Collectopedia: Notaphily

While coin collecting, or numismatics, is the more common specialism of anyone with a penchant for currency, banknotes have their own equally dedicated, if not quite so wide, following.

The first banknotes made their appearance in China as far back as the seventh century. Although Marco Polo returned from his travels with some examples in the thirteenth century, the concept would not be widely adopted in Europe for a further four hundred years.

Just as with stamps, the variety is so great that the budding collector is best advised to find a theme in which they have a natural interest. Perhaps you have a penchant for animals, portraits or the banknotes of a particular country. More specialised still are the notaphiles on the lookout for certain serial numbers or notes featuring signatures.

As might be imagined, factors affecting the value of a note include its overall condition and, above all of course, its rarity. A case in point is the world’s most valuable banknote: the US 1890 Grand Watermelon $1,000 Bill. Only seven are known to exist in the world – and only three of them will ever be held in private hands. It is known as the Grand Watermelon because of the plump zeros on the reverse. Forget face value though. The last time one came up for auction in 2014, it went for a cool $3.3 million.

One Red Flag Not to be Missed

A slice of TV history will be at the Market this Saturday as Michael Burroughs of Anything Militaria flies the red flag above his stall. It is no less than the film prop as seen in the iconic BBC series Peaky Blinders. Bearing the name of the Birmingham Bordesley Communist Party, it was used at a graveside scene towards the beginning of Season 2 Episode 1. An official script from the same episode will also be available and this is a great opportunity to own, or just be photographed with, a fantastic collectors item.

The First Christmas Card

Although the discovery of a Rosicrucian greeting sent to James I in 1611 can technically be regarded as the first Christmas greeting message, Christmas cards in a form we would easily recognise have a more credible origin in 1843. Clearly not someone who liked to leave it to the last minute, Sir Henry Cole commissioned the printing of 2,050 in May of that year. They all sold for a shilling each and a festive tradition (and a new industry!) was born.

In fact, Cole’s new idea was rooted much more firmly in commerce than sentiment – he had played a significant part in the introduction of the Penny Post just three years earlier. The design by John Horsley was a typical Victorian trope: three generations of a family joyfully toasting the health of the recipient. While subsequent years would build on the idyll of large, happy – and often very wealthy – families celebrating together in front of an extravagantly fuelled fire, there were a number of very unusual, even dark, offshoots which would surprise us today.

The Enduring Charm of Antique Advertising

As modern advertisers come up with increasingly creative ways of driving ‘brand awareness’ among a savvy 21st century audience, there is something undeniably quaint about their early forays into the medium. Print ads had long been used to wax lyrical about a product’s virtues but signs you might see in the street were often much more to the point. Often the ad was nothing more than a high contrast rendering of the company name.

These enamelled metal signs were ubiquitous in towns and villages around the country but many were melted down during World War II. They are now highly sought after and often sell for hundreds of pounds because of their ability to add charm and character to homes and businesses. A battered vintage whisky sign on the bare white brick wall of a minimalist loft apartment might be just the thing while a Shell one behind a garage desk suggests that this has been a family business for generations.

The Largest Wreck in the Caribbean

This unfortunate distinction belongs to the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique’s SS Antilles. Built in 1952, the Antilles was painted white to distinguish her from her sister ship, the SS Flandres. Both were built to address the post-war shortage of dedicated cruise ships so their construction was a great source of pride to the CGT – hence the beautifully illustrated commemorative medal seen here. While the Flandres would see wide use under several different owners until 1994, the Antilles had a much shorter life.

On 8 January 1971, she struck a reef near the island of Mustique in the Caribbean while attempting to navigate a shallow and reef-filled bay on the northern side of the island. On hitting the rocks the impact ruptured a fuel tank and she caught fire. All of her passengers and crew evacuated the ship safely to the island of Mustique where they were later rescued by Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II.

The wreck is submerged but is – supposedly – barely visible on Google Earth (although I couldn’t find it!) and the mast is said to protrude above the water during low tide.

In Memory of Alan Haylock (1943-2020) and Pearl McNamara (1949-2020)

Our delight at being able to reopen last week was tempered by the sad news that two of the Market’s best loved characters had passed away over the Christmas period. This photo, taken last September, was passed to us by his son, also called Alan.

Although neither Alan nor his wife, Pearl, were stallholders, they were among the longest standing attendees at the market. Alan in particular was almost always waiting for Bridget to open up at 6:30am every Saturday! There cannot be any Market regulars who weren’t saddened by the news of their passing and we, in common with their sons, Paul and Alan, will miss them greatly. Rest in Peace.

Collectopedia: Old Photographs

While modern digital images are produced, consumed, archived and deleted in uncountable numbers these days, this has increased the appeal of photographs from an era when capturing images on actual film (or even plates!) was highly regarded as an unparalleled scientific miracle. They are a fascinating window into a world gone by, documenting the lives, loves and preoccupations of our ancestors.

To the amateur collector, they can also offer the opportunity to make a small fortune – providing, of course, that you know what you’re looking for! Consider the example of Randy Guijarro who spent $2 on three old photographs. When he looked closely at one image of several cowboys playing croquet (above) he thought he recognised the face but it was what he was wearing that really caught his eye. “I defy you to find another cowboy wearing a cardigan” he said. Sure enough, experts have authenticated only the second known photograph of Billy the Kid. It’s worth is estimated at a cool $5 million. Paper money, indeed.

All sorts of old photographs are always available for sale at Charing Cross Market and this week is no exception. As an example, we have this memento from the Great War – nicely personalised thanks to the subject dedicating it to a former brother in arms. “To Larry, in memory of days spent together in France and Belgium. From J. R. Kennedy 5/4/1918”.

Collectopedia: Toby Jugs

It’s hard to visit any antiques fair these days without seeing at least one toby jug and Charing Cross Collectors Market is no exception. With their sometimes gaudy colours and exaggerated features, these ceramic characters are easy to pick out but few people know more about them than just their name.

First produced in the mid 18th century, their inspiration has never been explained definitively. However, the most likely possibilities are that the grotesque, often inebriated figure was inspired by the character Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or possibly the notorious drunkard Toby Fillpot celebrated in the drinking song ‘Little Brown Jug’. Either way, you will no doubt distinguish yourself as a minor authority on the subject if you only know that a Toby jug should show a person’s full body whereas one depicting just the face is a character jug. The latter have become popular souvenirs all over the world, featuring anyone from actors to politicians.

A character mug of Josef Stalin

Naturally, Toby jugs which predate the advent of mass production (c.1750-c.1850) are the most sought after and can fetch thousands. Yet they often escape the casual observer because they might appear quite plain to the untutored eye so it’s always worth inquiring about the provenance. And if you really do get the bug, there’s no doubt that they make for a striking display!