Rariatrics… world’s most fabulous hobby (Aug, 1951)
Rariatrics… world’s most fabulous hobby
Here’s a pastime so unusual that only one person in the whole universe can practice it. And nobody has managed to do so yet.
By Lester David
IF you’ve got about $15 million to spare, here’s your chance to become the world’s first and only rariatrician!
What is a rariatrician? Well, don’t rush to your dictionary because you won’t find it there. In fact, we just invented the word. But, if there were such a creature as a rariatrician, he’d be the world’s Number One Hobbyist. He’d gather under one roof the rarest and most highly prized single items in every possible field of collecting. His collection would be the most magnificent array of Number Ones ever conceived by the imagination, culled from private treasures, museums, libraries and national galleries throughout the world.
What exactly would this hobbyists’ hobbyist collect? Which item in each field would he have to own? Here they are—the topmost splendors prized by mankind, the most desirable treasures this world possesses.
First, though, it must be understood that there’s bound to be some difference of opinion. Is the rarest item really the most expensive one? We won’t attempt to solve that problem. For our purposes, the rarest items will be simply the ones most highly prized. Hanging in the National Gallery in Washington is the Alba Madonna of Raphael, which 20 years ago commanded a price of $1,180,000, the highest ever paid for a painting in modern times. The masterpiece was purchased from the Knoedler Galleries for that whopping sum by Andrew W. Mellon, former U. S. Secretary of the Treasury. Judging by a price set in a specific sale, that makes it the world’s most expensive painting.
Art experts caution, however, that there are a number of superb works of art upon which no price has ever been set. These include The Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci on the wall of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, the Wilton diptych in the British National Gallery and the Michaelangelos in the Vatican. But the Raphael wins the title of world’s rarest because it brought the highest price of modern years in a definite transaction.
The rarest stamp in the world? It’s the British Guiana 1856 one-cent black-on-magenta, the only one of its kind in existence. It is currently valued at $50,000, although its present owner, whose name has never been revealed publicly, declares he wouldn’t part with it for double that figure.
This tiny piece of colored paper has had a fantastic history. It first came to light when a British Guiana high-school boy plucked it from his small album and took it hopefully to a dealer. He was thrilled when he was offered all of six shillings for his stamp. That was back in 1873. Since then, the stamp has traveled all over the world, in and out of millionaires’ homes and government archives.
It was the central figure of one of the most famous auction sales of all time. The little magenta was willed to the Berlin Postal Museum before the first World War and at its close was seized by the French government as reparations and put up for sale. And what a sale! King George V of England and a roomful of millionaires bid spiritedly against each other, with the King’s agent calling it quits at around $30,000. Higher and higher spiraled the bids and soon only Arthur Hinds, a Utica, N.Y., collector, and a tobacco merchant named Burros were left. Hinds, perspiring freely, finally got the coveted treasure for $37,000. Subsequently, it was sold by Hinds’ widow for $45,000 through stamp dealer Finbar Kenny to its present anonymous owner.
Hopeful collectors, by the way, are still scouring attics and old letters in British Guiana for another one of its kind, but so far none has turned up.
And now the rarest book in the world. It is not, contrary to popular opinion, either the Gutenberg Bible or the First Folio Shakespeare, although these command fancy prices too. The rarest prize for book collectors is the Psalmorum Codex or Psalter, a Latin psalm book printed in 1457 by the firm of Fust and Schoiffler. Its price? A half-million dollars for a copy in perfect condition. There are only two such copies in the entire world—one in the John Rylands library in Manchester, England; the other in the Hofbibliothek, the Vienna national library. There are others in various stages of imperfection, their values ranging up to a mere $350,000.
It’s a short jump from the rarest book to the rarest manuscript, the Book of Kells. It’s a fantastically beautiful illuminated manuscript on vellum, containing the four Gospels in Latin and now in the possession of Trinity College, Dublin. It is 687 pages of gorgeous ornamentation and rich tapestries of color and line, all done by hand sometime between the sixth and ninth centuries. Incidentally, a complete reproduction has just been published which sells for $450. The original is valued at $1,000,000.
Musical instruments?. The rarest and most expensive violins in the world are, of course, the magnificent instruments turned out by Antonio Stradavari many centuries ago in Italy. But there is one Strad more highly prized than all the others, an absolutely perfect instrument called the Messiah, now in the Ashmolian Museum at Oxford, England. This rarest of rare violins, over 300 years old, has never been played! It is the only Strad left in the world which has been perfectly preserved in its original state.
The story is that the Messiah was inherited by Stradavari’s son, who never touched it. Upon his death, it was sold to an Italian collector who never allowed anyone to draw a bow across the strings. From there, it went to another Italian collector, then to a Frenchman, and so on down the years, with each owner taking his cue from his predecessor, never allowing the instrument to be used. Thus it has been preserved in all its master-craftsman’s perfection to this day.
Rembert Wurlitzer, one of the world’s outstanding authorities on violins and violin making, estimates that the Messiah is worth between $150,000 and $200,000. Other Strads, Mr.
Wurlitzer says, are priced between $6,000 and $100,000, depending on their condition, their merits and their histories.
Incidentally, Stradivari is believed to have made about 1,500 violins, cellos and violas. Yet there are only 462 accounted for. Where are the rest? Don’t throw away your dusty old violin until you make sure it’s really a candidate for the ash heap.
Scouting around for the world’s rarest piano would be a tough job for a rariatrician. Music experts say that there are a number of bejewelled ones, probably inlaid with white elephants’ tusks, somewhere in the fabled Orient. But a high contender would be either or both of the pianos especially designed and constructed for the White House by Steinway & Sons. John Steinway explains that in 1902 a piano with gold leaf on its case was fashioned for the White House and some of the world’s greatest artists played upon it before it was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1938, it was replaced by another specially designed, gold-leafed piano. Mr. Steinway says he can’t estimate the value of the two instruments. “They are unique,” he declares, “the only things of their kind.”
From gems of musical instruments to gems themselves. The world’s rarest pearl is the Pearl of Asia, brought up from the bottom of the Persian Gulf in 1628. It’s a stunning, pear-shaped jewel, weighing 605 carats and measuring three inches long. At last report, the asking price for the pearl, owned by the Catholic Board of Foreign Missions in France, was $70,000.
The world’s largest sapphire-blue diamond is the unique and ill-fated 44%-carat Hope diamond with its awesome tradition of ill luck for the owner. The gem first came to the attention of the world when a swashbuckling adventurer named Jean Baptiste Tavernier brought it to France from India, where it was supposed to have been filched from the eye of an idol in a temple. The diamond bedazzled the orbs of King Louis XIV, who shelled out a fortune for it. But the adventurer spent all the money in a hurry and died in poverty— the jinx of the Hope.
The stone was handed down the line of monarchs and eventually rested on the alabaster neck of Marie Antoinette. That neck was soon separated from the rest of the body-— the jinx of the Hope.
After the French Revolution, the diamond disappeared for 38 years, then reappeared in London and was bought by Henry Thomas Hope, an English banker. It was later worn by May Yohe, an American actress, who married a descendant of the banker, Lord Francis Hope. Lord Hope lost his fortune and May had to sell the diamond—the jinx of the Hope.
The late Evelyn Walsh McLean, who owned the gem until her death in 1947, lost a son in an auto accident and a daughter by suicide— the jinx of the Hope.
And now it is the property of Harry Winston, a New York diamond merchant whose collection is said to rank second only to the British crown. Winston paid a reputed $1,500,000 for the Hope and the 100-carat Star of the East. He puts a $1,000,000 price tag on the bauble and so far—no more jinxes.
Hunting for the world’s most highly prized autograph would stump even’ a rariatrician. But John Fleming of the Rosenbach Company, largest dealer in rare books and manuscripts in the world, has some suggestions. A California woman, Mr. Fleming says, now owns a state paper signed by Button Gwinnett of Georgia, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It is the only signature of Gwinnett outside of the Declaration and at its last sale netted $51,000. The only known letter of Thomas Lynch, Jr., also a Declaration signer, is worth $75,000. And there are a number of letters signed by Christopher Columbus, now in Spain, which are valued between $100,000 and $200,000.
The Agregentum of Athens, according to Joseph B. Stack, outstanding coin expert, is the world’s rarest coin. It is the earliest silver dollar of ancient times. There are only six known copies and two are questionable. Dealers estimate the value as over $50,000.
Which antique auto would go into the collection? Neither James Melton, the warbling old-car gatherer, nor Barney J. Pollard of Detroit, reputedly owner of the largest and most valuable collection of old automobiles, has it. It’s the Duryea, now in the Smithsonian Institution. Frederick H. Elliott, founder and secretary of the Automobile Old Timers, an organization of automotive industry pioneers, labels it as the most highly prized. It was built in Springfield, Mass., in 1893 by Charles E. and J. Frank Duryea, who put out a total of about 15 that year. The one in Washington is the earliest Duryea in existence and probably the first one built. What’s it worth? Well, estimates range all the way from $10,000 to $1,000,000.
How about furniture? Neither antique collectors nor museum officials can agree on this. However, Rlene Howell, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing, casts a tentative ballot in the U. S. antique furniture field for the Pompadour Highboy, built by William Savery about 1780. It’s seven feet high and four feet wide, with a bust of Mme. Pompadour and two urns on its topside and elaborate carvings lower down. It’s price?
The museum never reveals that nor makes any estimates but $100,000 wouldn’t be too far off.
And now guns. This, too, is a tough one. Executives at Abercrombie & Fitch, famed sporting-goods establishment in New York, emphasize that special rifles and revolvers made for particular persons have great value as collectors’ items and there’s no choosing among them. However, Robert Abels, a noted dealer and collector of guns, does go out on a limb, with a couple of choices as the top ones. He picks the Walker Colt as the most highly prized revolver. It was designed by Capt. Samuel Walker during the Mexican War and is a magnificent six-shooter weighing about four pounds. It’s price is about $2,500. Top rifle, says Mr. Abels, is the One-Of-A-Thousand Winchester 73, of which 135 were made. One rifle was selected as the best out of every thousand produced and was so stamped. They’re each worth about $3,000 now.
About sculpture, too, there is an enormous conflict of opinion. But a number of authorities agree that the greatest series of sculptures preserved to the present day is the frieze of figures which originally adorned the Parthenon in Athens. These figures were carved under the direction of Phidias, the great sculptor of ancient Greece. The bulk of the figures are now in the British Museum, some are in Athens and individual pieces have found . their way to various other countries. Value: fabulous! That’s all the experts will say.
Long regarded by scholars as the earliest Christian relic in existence is the historic Chalice of Antioch, a silver cup whose carvings depict scenes from the life of Christ. This celebrated cup was found in 1910 by a group of Arabs digging a well near Antioch and was recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It consists of a simple, underrated silver cup set into an openwork cup decorated with 12 male figures, grapevines, birds and animals. Two of the figures are identified as those of Christ, while the others represent the Apostles. The period of the chalice has been variously estimated from the first to the sixth centuries, but museum authorities lean to beetween the third and sixth centuries. Some however, believe the price- less chalice to have been the one used by Christ at the Last Supper. In any event, it would be a rare prize for a rariatrician.
In the phonograph collection field, there’s not much room for debate—the first “Mary had a little Lamb” recording made by Thomas A. Edison is undoubtedly the rarest. But, unfortunately, it was made on a piece of tinfoil wound around a brass cylinder and no attempt seems to have been made to preserve it. Find it and you’ll be able to add a fabulous item to your rariatrics collection. However the original phonograph on which the recording was made is now in the museum of the Thomas A. Edison Foundation in West Orange, N. J. Curator N. R. Speiden says it is absolutely priceless and the museum wouldn’t sell it for any price, even as high as a million dollars.
There you have them, some of the rarest items in the world. Of course, it’s only a start —there are undoubtedly many other rare items which should go into the collection.
One more thing—you’d probably have to add yourself to the list—for as a rariatrician, you’d be the rarest hobbyist in the world and thus a choice item for your own collection.
Assuming that all of these things were for sale, you’d have to spend at least $15 million to swing the deal. And then where would you keep them? You’d need a replica of Fort Knox to guard your collection because you’d have a palace of wonders the like of which the world has never seen. You’d be the world’s first rariatrician, the Emperor of Hobbyists, owning the sublimest treasures of any age. •