Wack Market

Would you pay a fortune for Lawrence of Arabia's compass? Then don't plan on raising a paddle at Christie's fabled auction of exploration collectibles, where old is gold and adventure carries a heavy price.

    Photo: Illustration by Barry Blitt

Christies Auction

SHEATHED IN SMOOTH, tobacco-colored leather, the instrument that once pinned vast chunks of the Arab Middle East to colonial Britain's map was cradled in my right hand. It was densely heavy—cool to the touch—and its burnished brass and thick glass crown glinted in the afternoon light.

Called a Verners–Pattern VII, it was a field compass made in Switzerland in 1915, identical to thousands used by British officers during World War I. But this one was unique, because the name embossed into its leather case—T.E. LAWRENCE—meant that it had once been owned by Lawrence of Arabia.

Standing at the back of Christie's auction house, in London (and watched over by clerks and security cameras), I imagined the compass's luminous needle directing Lawrence across the northern desert of Arabia in July of 1917. That's when, working as a British intelligence officer, he'd led a scruffy band of Arab rebels through the unmapped sands, sneak-attacking the Ottoman Turk stronghold of Aqaba from behind. The ensuing rout helped drive the Ottomans into collapse, birthing the modern Middle East.

"Lawrence's compass," I said. "That's so... It's... Wow."

Sure, it was only a hunk of magnetized alloy, but to me it gave off a tangible buzz. I refastened the leather flap and placed the compass back in its velvet-lined wooden box, nestled between Lawrence's pocket watch and his silver cigarette case.

I was being watched for a good reason: All three relics had just been gaveled off by Christie's—one of the world's leading art-and-antiques auction houses—to an anonymous bidder, who paid £254,000 (about $480,000) for the set. And the bidding wasn't over. Up a grand flight of stairs from where I stood—in a stately, cream-painted hall on the second floor of the Christie's building in London's exclusive St. James district—the morning session of the annual Exploration and Travel Sale was still going strong. Other personal items of Lawrence's were on the block, and I could hear the sale's low, elliptical murmur in the background, punctuated occasionally by the crack of the auctioneer's hammer. For me, though, the compass was the morning's high point, and I held it a minute longer, relishing its complicity in Lawrence's audacious, humanly flawed, and world-altering contribution to history.

Then I handed everything over to a clerk, who whisked it off to a packing area. It was quite a feeling. But, looking back, I have to wonder if I put more vibrational energy into the compass than it put into me. Three weeks after the auction—in a claim that's a first for such a sale at Christie's—it would be challenged as a possible fake.

FOR A DECADE NOW, the market for what some call "explorabilia"—antique objects used by adventure legends like Lawrence, Robert F. Scott, Captain James Cook, and David Livingstone—has been chugging quietly along, driven by a worldwide network of fervid collectors who probably number no more than 50 and prefer to remain anonymous, mainly because of the monetary values involved.

The goodies get sold in various ways, often through a sprawling private network of explorers' families, and friends working on the families' behalf. Some sales are handled by antiquarian bookstores and on eBay, but the Christie's auction is far and away the subculture's biggest show, accompanied by a fat, lavishly produced catalog and a treasure trove of historically significant objects. Starting small in 1996, the auction has become a tribal event for the planet's explorabilia buffs, with nearly $3.7 million changing hands during last September's one-day sale alone.

Outside sent me to London to check out the 2006 offering, authorizing me to spend up to $1,500 to snag a cool souvenir for the home office. I wasn't optimistic I could afford anything. Compared with other Christie's sales, the explorabilia totals aren't that huge, but the prices for individual items can be amazing. "Christie's art auctions make lots more money than we do," says Nick Lambourn, 50, one of the sale's two founders. "But few auctions anywhere get collector interest the way ours does. Who wouldn't want Henry Morton Stanley's map of the Congo, with the map's blank portions sketched in by Stanley's own pencil during the 999-day trans-African expedition? For a certain kind of collector, these objects are sacred. That's really fun."

Not to mention lucrative: In 2002, Stanley's map sold for roughly $121,000.

Lambourn and his fellow cofounder, 49-year-old books-and-maps specialist Tom Lamb, employ a unique combination of luck and carefully cultivated relationships to land their swag. Together, the small, dark-featured Lambourn and the tall, auburn-haired Lamb manage, every year, to gin up an absolutely transfixing mix of museum-worthy and oddball curiosities to drop into the sale's larger pot of books, maps, photos, and paintings.

Examples? How about Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton's ragged ration bag, a cotton sack that carried his Christmas pudding during his 1901–04 Discovery expedition and which sold for $6,497 in 1997? Or the hollow-coconut drinking cup Captain William Bligh used after he'd been bounced from the HMS Bounty in 1789? (2002 sale, $142,000.) Other lots have included Captain Cook's antimony cup, a squat drinking vessel made of antimony alloy. From this, the great South Seas explorer consumed red wine that, having reacted with the metal, created a potion "with purgative qualities." This handy laxative system fetched $392,392 in 2005.

One of Christie's most famous auctions, held in 1999, involved the sale of relics recovered at the death site of Robert F. Scott, who perished in 1912, along with all five of his men, after a failed attempt to beat Norway's Roald Amundsen to the South Pole. Lamb and Lambourn acquired them from Lady Phillipa Scott, Scott's daughter-in-law, then in her seventies and living at Slimbridge, the family estate in Gloucestershire, England.

"A few years ago, we visited Lady Scott," Lamb recalls, "and she pulled out this leather trunk from beneath a bed, and it was filled with Scott's possessions."

Inside were the explorer's personal effects, recovered when his frozen remains were found by a late-arriving British rescue team—among them, a brass pocket watch, snow goggles, a pennant, Scott's diaries, geological specimens, two briar tobacco pipes, and a bag of tea. At auction, the boodle sold for an astounding $514,700.

THE SUMS INVOLVED—like the $11,260 paid for a single dry biscuit from Shackleton's 1914–16 trans-Antarctic expedition—can make you wonder if the world has gone nuts. And there are people who think these prices are not just bizarre, but harmful, since they usually guarantee that the best stuff ends up in private hands rather than inside museums.

"It's a bad idea," says Jeff Blumenfeld, editor and publisher of Expedition News, a monthly newsletter for the adventure industry. "It's like cherry-picking the Titanic. When you have these expeditions and you break them up, you have no context that tells a complete story. To cannibalize these things and spread them to the winds is wrong."

Christie's response is simple: It's a free world, and the owners of these artifacts can sell them wherever they choose. To protect purchasers, Christie's does plenty of advance research on origins. The Lawrence items came from the family of a man named Corporal Albert "Taffy" Evans, who supposedly was Lawrence's unofficial chauffeur at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The compass, watch, and cigarette case—sold by the family to a private collector in 2003—were said to be a gift to Evans from Lawrence, who had the cigarette case inscribed with this message: "I leave to my dear friend Taffy my compass which saw me safely across a wilderness so that he may occasionally know where he is going!"

Casting doubt on all this is British writer Jeremy Wilson, author of Lawrence of Arabia, a widely respected biography published in 1989. Wilson says he saw the sale catalog online in early September, posted a "caveat emptor" message about the items at an online forum for Lawrence scholars, and sent a similar warning to Christie's. Wilson noted that he had never heard of Evans, that Lawrence didn't smoke, and that Lawrence didn't start styling himself as "T.E."—the name embossed on the leather compass case—until 1923.

Lambourn notes that Wilson did not raise these concerns when the objects were displayed at the Imperial War Museum in 2005, but he hastens to add that Christie's is taking the possibility of fakery quite seriously and will cancel the transaction if the items don't check out. "The current concerns are enough to merit further research before we can conclude the sale," Lambourn explained in an e-mail in November. "We are therefore trying to find out more about Evans, and have a lead with another collector who has another Lawrence relic with Evans provenance, with, apparently, more corroborative information on Evans and his role as Lawrence's driver in Paris.

"If we are able to find evidence of Evans' role... Wilson has agreed to review his currently skeptical view of the lot," Lambourn continued. "So, in summary, watch this space."

THE OBJECT I COVETED at the 2006 sale was Lot 204, a humble pair of sunglasses worn by Roald Amundsen during his victorious 1911–12 race with Scott to become the first man to reach the South Pole.

Made from a silvery alloy, the shades had round, yellow-green lenses and came inside a black spectacle case embossed with ROALDAMUNDSEN in tiny gilt letters. The catalog estimated the sunglasses would fetch between $1,600 and $2,300—expensive, but feasible.

So, on the afternoon of September 27, I found myself sitting toward the back of Christie's auction hall, clutching a "registered-bidder paddle" in my right hand. I was bidder 342.

The session began with the auctioneer,

Jonathan Horwich, hustling briskly through his 106 lots. With each new item, Horwich would open somewhere near the catalog's low estimate, then streak up or down depending on interest. Sometimes the bids would rise toward half a million dollars. But other times, buyers seemed bored, and Horwich would dispatch the lot with a dismissive statement: "Pass. Next item."

A medium-size man dressed in the standard-issue British blazer and gray flannel trousers, Horwich managed to keep focused on several things at once: the 100-person auction audience, a laptop computer showing digital bids, and a line of a dozen blue-blazered "auction specialists" to his right, whose ears were glued to telephones placed on a tall counter.

Seated around me, bidding on books, maps, and paintings, was a mix of ruddy-looking, largely middle-aged, mostly European humanity. There were a few sleekly dressed suede ladies, their graying hair pulled back in tight buns. There was a scattering of hedgehoglike men, dressed in tweeds and dutifully writing down the going price of every object in the margins of their catalogs. These guys, I assumed, were explorabilia dealers, but I couldn't be sure: To a person, none would speak to me for attribution.

There were even a few well-heeled and rugged-looking explorer types, both male and female. One of them, a tall, balding, thoroughbred-thin man who'd been carrying a banjo case when he came through Christie's double doors, purchased James Clark Ross's chronometer, used in the mid-1800s during an early Antarctic voyage on the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. I watched as he paid £36,000 (about $68,000) for the chronograph without so much as a shrug.

Who was he? I have no idea. He refused to talk to me, too. I think the problem was an insignia I wore that set me apart from the other bidders: a press badge.

"MOST OF US SERIOUS collectors are normal, like everyone else," David Gainsborough Roberts was saying.

Not an electrifying observation, but I felt lucky to hear it, since gaining audience with an explorabilia collector had been so surprisingly hard. Through the dogged work of Helena Ingham, Christie's junior specialist for exploration and travel sales, my weeks of badgering for interviews finally bore results, and a few days after the auction I was patched through by phone to Roberts's home on the Isle of Jersey, one of the English Channel Islands, off the coast of France. "We're a tiny little island out here," he said. "But we have, let's say, more autonomy than the rest of Britain, especially with tax situations."

Roberts is a favorite of the Christie's staff, and he keeps several world-class collections going at once. A career private investor whose parents moved from England to Jersey in 1964, he's recognized as one of the planet's most ardent upscale pack rats. He's often brought in to assess new acquisitions for museums and private citizens.

"I have a lot of T.E. Lawrence's relics, his robes from the desert revolt, things like that," he said. "I've also got probably the world's best collection of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. The only thing I truly lack is her dress from The Seven Year Itch. Debbie Reynolds owns that, and she's a very nice lady. Still, I've got the one from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and I'm a very patient man." Also in his larder: the clothes Bonnie and Clyde had on when they got gunned down by the law.

"Why do I do it? Why do I collect these things?" he asked rhetorically. "Well, I've always had a fascination with history. And these things, they link me to history—to real people, not some name on the page in a book. They were human beings, with frailties and personal pains and tragedies."

Roberts caught the fever early, as a child in England. "I grew up in a big old house with lots of attics," he said. "I remember my grandmother once coming to me with this six-by-four-inch piece of wood, and she said, 'This came from Lord Nelson's boat, the Victory.' And I recall thinking, Maybe Nelson trod on that. From then on, I was lost to collecting."

Roberts declines to name fellow collectors, saying only that most are intelligent, rich, and male. "But that doesn't exclude women," he adds, "or the gentleman in the row house who's saved for years in hopes a perfect object from some favorite old expedition might make its way to him."

In the end, Roberts says, "People who collect are searching for authenticity in a less and less authentic-seeming world. They want truth. Sometimes, alone in the house, I'll just go up to one of the bedrooms and pick up something from the collections. As I lift that thing, it still has that buzz of authenticity. It's electric. I can always feel it. It's funny, each time I buy something new, my friends all say, 'You could have had a week in Greece for the cost of that!' And I always respond, 'But I don't want a week in Greece. I want the buzz.'"

AS IT HAPPENED, I failed to catch a buzz when Lot 204 came up around midafternoon.

"OK," Horwich announced. "We now have Roald Engelbregt Amundsen's yellow-green-tinted sunglasses... . What am I offered?"

The bidding started at £700 (around $1,300). I caught Horwich's eye with a nod.

"OK, 700. Do I hear 800 pounds?" A specialist from the telephone counter nodded.

"Nine hundred pounds?" I bid again... . But, yikes, I was already up to $1,700.

That didn't even put me close: As I watched with a kind of calm awe, the bids mounted to a final price of $18,109. Crack!

A week after the sale, I found myself sitting in a London coffee shop with Nick Lambourn, who was just back from a well-deserved long weekend. Lambourn had a thick ream of photocopied newspaper stories in front of him—this was before the Lawrence controversy started—and he was slowly paging through them while sipping from an Olympic-size mug of cappuccino. "We're already gearing up for next year's sale," he said. "With all this good publicity, we're anticipating an even larger amount of items."

Lambourn and Lamb both see plenty of potential for growth, ascribing the sale's popularity to nostalgia for a time before jumbo jets and e-mail shrank the earth, back when exploration meant curiosity and patriotic duty more than ego. They take delight in the sales, and they're always looking for ways to branch out into new, untapped explorabilia realms.

"We've been talking about a possible Visions of India add-on to the sale next year," Lambourn said. "You know, Raj-era. Another possibility is a High Altitude and Mountaineering addition."

Lambourn paused, his dark eyes ablaze with the idea. "Think of it," he said. "Sir Edmund Hillary's Everest equipment is still largely together, though it's not so available. He's loaned or given key bits to New Zealand museums. As for the rest, I guess the Kiwis won't grant export." He paused again, his mind clearly playing with the idea. "Edmund Hillary's collection? Or Mallory's? Tenzing's?" Now he had a huge smile on his face. "What a sale that could be. Think of it. Imagine."

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