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PORTABLE, pretty and precious, card and vesta cases and the other good things that come in little boxes are almost guaranteed to attract buyers – a point underlined when two collections were near sell-out sales to start the year.

At Lawrences (19.5% buyer’s premium) of Crewkerne on January 17, the first 497-lot tranche of a collection of vesta cases totalled £86,000. At Bellmans (20% buyers premium) of Wisborough Green on January 12, 42 lots from a collection of castle-top card cases, vertu and vinaigrettes brought over £36,500.

Both sales showed the breadth and depth of the smallwork market, which reached new heights when 48 castle-top card cases were among the first tranche of the Holder collection at Woolley & Wallis (22% premium) last October (see ATG No 2268).

The previous castle-top record was broken three times at that sale, led by the £9800 bid for an 1860 case by Alfred Taylor of Birmingham showing the General Post Office in Dublin.

The final tranche coming up on April 25 includes more fine examples.

No such record-setters emerged at the sales at West Sussex and Somerset but the worldwide bidding at both, particularly from North America, was evidence of the demand at all prices.

Among the more intriguing lots at Bellmans was a Nathaniel Mills card case, engraved with an unidentified cliff-top castle.

The prolific Birmingham silversmith and his sons are the bestknown producers of these engineturned upmarket tourist souvenirs, which are usually around 4in (10cm) long and weighing about 2oz.

However, the names of the makers can be less important than the local sights engraved on the front.

The fortress on the 1843 card case at Bellmans, being unidentified, spurred bidding to £2500 – 10 times the lower estimate – at which point it sold to a UK-based dealer. “The bidder might have recognised the castle, but no-one enlightened us, ” said the auctioneers.

Prices for other Mills castle-top card cases included £520 for (possibly) Bamburgh Castle 1846; £600 for Windsor Castle, 1843; £600 for Kenilworth Castle, 1838; £700 for the Edinburgh Scott Memorial, 1844 and £1100 for St Paul’s Cathedral, 1844.

Topping the Mills pieces at £2600 was a card case showing Buckingham Palace, 1851.

It’s all in the detail

Other Birmingham smiths got in on the market. At Bellmans, examples included a case showing Osborne House by Aston & Son, 1859, which made £800, York Minster by Yapp & Woodward, 1854, at £600, and the Houses of Parliament by David Pettifer, 1852, at £520.

One of the early Birmingham smiths in the castle-top field, Edwin Jones, produced some fine silver-gilt pieces such as an 1836 vinaigrette offered at Bellmans. With a raised view of the Great Hall at Kenilworth Castle to the lid, and a pierced scroll grille to the interior, it was estimated at £600-800 and sold at £2200.

An earlier silver-gilt snuff box with a cast butterfly to the lid and a projecting thumbpiece, with marks for London 1825 and John Bridge, doubled the top estimate at £1250.

At Lawrences, silver specialist Alex Butcher is a great fan of vesta cases and enthusiastically set about cataloguing the 2500 examples which collectors John and Patricia McKenzie have amassed since the 1960s.

“The thing about vesta cases, or match safes as Americans call them, is that unlike, say, snuff boxes, they appeal to so many people, not just those interested in silver or bijouterie.

“They were made in all sorts of media – aluminium, brass, glass, porcelain and so on – and, as they were often given by firms to favourite clients, depict all sorts of subjects.

“Every sport, every sort of pet animal, politics, the theatre, music – every interest is catered for in either the shape or the enamelled decoration of vesta cases. As a result, they are collected all over the world and we had bids from 26 countries on the collection.”

Some 1300 items were included in the 497 lots on January 17 – the second tranche will probably be offered next winter when collectors have had a chance to savour their purchases and save up for more.

“A sale like this comes along only once in about 20 years, ” said Butcher comparing the McKenzie hoard with a sale he held at Christie’s South Kensington in 1998. “It’s a major event for worldwide collectors and something of a social occasion so one doesn’t want to put on too much of a good thing.”

Smallwork collecting on a theme

Individual good things in January mainly went to UK, American and Continental collectors, although the UK trade did get the occasional look-in. A trade purchase at £960 was a combination vesta case inset with a timepiece by Thomas Johnson, London 1887.

Enamelled sporting scenes included one of a racing yacht by Sampson & Mordan, London 1889, at £1000 and another by Horton & Allday, Birmingham 1910, depicting an 18th century game of cricket at £720.

The inscription Tod Sloan April 11, 1903 – for the great American jockey whose success in England was such that his name passed into rhyming slang – undoubtedly helped an otherwise mundane 9ct gold vesta case by H Matthews, Birmingham 1897, to go above estimate at £680.

Best of the McKenzie pieces was a vesta case modelled as a sentry box complete with enamelled guardsman who appears to be a grenadier. A specialty of Sampson & Mordan, it was marked Registered design no.“38283”, London 1886, and the popularity of the design saw a £1200-1600 estimate and a winning bid of £2100.

The separately catalogued silver sale on January 16 at Crewkerne included a number of vesta cases from different consignors, among which was another such sentry box.

Also dated London 1886 and with the same design number, it was a more colourful piece with a gilt interior and featured an officer of the 10th (Prince of Wales’ Own Royal) Hussars.

Against a £1500-2000 estimate, it sold at £3400.

Rather more grisly but rare and eyecatching was a gilt-lined realistic skull, with the eye sockets connected inside by a hollow tube to take a cotton taper which was drawn in and out with a knurled wheel. By Henry William Dee, London 1873, it sold at £2000.