The magnificent Crosby Garret cavalry helmet found by a metal detectorist earlier this year sold to an anonymous phone bidder at a Christie’s auction today for £2.3 million ($3.6 million), over 8 times the risibly low pre-sale estimate. Six bidders, 3 over the phone, 2 in the room and 1 over the internet from California thought to be the Getty, duked it out for a mere 4 minutes before the hammer fell.
The Tullie House museum, a small local museum in Carlisle, had worked feverishly over the past month to raise money so it could purchase the helmet for local display. They received £100,000 from the public, £1million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, plus more from corporate sponsors and the Cumbria County Council. These herculean efforts enabled the museum to stay in the bidding up to an amazing £1.7 million, but in the end they fell short.
“I’m still shaking,” Andrew Mackay, senior curator at the museum, said moments later. “Cumbria has had a few bad knocks recently, and this fundraising campaign was a good news story for the area, so this is a real blow. People will be terribly disappointed – we had thousands of pounds coming in every day, and children literally emptying their piggy banks.
“We are now very, very anxious to talk to the buyer to see where we go next.”
First they have to found out who it is. Christie’s won’t talk. They protect the anonymity of their clients like they’re frikkin priests. They won’t even say if the bidder is in Britain or out of the country. If it’s a British collector and he isn’t interested in loaning it for display, Tullie House and everyone else is screwed. The helmet will disappear into the shadowy Gollumworld of private collecting.
If it was an overseas buyer, there’s hope. They would have to apply for an export license and there’s a good chance they wouldn’t get one. The Culture Ministry can impose a temporary export bar on artifacts deemed of outstanding significance to national history, and if in-country institutions are able to raise enough money to match the helmet’s cost, then the Tullie House will get a second bite at the apple.
Meanwhile, the gigantic loophole in the Treasure Act this travesty has exposed may well be closed as a result. There was supposed to be a review of the treasure laws 3 years ago which would have ensured single objects like this one which are neither hoards nor made from precious metals but are still of incalculable historic value would qualify as legal treasure, and therefore be sold to museums for the fair market value as assessed by experts. The review never happened. This cause célèbre should light a fire under some asses.