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Fine armour: demand from both private collectors and museums for the best and rarest pieces is keeping the top end of dais market buoyant.

The rich and the powerful have long coveted and collected fine armour. In the early 16th century, Henry VIII, Francois I and the Emperor Maximilian vied among themselves to build the first truly great armouries. Their spiritual successors, the great tycoons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, flaunted their wealth by acquiring and building castles. And no castle is complete without armour.

But there was a problem. Unlike edged weapons and firearms, which take up relatively little room, a full or part armour--the term 'suit of armour' is deemed incorrect--requires plenty of display space, perhaps one reason why so little survives. While a victorious looter might bring home a sword or pistol as a souvenir, he would be less likely to bring home armour. As a result, surviving armours tend to be in armouries and museums. In 1951 Sir James Mann, Master of the Armouries, noted in an article about an exhibition that of 23 Greenwich harnesses only one was in private hands, whereas eight of them had been owned privately 40 years earlier.


And that is the way things continue to go. Most outstanding fine armours that come to market end up in museums. The specialist London-based dealer Peter Finer has recently sold an exceptional armour for man and horse to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Fig. 1) for an exceptional price: an 'eye-watering' seven figure sum is as much as he will say. Pierre Terjanian, the museum's associate curator of arms and armour, says that, 'The exquisite decoration is without equal among all other surviving man and horse armours.'

It is worth noting, however, that the man and horse armours were made by different makers at different times and that the majority of the value lay in the gilt horse armour, superb although the man's is. Nor is the price surprising. In 1983 at Sotheby's Hever Castle sale, an embossed and gilt parade armour made for Henri n of France around 1540-45 by the pre-eminent armourer of his generation, Giovanni Negroli, sold for 1.95m [pounds sterling]. That was then a massive sum, yet what is perhaps equally astonishing is that it was fully known and accepted that elements of that armour had been restored in the 19th century--those long-dead dealers were only too happy to restore, and occasionally even fake, works in order to extract every last dime from their wealthy and sometimes gullible clients.

Mr Finer has sold one other armour recently--an etched and decorated Brunswick flail armour dated 1549--also for a seven-figure sum. The us purchaser agreed a figure in sterling when the pound was strong but paid, as agreed, when it was weak, thereby saving a considerable sum.

The auction houses, however, are not convinced that the weak pound is pulling many extra foreign buyers to London, and say that when something desirable comes up British buyers continue to compete effectively. Thomas Del Mar, who sells under his own name (associated with Sotheby's), says that his December 2009 sale saw a phenomenal 95% sold, some items at double estimate. The one 'weak' area? 'Lesser quality items.'

Like other auctioneers, he bemoans the fact there is all too little top-quality armour coming to market. In June 2007 he sold an Italian etched and gilt breastplate in fine condition, dated around 1590. Estimated at 10,000 [pounds sterling]-15,000 [pounds sterling], it fetched 33,600 [pounds sterling]. The age-old combination of quality, condition and provenance--in this case Warwick Castle--explains the price. To demonstrate the effect of provenance, Mr del Mar points to his Sotheby's 2005 sale of works owned by the former royal house of Hanover. This, he says, was the most complete dispersal of an ancestral armoury in memory. The armours were made for a princely family and, as a result, were fiercely fought over. A composite Maximilian armour of the 1520s fetched 175,000 [euro] against an estimate of 45,000 [euro]-60,000 [euro] (Fig. 2). All the armours far exceeded top estimate.


Nick McCullough, formerly at Christie's, is moving to Hermann-Historica, the Munich-based auction house. To demonstrate that armour can qualify as fine art he points to a 15th-century pavise with a wonderful painting of the arms of the city of Schongau: an eagle 'displayed' (Fig. 3). Originally sold by Christie's from the Rothschild collection in 1999 for 40,875 [pounds sterling] it was sold by Hermann-Historica in 2003 for 40,000 [euro]. This is armour as medieval art: an object that would look as much at home in an art gallery as an armoury.


One area where a buyer can be clever is finding a missing part of a fine armour in the hope that the owner of the rest will pay a hefty premium to add the missing piece to the costly jigsaw. However, such a buyer can be left seriously out of pocket if that person or institution decides not to buy, as individual elements of armour, especially those more difficult to display, rarely fetch the massive prices that complete armours command. A rough list of declining value goes: helmets, breastplates, gauntlets, back plates, arms and legs/feet--although codpieces seem to fetch something of a premium.

David Williams at Bonhams emphasises that those who try to invest in armour--as against buying the very best because they love it--risk playing with fire. Armour, he believes, is a pure collectors' market. People buy it because they are passionate about owning it, which is why armour has continued to flourish despite the downturn in the general art market, True collectors know that the best pieces come along all too rarely and, when they do, they will try their hardest to acquire them.

It is a similar story with eastern armour. There was even less eastern plate armour to begin with--eastern soldiers used far more mail (it is incorrect to call it 'chain mail') than plates in their armours--and even less has found its way to Europe: it was easier and more profitable to slip a bejewelled, gold-hiked sword into a kitbag than a bulky mail and plate shirt. The market, says Robert Hales, a dealer in Oriental and Islamic arms and armour, remains ferociously strong, especially for the finest decorated pieces. He cites a Turkish 'turban' helmet that he sold about 10 years ago for more than 100,000 [pounds sterling]. Made in the 15th century, its true value lies in the silver work. A similar helmet, but in worn condition, would be worth about 15,000 [pounds sterling]. That same helmet he would now expect to sell for 250,000 [pounds sterling]-300,000 [pounds sterling].

Roger Field is a solicitor, journalist, literary agent and collector of arms and armour.
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Title Annotation:COLLECTORS' FOCUS
Author:Field, Roger
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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