Auction Insights with Nigel Kirk

Teenager Jimmy found valuable brooch but then lost his life

11th November 2016

A bizarre and valuable jewel steeped in mystery with a heart rending past is the latest arrival at The Auction House.

This week a lady at one of our monthly valuation sessions at Retford made my week when she placed on the table before me an amazing object that had an even more startling history.  The stylish 1930s Art Deco gold scarecrow brooch, a whimsical evocation of the jeweller’s art, is beautifully made by one of the most collectable French jewellers of the period.  It is studded with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires, the head formed from a moonstone bead.

I listened in rapt attention as this lovely lady whom, I hope she won’t think I’m ungallant in saying, was not one of the youngest of my visitors that day, explained how she acquired it.  At one point she had tears in her eyes as the story unfolded.  Her brother, a local Retford lad, Jimmy Cooke, had been the ‘Bell Boy’ at Ye Olde Bell Hotel in nearby Barnby Moor.  Shortly before the war in 1939 the 15 year old Jimmy found this brooch, which had clearly been lost by its owner.  An honest lad, he took it to the boss, a redoubtable woman and I suggest a Draconian but clearly fair minded lady, known to the staff by the somewhat unfortunate name of ‘The Madam’.  She locked it in the safe assuming the owner of such a special trinket would soon return, panic stricken.  After several months ‘Madam’ returned it to Jimmy with the strict instruction that he must hand it at once to his mother, which he did.

Shortly afterwards during the darkest days of World War Two he was called up, electing to serve in the Royal Navy, only to die shortly afterwards when his ship HMS ‘Egret’ was sunk by enemy action in the Bay of Biscay.

Understandably his bereft mother never felt able to wear the brooch from that day until she died in the 1980s.  But who would have owned such a costly jewel and what of its maker?  She must have been wealthy or at least had a very wealthy boyfriend.  Perhaps she was enjoying a ‘Brief Encounter’ or was perhaps there for the St Leger which is run at nearby Doncaster.  This is exactly the type of jewel favoured by the elite or ‘smart’ set exemplified by the Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson, subsequently the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.  The sale of the late Duchess’s jewels featured many similar highly original and personally significant creations such as this and it was a landmark event.

 

This brooch was made by Lacloche Freres, Cartier’s great Parisian rival.  Both were favoured by royalty, aristocrats and plutocrats alike.  The brooch is signed Depose Lacloche Freres Paris-Cannes and would have been no more than a year or two old when it was lost.  It is of relatively little intrinsic worth but is highly desirable on account of its design and maker and should easily sell for £800-1200.

Lacloche Freres and Cartier can be regarded the direct inheritors of Fabergé, the fabled jeweller to the Russian imperial family whose similar objets de fantaisie were also sometimes made of inexpensive materials mixed with valuable ones.  They are, in my view, more interesting than the world famous jewelled Easter eggs.

Poor Jimmy thoroughly enjoyed his all too brief naval life which I know was some comfort to his mother and sister.  HMS Egret was an escort ship that had been built in May 1938.  On 27th August 1943, with several other Royal Navy vessels it was attacked by the Luftwaffe with a new type of bomb, 30 nautical miles off Vigo, Spain.  The Egret was the first ship in history to be sunk by a guided missile.  The 19 year old Ordinary Seaman from Retford and 200 of his comrades were killed.  Only around 30 were rescued.

We will never know the name or fate of the young woman whose lovely brooch this once was.  Why did she not report the loss?  Who was she staying with at the Ye Olde Bell?  The house, a flourishing Hotel lies close to The Great North Road (A1).  In the 17th and 18th centuries it was a famous coaching inn, a ‘baiting place’ on the London-York stage.  Queen Victoria, when still a princess and her mother the Duchess of York spent a night there in 1835.  In the first half of the 20th century the Hotel was favoured by a glittering array of VIPs that included royalty, film stars and senior military figures.

Some people believe jewels can be unlucky so did finding this brooch bring ill-luck on Jimmy Cooke?  The scarecrow, moreover, has a fascinating cultural history loaded with symbolism.  Who could forget the Wizard of Oz, which coincidentally was released in 1939?

These and other unanswered questions only add to the mystique that surrounds this lovely little emblem of some lovers’ private passion, but I’ll never see a scarecrow in a country field the same way again!

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