Christie's To Hold Marconi Auction
London, England -- April 24-25, 1997

Web Edition


For Marconi collectors the big news of the year is the sale of items from the archives of the Marconi company in England. This is the first of what may be several reports on this major event. (Editor)

The remarkable archives of the Marconi company, the pioneers of wireless communications, are to be sold by Christie's South Kensington, England, on April 24 and 25, 1997. Offered as part of the centenary celebrations of GEC-Marconi, this unique collection charts the history of radio from Marconi's arrival in England in 1896 to the end of World War II.

The 2-day sale is expected to bring in more than £1 million with estimates ranging from £100 to £20,000 on individual items. The proceeds of the sale will fund "Marconi Days," a new education initiative which will train up to 1,000 teachers in the teaching of electronics every year.

A selection of the items from the Marconi Company archives.

A selection of the items include a dealer sign, a multiple tuner, a coherer receiver, and Melba's microphone.

This initiative is most appropriate in that Guglielmo Marconi's invention of wireless telegraphy 100 years ago marks the beginning of modern telecommunications. In 1896, Marconi made it possible for a message to pass between two points with the invention of his first patent of improvements in wireless telegraphy -- a document to be offered in the sale and carrying an estimate of £1,000 to £1,500.

The collection, which concentrates primarily on the first 50 years of wireless from 1896 to 1946, comprises an important cross section of early equipment and experiments, as well as important technical, business and personal papers. Messages of particular interest include those relating to Queen Victoria, as well as a huge number of radio messages transmitted during the sinking of the Titanic.

Although Marconi was constantly in the news with his numerous successes and innovations, it was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 that finally convinced the world of the importance of the wireless. The "unsinkable ship" had been fitted with the most up-to-date wireless equipment. Approximately 2,000 wireless messages known as "Marconigrams" were sent from the Titanic and other ships, including the rescue vessel Carpathia. These messages form a major section of the collection up for sale.

Among the highlights of the sale are some of the earliest recorded wireless messages, with estimates ranging from £500 to £8,000. Of particular interest are the Bristol Channel experiments of 1897, the message from the Royal Needles Hotel Station on the Isle of Wight, and the first English Channel transmissions.

In July 1898, the Dublin Express commissioned Marconi to report on the progress of the Kingstown Regatta in Dublin. Twenty-six of these messages, which represent the first use of wireless to report a sporting or news event, are estimated at £3,000 to £5,000.

Marconi's diary from 1901, including his entry from December of that year in which he records the first signal across the Atlantic, is another highlight of the sale. This diary is estimated to bring £1,500 to £2,000. Also dating from this event is the actual earphone in which Marconi heard this first signal, an item expected to realize from £5,000 to £8,000.

Another fascinating piece of documentation featured in the sale is Doctor Ambrose Fleming's letter of November 1904 to Marconi in which he reports for the first time the invention of the valve -- "I have not mentioned this to anyone as it may become very useful..." Carrying an estimate of £1,000 to £1,500, this letter is offered alongside a number of Fleming's early valves.

The Marconi company was among the first to know about the outbreak of World War I. Working late one August night in 1914, company engineer H.J. Round intercepted a German army communication informing its forces that war had been declared -- a day and a half before the official declaration. Hastily scribbled on the back of a company order form, this message is estimated to bring £2,000 to £3,000.

Four years later, the Marconi company's London headquarters also witnessed the end of the war when the Eiffel Tower station transmitted Marshall Foch's message announcing the Armistice. This document is estimated at £1,000 to £1,500.

By 1920, wireless telephony had developed so far that it was possible to broadcast a program of musical entertainment. In November of that year, the famous singer Dame Nellie Melba was persuaded to travel to Essex for the princely sum of £1,000 to broadcast a program of musical entertainment from one of Marconi's transmitters at Chelmsford. The microphone she used, with an improvised mouthpiece made from a cigar box and signed by her, is offered at £5,000 to £8,000. From this amateurish beginning, the BBC evolved in 1922, with television following in 1936.

The hours for the auction on April 24 and 25 are 10:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. The viewing schedule is as follows: April 19, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.; April 21, 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; April 22, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; and April 23, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Christie's will exhibit highlights from the sale in the U. S. and Italy prior to the event.

The illustrated catalog will be available about three weeks before the auction and is expected to cost from $15 to $30. U.S. readers may order from Christie's Publications, 21-24 44th Ave., Long Island City, NY 11101 or call 1-800-395-6300. The Publications Department in England may be reached at (0171) 389 2820.

The sale will also be highlighted within the Christie's website: http://www.christies.com/marconi. E-mail: marconi@christies.com

Photo © Christie's South Kensington.

(Christie's, 83 Old Brompton Rd., London, U.K. SW7 3LD)

Collectors' Second Thoughts
Of course, many of us want to share in the excitement of an event like the Marconi Auction. At the same time, misgivings are being expressed. Jim Kreuzer, who has the most outstanding Marconi collection in the U. S., has visited the Marconi archives several times over the years. As Jim says, "Access to all these materials in one place -- and even more importantly, in the right place historically -- is invaluable." Now Jim worries that these historic pieces will be scattered all over the world.

This same sentiment has been expressed on the Internet by British collector Enrico Tedeschi (A.R.C. January 1997) and Willem Hackman, Chairman of the British Vintage Wireless Society, along with many others. They are urging collectors to join the "Save the Marconi Archives Appeal." They suggest writing in protest to the GEC-Marconi managing director via e-mail at ian.mcnamee@gecm-com, or fax at +(0)1245 275985. Tel.: +(0)1245 353221. (from the U. S., drop the +(0) and dial 011 44 before the number). They also suggest letters to Heritage Minister T. Rt. Hon. Virginia Bottomly, JP. MP., Dept. of National Heritage, 2-4 Cockspur St., London SW1Y 5DH, U. K.

One consolation to collectors is that, according to U.S. News & World Report, February 10, 1997, "the Marconi legacy will be preserved on an upcoming CD-Rom, a cheaper alternative to building and maintaining a place to showcase the artifacts."

On February 14, 1997, after our March 1997 issue had gone to press, Christie's South Kensington released the following statement:

"Christie's South Kensington is awaiting further instructions from [GEC-Marconi] regarding the Marconi Collection and fully supports the moves being made to keep the Collection intact."

A joint statement was also released by [GEC-Marconi] and the Science Museum:

"We have had a very constructive discussion, as a result of which we believe that a basis exists for a satisfactory solution between several interested parties which will ensure that the Marconi Collection remains intact and in this country. Another statement will be made once further progress has been achieved, when the company would expect to be in a position to withdraw the Collection from public sale."

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