I have been selling ship models for 40 years. I have appreciated them all that time, but never in my dreams did I imagine I would ever own one of the best examples – an Admiralty model from the 18th century. Often they can fetch six-figure sums! However, one recently came my way that was reasonably priced, and I now own something I never thought I would. I am pretty useless at anything handy, so I marvel at such high quality craftsmanship on such a small scale. It’s a great art that is massively under appreciated.
These models were made to comply with the Navy Board’s order (issued in 1716) that all drafts for new vessels must be accompanied by a scale model. So, when a shipbuilder was pitching to build a ship for the Navy, they would make an exact replica to show the decoration and give a 3D impression of the ship. The detail on them can be breathtaking. My model is a fairly typical two-and-a-half feet long but the detail… each window is handcarved and each pane is a slice of transparent mica! They used quality materials – predominantly box and fruitwood, but the details are gilt brass and exquisitely painted and decorated panels. They were made to impress – if the buyer was going to pay the equivalent (in today’s money) of many millions of pounds for the full ship, the shipbuilder wouldn’t skimp on the prototype.
The art of ship model building flourished in the 19th century, by which time every shipyard would have had its own model-making workshop – though there may be records in local museums of who the model makers were. They are typically anonymous, but it was a highly skilled role. It was very much a father-to-son sort of tradition, because the skills needed were very exacting.
New collectors should veer away from anything kit-built – you are looking for scratch-built, handmade models. And be aware of modern models of 19th and early 20th-century vessels from the Far East. They can be fantastic quality and you see them for under £1,000, but the resale value is immediately diminished, while a good period version would be £5,000 and will hold its value. Remember that if a model looks too good to be true, it most likely is too good to be true.
There are specialist auction houses you can visit – Charles Miller, for instance, holds two dedicated fine marine antiques sales each year. If you look through his catalogues or go along to his sales then you’ll get a feel for what you like – racing yachts, steam ships or sailing ships? One’s own personal attraction is crucial, because, well, every time I go into the room that my Admiralty model sits in, I cannot help but stop and look at it, and the more I look at it, the more I see, and the more I see, the more I appreciate it. It’s a piece that gives me joy – isn’t that what collecting’s all about?
FIVE FACTS ABOUT JON
- Jon became MD of Bonhams auction house in 2010, but when he started in the business back in 1973, he joined Sotheby’s Belgravia with the lowly job title of ‘silver cleaner and tea boy’.
- With Antiques Roadshow colleague Hilary Kay, Jon instigated the first-ever entertainment sale in the Eighties. Paul McCartney’s piano was the star lot.
- Jon has been a miscellaneous expert on the Roadshow for 24 years.
- Jon’s favourite piece on the Roadshow was JFK’s flying jacket – the US president had, so the story goes, left it behind after a fling with a model. Jon valued it at £200,000–£300,000.
- A keen scuba diver, Jon initially began diving to value items on shipwrecks. On one such dive, the salvagers found a unique silver-plated astrolabe, which is now housed in the Mariners’ Museum, Virginia.
Interview: Mel Sherwood
Portrait: Grant Scott