Sheer joy for history and technology nerds

Michael Bennett-Levy is retiring. He’s moving from a medieval fortress in Edinburgh to a medieval fortress in Southern France, and like anyone on the move, he has to downsize.

When you’re an antique scientific instruments dealer, however, your version of downsizing is the coolest Bonhams auction of all time.

His collection of early televisions is without peer. There are beautiful furniture pieces from the very dawn of broadcast television in the 30’s; there are advanced technology projection units from the 50’s; there are stylized decorative televisions from the 70’s. Some of them are even in working condition.

His two dozen rarest sets were made in the 1930s to receive the first British and American broadcasts. He is selling them on Wednesday at a Bonhams auction in London, with estimates ranging from a few thousand dollars to about $33,000 for an oak unit that also contains a record turntable, radio and mini-bar.

Bonhams will offer his prewar sets as one group lot; then if the reserve of a few hundred thousand dollars is not met, they will be dispersed. “But I should cry if the television sets are split up,” Mr. Bennett-Levy, the author of an exhaustive 1993 study, “Historic Televisions and Video Recorders,” said in a phone interview. “I doubt anyone could form such a significant collection again. There are perhaps 500 prewar televisions known to survive, fewer than there are Stradivarius instruments. I own 5 to 6 percent of what’s in private hands or museums.”

That’s just the most expensive part of the collection. I’ve been browsing the catalog for two days now, oohing and aahing over the vast array of early technology.

I’m not even close to finished and so far I’ve come across timepieces from gilded 18th c. French mantle watches to wall-hanging Swatch watches, telescopes, barometers, navigational instruments, foghorns, ship models, gas masks (including one for a baby), Zeppelin bomb shrapnel, an anti-tank missile, a pull-along grasshopper toy, turn of the century roller skates, kaleidoscopes, photographic equipment, stereo viewers and cards and oh so much more.

Most droolworthy of all, though, is a full size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry photographed by Joseph Cundall in 1874 and mounted on its original Arts and Crafts stand. It’s 226 feet long. It was the longest panorama ever made in the 19th c., and as far as Michael Bennett-Levy and Bonhams know, it’s still the longest panorama ever made.

There were only 6 of those ever printed, and the rest are either lost, damaged or incomplete. The estimate is £5,000 – 8,000. If I had the cash, I would seriously pay double that up front right now no questions asked.