The Collection of British Tokens formed by the late Sven Gahlin
Sven Gahlin (1934 - 2017)
Sven Gahlin, the world-renowned art historian, was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, on 24 May 1934 but when he was six months old his parents moved to England, where Sven lived for the rest of his life. Returning to Sweden for holidays after 1945, the collection of Rembrandt and Durer prints owned by his grandather sowed the seeds for an interest in art, and especially drawings, that was nurtured by Sir Kyffin Williams, RA (1918-2006), his art master at Highgate School, where Sven became Head Boy.
On leaving school, Sven spent two years studying Old Master drawings in the British Museum and a further two years in the department of drawings at the Louvre. While at the latter he spent time with the great self-taught Dutch connoisseur, Frits Lugt (1884-1970), studying the art which now forms the Fondation Custodia. But it was Williams, a lifelong friend, who encouraged Sven to pursue his interest in art on a professional basis. At the time, good Italian and French drawings of the 16th to 18th centuries could be bought for under £10. In 1956 Sven started his working career as an assistant to Francis Matthiesen (1897- 1963), whose gallery, specialising in such works, was opposite Sotheby’s. Lent £200 by a friendly client, Sven was encouraged to start dealing in Old Master drawings on his own account but, by his admission, Sven could not help collecting. He set up his own company in 1963.
It was in the 1960s, while living in Harley Street, London, that Sven first developed an interest in Indian miniatures. A liking for animal drawings saw him acquire what turned out to be a 17th century Mughal miniature of an elephant for £4 10s, which excited Bill Archer (1907-79) and Robert Skelton (b. 1929), then the Keeper and Deputy Keeper of the V & A’s Indian Department, to such an extent that Sven decided to switch from dealing in Old Master drawings to Indian miniatures. He also built up a private collection which was sold by Sotheby’s on 6 October 2015, where it met with international acclaim.
But Indian miniatures were not the only items being collected by Sven. He had begun a collection of Greek and Roman coins by 1967, since dispersed. In March 1983 he started a collection of British 18th (and later 19th) century tokens, initially acquiring pieces from Baldwin, Richard Jeffery (the Melksham dealer situated close to where Sven was then living, in Bath), and several miscellaneous lots from the Spink auction in April 1983. At that sale he introduced himself to the writer of this note as “Mr Rogers” which, together with a second pseudonym, “Mr A. Lincoln”, he often used in those days when it came to numismatic acquisitions. I quickly got to know and appreciate Sven’s eye for an attractive token, as did others – a casual glance through this catalogue will demonstrate the tremendous breadth of quality which graced his cabinets. Moving back to London from Bath in 1990 enabled him to attend all the important auctions of tokens and remain in contact with a coterie of friendly dealers, most of whom will be familiar as provenances in the catalogue with the possible exception of Niall Hobhouse, the Somerset art dealer and a personal friend. Sven’s interest in tokens remained right up to his death, on 7 June 2017.