Boston’s Classy Telescope Auction

4-inch Clark refractor
Auctions bring surprises, such as this 4-inch Clark refractor that came up for sale at the recent Skinner event in Boston. Despite a clear provenance to Oliver Wendell Holmes, this instrument has never been mentioned in any book on the Clark firm.
Skinner, Inc.

A 4-inch Alvan Clark refractor, dated 1891 and once owned by the famous US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., led the parade of antique telescopes and other scientific instruments offered for sale recently at the Boston auction house of Skinner, Inc. Many of the astronomical items came from the collection of Don Yeier (Vernonscope & Co.), himself the organizer of 12 previous auctions of astronomical instruments since 1974.

Several beautiful brass telescopes by the 19th-century French maker Bardou went on the block, including a 2¼-inch refractor that fetched $2,468 and a 4-inch that sold for $4,113. Another 4-inch, marked “John A. Brashear Co.,” was a definite bargain at $1,998. But the Holmes Clark, which had been expected to bring $10,000 to $15,000, failed to reach the reserve set by its owner and was withdrawn from the sale. Another unusual item, one of the 6-inch reflectors designed by Russell W. Porter and used in the 1930s to test sites for the 200-inch Hale telescope, suffered a similar fate. Unfortunate timing may be the reason: the Skinner auction, held July 29th, coincided with this year’s popular Stellafane convention, which had drawn flocks of telescope enthusiasts to Vermont that day.

Other item categories, however, produced jaw-dropping excitement. A pristine copy of Edward Emerson Barnard’s 1927 Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way sold for $7,638. A brass surveyor’s compass by the early American instrument maker David Rittenhouse brought $19,975. The auction highlight turned out to be a Kwanon 35-millimeter camera made in the 1930s, which sold for a staggering $138,000.

Does the name “Kwanon” ring a bell? The company later changed its name to “Canon,” and this prototype camera sported optics by Nippon Kogaku, the firm that introduced its own camera, the Nikon I, in 1948!