At 940. 960, if you like. 960.
1,000 and 50 now. Sure now.
He sold it at 1,000. We got it just at the bottom end.
-That's all right.
-Absolutely fine. Absolutely fine.
It was a success for me. It was a telephone bid. Obviously a collector
who'd seen it on the internet and wanted it.
So with the cash, Douglas was on the hunt for smaller Paul Nash works.
I keep a lookout all the time for stuff to do with Paul Nash.
But it's hard to come by these days.
What I've focused on is getting graphic work of his.
Limited edition books, limited edition pamphlets and so on
which contain his work, contain his writing.
The money we earned from "Flog It!" went partly towards getting this.
In its time, this must have been absolutely extraordinary,
because it was before abstract art,
it was before people painted canvases black and white.
It's really unlike most of his work,
which is surrealist in places
but also representational.
So he obviously just took out the feeling of Genesis,
the feeling of what he read
and then translated it into very, very simple, powerful images.
It's one of the most extraordinary books ever published, I think, by an artist.
Certainly in that era.
Now, that's a truly passionate collector for you,
trading in one piece to expand the overall collection.
That's it for today's show. I hope we've given you some food for thought.
Join me again soon for more inside information and surprising sales.
But until then, it's goodbye.