Odd Lots: Curious Objects Up At Auction

Queen Victoria’s crotch-less undies, Einstein’s pipe, and a decorative whale tooth

Lot 1: The Queen’s Unmentionables

Fancy a pair of royal underwear? The time is nigh. On July 11, a plus-sized pair of white cotton bloomers monogrammed on the waistband with the initials “VR” (Victoria Regina) below a crown, will be granted to the highest bidder.

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Known as ‘split-drawers,’ these open-crotch panties literally split down the middle so that nice Victorian ladies didn’t have to remove layers of frilly clothing in order to squat over the chamber pot. As Therese Oneill writes in her hilarious book, Unmentionable, “This is why your dainty bits aren’t covered. Because even though no one in Victorian society will admit to it, a lady has to pee, and ‘closed drawers,’ as they will eventually come to be known … make that practically impossible for a fully dressed lady.”

Just about annually for the past few years, a pair of Vic’s knickers have appeared at auction; in 2015, a record-breaking pair sold for more than $20,000. The estimate for these, with matching chemise, and some spots of discoloration” is $6,500–9,000.

Lot 2: Yes, the Genius Smoked

“I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs,” said the most brilliant man of the twentieth century. It’s true, Albert Einstein loved to smoke and was often pictured with a pipe in his mouth. Even after his doctor insisted that he give it up, he continued to chew on pipes regularly.

Courtesy of Christie’s Images LTD. 2017

Nevertheless, the slightly gnawed briarwood pipe slated for auction in London on July 12 is a rarity. According to Roger Sherman, associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where another of Einstein’s pipes — also chewed — remains an enormously popular exhibit, the physicist “did not value material possessions,” making Einstein artifacts hard to come by, particularly very personal objects like a used pipe. It’ll take about $10,000 to acquire this one.

Courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull

Lot 3: Lady Liberty is Scrimshawed

’Tis the art of sailors & whalers: scrimshaw. These are carvings and engravings done on bone and ivory, or, as in this case, whale teeth. Long hours at sea meant lots of time for arts and crafts. The preferred imagery to reproduce on their medium of choice was patriotic, literary, or political, and often copied from illustrations in whatever newspapers and magazines were lying around.

This mid-nineteenth-century example, valued at $500–800 and headed to auction in Edinburgh on July 5, presents two views: the female figure of Liberty with a star-spangled shield, likely originating from the newspaper Gleason’s Weekly Line-of-Battle Ship, according to the auctioneer; and a fashionista with a riding whip, as pictured in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1858, under the heading ‘Equestrian Costume.’ Hold it up to your ear, you might hear the ocean. Or Lady Liberty bawling.

Courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull

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