What’s heritage worth?
While historic masonic items may not have huge monetary value, Director of Special Projects John Hamill explains why they are still national treasures
A few years ago the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, with incredible assistance from a dedicated team of brethren in the Provinces, conducted one of the largest national archive surveys that has ever taken place in this country. The result was a formidable database of all the lodge and chapter records in masonic hands in this country. It will be a veritable gold mine for future researchers into English and Welsh masonic history and is also proving to be a major source for local historians.
The survey was limited to ‘words on paper’ and, partly because of time constraints, did not include regalia, furniture, masonic equipment or artefacts. That leads me to one of my hobby horses: that masonic historians in the past have primarily depended on only the written records that are available and have largely ignored what can be learnt from non-documentary items.
During the twenty-eight years I was involved in the Library and Museum, I was privileged on many occasions to be invited to speak in the Provinces.
I soon developed a habit of arriving early, if visiting a masonic hall I had not previously attended, in order to have a look at what they might have hanging on their walls or in, often dusty, display cases. I soon began to appreciate the wealth of material that still survived and began to keep notes of anything unusual or rare. I also began to realise that very few of those running the halls were aware of the treasures in their custody, or that some of them had a monetary value.
Happily, that neglect and ignorance has been changing since the late 1990s with the creation of the Masonic Libraries and Museum Group, which is formed of dedicated volunteers with a love of masonic history. The group has gradually persuaded their respective Provinces that they have collections of importance, which should be properly catalogued and looked after because they form an important part of our heritage – and in many cases, include items that are irreplaceable.
History for sale
A recent auction sale in south London illustrates the value certain masonic objects can have. The first part of the sale was probably the last major collection of masonic jewels and artefacts in private hands in this country. Formed by Albert Edward Collins Nice between the 1930s and his death in 1969, it was rich in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century jewels, which, in addition to having masonic importance, were superb examples of the jeweller and silversmith arts. Competition was fierce and some surprising prices were paid for the star items.
The Antiques Roadshow and its many spin-offs have given the public a false sense that because something is old it must be worth money. Monetary value, however, is not everything. Particularly in a specialist area, an item can have very little monetary value to the outside world but be of major importance to the history of the organisation concerned. In my early days in the museum, people would wander in with an item and ask what it was and if we would be interested in having it. Today, thanks to antique-valuing programmes on television, they ask what it is and what it is worth!
We live in an age in which the importance of our heritage in all parts of our lives is being increasingly recognised. We took the major step of finding out, and taking steps to preserve, our archival heritage in Freemasonry. Perhaps now is the time to take the same steps in relation to the treasures, in the widest sense of that word, that rest in our buildings.
‘An item can have very little monetary value to the outside world but be of major importance to the history of the organisation concerned.’
In an unprecedented auction result, almost every one of the 560 lots belonging to the late Albert Nice offered for sale was sold
Collectors of masonic memorabilia from all over the UK and continental Europe converged on South London to battle it out for the extraordinary collection encompassing jewels, medals, ceramics, glass, books and ephemera. The saleroom was full and there were more than 200 people bidding online and on the telephone, many from Russia and the United States.
The owner of the collection, the late Mr Albert Edward Collins Nice, died in 1969 and the lots were kept locked away for almost 50 years meaning they were fresh to the market.
The vendor was completely taken aback when Roseberys valued the collection at £100,000. He was delighted when the total ended up being more than double that figure. He was also pleased that the collection has gone to others who will love and appreciate the items as much as his father did.
Roseberys’ Peter Greenway said, 'We knew this was a very significant collection and this was borne out by conversations with masonic collectors who rated it the best to come onto the market in living memory. Twitter has been buzzing with positive comments about the lots on offer and it is thought the auction catalogue will become a collectors’ item in its own right.'
Masonic jewels proved to be the most popular lots with a 100% sold rate. The most expensive (Lot 88, pictured above) sold for a hammer price of £3,000. It was of an unusually large size and set with multi-colour paste, making is one of the most attractive in the auction. It also had Scottish interest due to the inscription which made it as rare as it was aesthetically pleasing.
The auction also included not one but 35 jewels by the pre-eminent 18th century designer and maker, Thomas Harper. Roseberys had been concerned about flooding the market but demand was such that they all made more than twice their high estimate and some very much more.
The Thomas Harper jewel which made the most money was Lot 75 which sold for a hammer price of £1,500.
The book section of the auction was also highly competitive with several museums from around the world bidding. The highest hammer price was £5,500 for Lot 496, a Scottish Rite Album, with exquisite water-colour drawings of the regalia of the 33 degrees of the Scottish Rite.
Other masonic items in the auction included ceramics, glass, snuff boxes and regalia. One of the most popular was a large cowrie shell and silver masonic snuff box, the base of which was engraved with freemasonry symbols. It achieved a hammer price of £1,150.
A limited number of catalogues for this auction are still available for sale at £10 each (£12 with postage and packaging). The hammer prices for every lot can be viewed on Roseberys’ website at www.roseberys.co.uk
Unsurpassed collection of Freemasonry memorabilia to go under the hammer in London
Update: 6th March
The catalogue is now online for viewing! Click here to find out more.
Roseberys' quarterly fine art auction in March will feature an extraordinary single-owner collection. It belonged to the late Albert Nice and is widely regarded as the pre-eminent private collection of masonic items in the world. This will go under the hammer on Tuesday 18 March.
Albert Nice (1898-1969) was a chemist and dental surgeon as well as a passionate Freemason and supporter of masonic charities. He joined Globe Lodge Number 23 in 1925, became Grand Steward in 1935, rising to the position of Past Grand Deacon in 1964.
He was a member of other lodges including Quatuour Coronati Lodge No. 2076, dedicated to masonic research. This seems fitting as he was a devoted collector of masonic items from jewels to books, engravings to ceramics and glass.
His research interests extended to documenting the history of earlier lodges and his notes on this comprise a tome of several hundred pages which is included in the auction with an estimate of £100-£200.
He was an active member for a number of the higher orders in masonry including the Knights Templar Priests, The Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters and The Order of the Secret Monitor.
Mr Nice’s collection includes a first edition of The Constitutions of the Free-Masons by James Anderson, published in 1723 and with contemporary full calf binding. With an engraved frontispiece, this was the first official publication of freemasonry, laying out all the rules and regulations. Estimate: £500-£800.
It was customary in many lodges to pass around a snuffbox after the toast to the Queen and the Craft. This 19th century mahogany inlaid snuffbox, decorated with masonic symbols is one of more than 100 in the auction with estimates up to £3,000. This one is estimated at £150-£250.
The auction will also feature the largest collection of 18th and 19th century masonic jewels ever to come onto the market including the examples pictured above.
A fine range of masonic ceramics will also go under the hammer on 18 March. For example the above 18th century pearlware masonic jug, c. 1792, decorated with masonic symbols and inscribed 'A heart that conceals and the tongue that never reveals', Royal Grove Lodge No. 240, presented by Brother Nathaniel Jenkinson, 1792. Estimate: £200-£300.
Amongst the wide variety of memorabilia in the auction is this early 19th century album of original watercolours of French masonic memorabilia of the 33 degrees of Scottish Rite of Free Masonry. A sample page, pictured above, shows the regalia is a lot more elaborate than English examples of the period. Estimate: £400-£600.
Roseberys is welcoming additional consignments of Freemasonry memorabilia for this auction until 21 February.
The auction will take place on Tuesday 18 March at Roseberys, 74-76 Knights Hill, London SE27 0JD.
Viewing is as follows:
Friday 14 March, 1pm-5pm
Sunday 16 March, 9.30am-5.30pm
Monday 17 March, 9.30am-5.30pm
Tuesday 18 March, 9am-9.45am
The catalogue will be online on 7 March.