Odd Lots: Curious Objects Up At Auction

Ye olde cockfighting chair, Evelyn Waugh’s ear trumpet, and a singing bird automaton

Lot 1: In the Cockpit

Who knew that cockfighting spectators, particularly those in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, required a specific type of seating? Indeed the preferred style of chair for best enjoying the heinous blood sport featured a solid back, a ratcheted shelf or tray hanging from that back, short padded arms, and tapered back legs. Men were meant is straddle it, facing the back, with the tray adjusted upward as needed, presumably for dodging claws and beaks.

Courtesy of Bonhams

The mahogany example on offer in London on March 29 rather looks like some gamecocks had their way with it; the leather upholstery is a wee bit tatty, but then it does date from the reign of George III (a.k.a. “Mad King George”). It comes to auction from the estate of Lord Harlech, whose family has inhabited the same manor house in Wales since the 1600s. They need cash now for restoration, and the chair alone should net about $3,000–4,000.

New York’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum owns a more elegant version of this chair and points out that while this piece of furniture became synonymous with rooster carnage, it was originally designed as a reading nook, wherein the tray is positioned at just the right angle to prop up one’s book. Still doesn’t seem very comfortable.

Lot 2: Waugh Did You Say?

Courtesy of Forum Auctions

This spoon-shaped object is actually a telescopic ear trumpet, or hearing aid, owned and used by the famously “prickly” English novelist Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited and Vile Bodies, if nothing else). In his later years, as Waugh became ever grumpier, “he would use the trumpet to great effect in cultivating this persona,” according to Forum Auctions in London.

If it sounds gross to treasure such personal items — remember when J.D. Salinger’s toilet was for sale? — know that Waugh’s eldest son Auberon thought so too. In a letter that accompanies it, he writes to a friend, “I have sent you a disgusting object … you may be able to identify as a telescopic ear trumpet as used by my Father in his later years … it may be of some whimsical interest to an obsessive collector.”

Yes, “obsessive” collectors will buy just about anything, as this column attests. In this case, we’ll hear on March 30 whether one of the afflicted is willing to bid $1,200+ to share earwax with Waugh.

Lot 3: Why the Caged Bird Sings

Call it a jukebox, circa 1900. Insert a ha’penny into this giltwood and brass contraption and the two taxidermied birds mounted within will tilt their heads, shake their tail feathers, and chirrup a birdsong. Attributed to the French clock-making family Bontems, this ornate coin-op automaton heads to auction on March 28 in Newbury, England. It is valued at $950–1,200.

Courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions

Blaise Bontems, the company’s founder, specialized in musical automata and, according to Bloomsbury Auctions, he exhibited his innovative wares at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. A recently restored mechanism of his indicated that the soundscape he produced was far more than simple tweets and chirps.

Rebecca Rego Barry is the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places.