We had a China cat sit on our telly through most of my childhood. It was a really naff bit of 70s design, with a long, long neck and a flower-motif running up the length of its body. My mum loved it. She called it Millicent. I hated it.
One night when my parents were out and my big sisters were in their bedroom, sticking Che Guevara posters on their wall and listening to Simon And Garfunkel, I was playing tennis-ball football in the living room. I was using the sofa and the electric fire as opposing goals.
Playing tennis-ball football indoors, indeed playing any sort of football indoors, was strictly verboten—on pain of death. But this particular night I was feeling foolhardy, and during my one-man match, a ricochet off the three bar electric fire presented me with a perfect over-head volley situation. An open-goal at the sofa-end beckoned, with the telly only slightly in the way, I hoofed the ball….
I don’t need to tell you what happened. My arse was red for weeks. And my pocket-money was suspended until I was 40. Stinging bot or not, I was still quite glad to see Millicent shattered. My mum wasn’t. I remember thinking that things would have been so different if we’d had interesting, cool, exciting things to smash. Not just naff ceramic cats. I dunno, something like a real pike eating a real trout…
I would have killed to have something as fantastic as Mr R.B. Marston’s stuffed pike and trout combo propped on our telly. Instead of a leaky lava-lamp and Millicent. Still, at the auction price of £8,800, the Marston fish cost more than our whole three bedroomed house was worth.
Still, this is no ordinary pike. It’s a pike with history. With provenance. That’s why a collector was recently prepared to pay this record price, for what is after all, actually quite a small pike.
The pike’s story is this. It was caught in 1912 under exceptional circumstances, by an exceptional man, who was trying to prove an exceptional theory. The man was R. B. Marston, a fanatical angler and son of a publisher, who through his love of fishing, was driven to buy the popular angling magazine of the day, The Fishing Gazette.
At the time of capture, Marston was also editor of the Gazette, and used his angling organ to emotively describe the momentous event, as well as use it as an example to support his radical theory.
Martson’s theory, a contradiction to popular belief at the time, was that a pike will attack its prey quite happily from the rear, as well as from the side. Esox luscius experts of the day shook their heads and tut-tutted, ‘No way, Jose’ they said. A pike only, exclusively and fundamentally attacks from the side.
‘I thought to myself, this is no eight pounder, I’ve got hold of the Jubilee Trout’ wrote Marston about his experience of playing the fish that had taken his fly. And after a bit more rod bending, he observed ‘To my surprise, I saw half of my trout with the May-fly sticking out if its mouth, was sticking out of the mouth of a pike’.
He went on to say ‘No wonder I thought it was at least an eight pound trout, when I saw his ugly jaw round my trout. Halfway through the fight, the pike saw me and tried to spit the one pound trout out. He had luckily taken it tail first and swallowed more than half of it. I thought, if I can nurse you my friend, I may get you as well.’ Which he did.
In the same Bonhams auction room in Honiton, Devon, an even larger and older thirty pound pike, stuffed by the same famous taxidermists, Cooper, fetched only £1500. The reason for the huge price difference, is purely down to the graphic and recorded history of Marston’s fish.
‘It’s the provenance of this pike that makes it so interesting’ explained antique tackle expert and auctioneer Charles Kewley. ‘Historically it’s such an important piece. Coopers are the Rolls Royce of fish taxidermists, but this fish had all the added value of the published account’. Marston’s published account of the capture is pasted inside the cased fish.
Charles Kewley was the first man to start dealing in vintage tackle in the late 70s in London. ‘In those days it was really just anglers who were interested in old tackle’ he explains. ‘Now the market has widened and because it’s been buoyant for a number of years, we’re now seeing investors dabbling in vintage tackle. Investors who’re purely interested in it for its investment potential.’
Even though vintage tackle is a relatively new type of collectors’ fare, it has already been subject to waves of buying fashion that have made certain items rise and fall in popularity. ‘Reels move in and out of fashion’ explained Charles. ‘Hardy tackle was very sought after because it was always seen to be the best. But then as more people collected it and more forgotten manufacturers were unearthed, other makes of tackle rose in value too.’
Cased fish have always commanded a good price. But the more unique and unusual the better. Charles sold a stuffed tiny gudgeon at a sale many years ago, which achieved the then record price of £5,500. It fetched such a big sum because it was so utterly unique. Historically no one ever really bothered to stuff small fish.
But, if you’re would rather dig something out of the attic to sell, Charles had a few simple tips regarding old fishing tackle. ‘Don’t throw anything away’ he said. ‘Doesn’t matter how small or insignificant it looks. Even a tiny packet of hooks could be valuable. And whatever it is, don’t restore it or clean it. Get it appraised first.’
So, if you think you’ve got old fishing booty that’s worth a few bob, call the auction house.
Oh, and if you happen to find a naff ceramic cat in your loft…