British Medals from the Collection of James Spencer

British Medals from the Collection of James Spencer

James N Spencer

James Spencer was born in 1946 into a family of auctioneers based at Retford, Nottinghamshire. The family firm, Henry Spencer & Sons, founded in 1840, bore the name of his great-grandfather. James' father, Rupert Spencer, had developed the fine arts side of the firm, so James grew up in an atmosphere that was conducive to collecting.

When he was 8 years old, James acquired his first coin. The family had stopped in Gloucester en route to a holiday in Cornwall, when James spotted what turned out to be a Victorian crown dated 1889 in 'about fine' condition in the window of a general antique shop. This acquisition led him to develop an interest in coins and he continued to collect through his schooldays at York and while at university in Cambridge.

Graduating in 1969, James joined Christie's in London, where he subsequently transferred into the Chinese art department. Although greatly absorbed in Chinese art, especially ceramics, he never lost his interest in numismatics, although his focus had turned increasingly to military medals.

In 1978 he joined the board of Christie's and, possessed of sufficient means, began to collect the medals he liked most of all, namely "anything really rare and interesting, especially if it's never been published." In 1989 James moved to Taiwan to take up the post of curator at a private museum of Chinese art, but he continues to follow the medal market closely, purchasing pieces from dealers and auctions in England on a regular basis.

James' only regret is that, in a busy life mostly spent overseas, he has never had time to do much research on the medals in his collection; he hopes that those who buy them "will make up for this deficiency." With this in mind, the cataloguer has, over the years, described them in as much detail and has endeavoured to illustrate as many as commercial considerations allow; it should also be pointed out that the DNW website carries many more illustrations of the Spencer and other medals in this sale than the printed catalogue.

Although James has been dispersing pieces from his collection over the last four years in various sales, mostly staged by DNW, the Irish pieces in the following 247 lots represent a very important part of his holdings. What follows is a fascinating pot pourri of Irish society from the 1760s to the 1930s, seen through medals awarded in gold and silver by societies and educational establishments to everyone from the nobility and gentry to the peasant farmer and schoolboy. Many reflect the hard times of the Great Famine in the 1840s and some are the only known examples. It's the type of collection only formed once in a lifetime. Enjoy it.

James Spencer

If one single person can be blamed for my becoming a collector, it is perhaps Beatrix Potter. I will explain why. My very first collecting activity was at about the age of six or seven when I began picking out the earliest dates in the change that passed through my hands. This being the early 1950s, it resulted in a small number of shillings and sixpences going back to 1911 and a larger number of Victorian 'bun' pennies going back to 1860, mostly in a condition off the bottom end of the scale.

Two chance holiday events gave my primitive collecting zeal a boost. One was in Aberdeen where I was thrilled to discover that silver 'threepenny bits', long gone further south, were still in circulation. The second was in Gloucester. At that time we had regular seaside holidays in Cornwall. My father drove there from our home in Retford, Nottinghamshire, and in those pre-motorway days it was a two-day drive, so we stopped on the way. Born in 1904 my father had grown up with Beatrix Potter books and was curious to see if the shop illustrated in her The Tailor of Gloucester was real. We found it near the cathedral, but it had become an antique shop. Through the window I saw a larger silver coin than I had ever seen before and got excited. It was an 1889 Victorian jubilee head crown and my father kindly bought it for me. I remember it cost twelve shillings and sixpence (62.5p), then a big sum for a schoolboy. From that day onwards I think I was an incurable collector, especially after subscribing to Spink's Numismatic Circular in 1960.

In the 1970s I moved from coins into military medals. In 1980, while hunting for these on Saturday mornings at the Charing Cross market 'under the arches', I also came across non-military meals that were awarded to people and I soon realised that these were more fun and more challenging, because most of them had never been catalogued or published (and still have not been). I soon got to know the main dealers in the field, who are happily still active, and I began to collect 'prize medals' through them as well as through auctions and at fairs. On one occasion in New York the late Wayne Colbert offered me his collection of British photographic medals and I bought all the ones that did not duplicate my existing collection with the result that this section roughly doubled in quality in one fell swoop.

In my 31 years of collecting in this field my main criterion has been that the medal should be awarded to someone, though there are a few exceptions. I have tried to find the best and earliest examples of any particular type. Within the last decade other parts of my collection have been auctioned by Dix Noonan Webb. What is on offer this time are the silver medals, with a sprinkling of gold, in the categories of photography, architecture, ornithology, coronations, music, company long service and many other subjects.

I would like to emphasise that in these categories a few of the types are relatively common but most are not. Many are really rare and I estimate that about 30% of them are models that I never seen another example of. I really hope that other collectors will enjoy the medals as much as I have and that sooner or later some brave souls will decide to publish more of the material in this underrated but fascinating field.