While searching through correspondence sent from Tring Museum, I came across this sales catalogue, bound into a volume. It offers a wonderful glimpse into a lost world.
The Natural History Museum acquired some of its collections at auction houses in the nineteenth century. Many private collectors and museums bought and sold in this way.
The sale took place at Steven’s auction house, which operated from 38 King Street, Covent Garden. The house was well-known for selling items of ethnographic, scientific and zoological interest. Orchid sales were regularly held there during the 19th century, as well as sales of other exotic plants. Stevens also sold Egyptian mummies, taxidermy, ‘mermaids’, and oddities from all over the British Empire. These good were very fashionable. They were a way for collectors to show off their education, taste and connoisseurship.
Amongst the good on offer at this sale was a Great Auk Egg. Steven’s sold so many stuffed auks and auk eggs that at one point their telegram address was actually changed to ‘Auk’. The desire to possess these rare artefacts helped to make the Great Auk extinct.
Also on offer were some items from South Africa, previously exhibited at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. This exhibition was held in South Kensington and was intended "to stimulate commerce and strengthen the bonds of union now existing in every portion of her Majesty's Empire". The exhibition received 5.5 million visitors, which shows the Victorians’ fascination with global cultures.
The company closed following the Second World War. Economic circumstances had changed and the British Empire was drawing to an end. International ‘curiosities’ were no longer fashionable or relevant in a globalised world. But judging from the numbers of visitors to the Natural History Museum, people are still just as interested in the curiosities of the natural world!