Huon Mallalieu reports on an extraordinary — and record-breaking — auction of a chest roughly the size of a small loaf of bread which generated a huge sale for Lyon & Turnbull.
Mother may well know best, but it is not always best to give full credence to family traditions or folk memories. Sometimes, they gain lustre and romance down the generations, but, occasionally, the truth is more impressive than what has been passed down.
That was the case for the lucky vendors of what turned out to be the most expensive lot ever sold at a Scottish auction when offered on May 20 at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh: a tiny 14th century carved chest that fetched almost £1.5 million.
Auchmedden Castle on the Buchan coast was demolished in the late 18th century after it passed from the Baird family, which had held it since 1535, to the Aberdeen Gordons, although the land was later sold to an apparently unrelated Baird family. The last of the first Bairds, so to speak, William, who was deprived of the estate because he had been ‘out’ in the ’45, was a keen family historian and it may have been he who promoted an erroneous family story that passed down to his daughters’ descendants, together with many Baird possessions. One of the daughters married into the Frasers of Tornaveen and Findrack, another family with Jacobite connections, and was an ancestress of the eccentric and artistic Bedfordshire Fraser clan.
This is a long way of saying that, for many generations at Tornaveen House, there was a French Gothic casket of carved ivory panels, measuring 4½in high by 5in by 10in. It was believed in the family, perhaps on the say-so of William, to have been made by an early-17th-century Thomas Baird (remarkably, one of 32 children), who had become a friar at Besançon in Burgundy.
He may well have acquired it and passed it back to the family, but he certainly did not carve it, although he is said to have been good with his hands, so perhaps it was he who fitted the brass brackets, straps and handle. The panels, however, date from about 1330, and were probably carved in Paris.
The side panels illustrate stories of Tristan and Iseult and the Grail Quest, whereas those forming the lid show wild men storming the Castle of Love, a very 14th-century subject. Only eight comparable complete caskets are currently known, most in major museums.
The bidding opened at £50,000 and, after 10 tense minutes, the price was taken to £1,455,000. The vendors are indeed lucky that no one else guessed the true history before Lyon & Turnbull’s researchers got to work.