Saturday, 16 September 2017

The cutting edge

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Sheikh Isa Bin Sulman Al-Khalifa paid a seven day state visit to New Zealand in September 1985. He was better known as the Emir of Bahrain. He came bearing gifts; he was dishing out gold watches, including Rolex’s, pearl necklaces and money on a scale previously unknown in New Zealand. The two most prized items were for the titular heads of the country at the time, the Governor-General, David Beattie and Prime Minister, David Lange.

To the two David’s he gave ceremonial swords, both encased in gold scabbards. For the Governor-General the scabbard was encrusted in jewels, for the Prime Minister the outer casing had 40 natural pearls attached. David Beattie handed his on to the Canterbury Museum who, it is understood immediately insured it for $100,000. David Lange considered giving the gift to a museum to be an insult and took his home.

1n 1991 David’s new partner Margaret Pope described the sword as “that wretched thing” and suggested to David they get rid of it. To be fair, the sword was not particularly attractive. The scabbard was of “yellow gold” much prized in the Middle East but regarded as a shade garish by conservative western tastes.

Accordingly Mrs. Pope took the sword to Wellington jeweler’s Walker and Hall and asked them to appraise its worth. The young lady behind the counter assumed the scabbard to be gold plated and estimated the value to be around $500. Walker and Hall have always denied this appraisal ever took place, but Mrs. Pope was adamant that was the advice given and subsequently David agreed that it could be sold at auction.

It is a convention in this country that gifts given to a Prime Minister are his to keep if they are worth under $500, but for anything over that value, ownership automatically reverts to the state.

Mrs. Pope took the “wretched” sword to Dunbar Sloane allowing them to auction it with a reserve of  $500. Enter John Barlow, a Wellington insurance executive and antique collector who while browsing through Dunbar Sloane’s downtown Wellington premises, spots the sword and more particularly the gold mark on the scabbard, something both Walker and Hall and Dunbar Sloane had failed to observe, and realises that it was worth considerably more than the $500 reserve that had been placed on it.

He bought it at auction for $520, then had it valued. Wellington manufacturing jeweller William McDowell and a company called Gem Testing Laboratories both came to the same conclusion.  The scabbard was indeed solid gold, a kilo of it in fact, and the pearls were genuine and natural. The gold was worth around $15,000 and the pearls about $8000. A total melt-down value of  $23,000 but an intrinsic value way above that. William McDowell estimated that at least 200 hours of craftsmanship would have gone into its making.

John Barlow had got a bargain, but the nation was outraged. There was a public outcry. Editorials up and down the country fumed that a potential icon had been allowed to be sold for a song. Prime Minister Jim Bolger and other politicians were appalled that David Lange had relinquished what they considered to be a gift to the public of New Zealand. Diplomats in both Bahrain and New Zealand worked furiously to avoid a breakdown in relationships between the two countries.

Mr. Lange admitted that he had foolishly failed to recognise the true worth of the sword, but, he pointed out, so had many others, including knowledgeable antique dealers who had attended the auction.

John Barlow may have laughed all the way to the bank but his good humour was short lived. The Karori businessman was to be accused of the murders of Gene and Eugene Thomas. The two money lenders were found shot dead in their offices on The Terrace in February 1994.  It took three trials to convict Barlow after two hung jury’s couldn’t decide whether or not he was guilty. He never looked guilty. No grey blanket ever covered his head as he moved confidently and openly between custody and the court and rumours still float around the city suggesting that the job was done by professional “hit” people from America. John Barlow, some say, is taking the rap because not to do so would result in his own hasty demise.

Whatever, he needed to sell his valuable antique collection to help cover the costs of three expensive trials and the sword was once more up for auction. It was passed in at Dunbar Sloane’s, this time for $17,500. The Barlow’s wanted at least $20,000 for it. Broadcaster Paul Henry heard it was or sale, thought it would be a good investment, and rang me to see if I wanted to go halves. We talked to Mr. McDowell, the manufacturing jeweller, who confirmed that its melt-down value was at least $23,000, so we thought we couldn’t go wrong in buying the controversial item, not that we had any intention of melting it down.

We paid the asking price, $20,000.

We soon discovered that there are not a lot of people who actually want a ceremonial sword. We put it up for sale with a world-wide marketing company that produces a glossy catalogue that it distributes to wealthy collectors all over the globe, but the phones never rang. We had been approached by the people at Foreign Affairs who wondered if we might like to donate it back to the state, but our collective good natures didn’t extend that far.

It occurred to us that we could lend it to the Museum of New Zealand for a time to give it some exposure and perhaps make it easier to market it in a few years hence. I visited Te Papa on three occasions offering them the sword on “permanent loan” at no cost, but although they exuded enthusiasm at each visit and promised to get back to me, they never did.

Perhaps, we thought, Dunbar Sloane might like to attempt to sell it again. They seemed reluctant. What would our reserve be, they wanted to know. We thought $30,000 would be a fair return but they believed we were being too optimistic. We made two visits to them, they promised to get back to us, but like the people at Te Papa, they never did.

Our wives, who were patiently waiting for essential furnishings for both households that had been put on hold because our hard earned savings were sitting in a varnished box in the strong room at the Bank of New Zealand in Carterton, were now wondering out loud if this great investment we had assured them we had made was as gilt edged as we had claimed. We were even beginning to have doubts ourselves.

And then we saw a programme on TV One called Going..Going..Gone, featuring an auction house in Auckland called Webb’s. I rang Webb’s and asked them if they would be interested in auctioning the sword. Would they what! They nearly came through the phone line with enthusiasm. When could we get it up there? They couldn’t wait to put it on the market. Thirty thousand dollars was a most realistic reserve, they opined. They were quite sure they could get us at least that.

The rest, as they say, is history. At the auction Roger Bhatnagar, onetime owner of Bond and Bond and Noel Leeming’s and escort to Susan Wood paid forty two thousand dollars for the “wretched” sword and I congratulated Paul Henry on his foresight. We had of course also redeemed ourselves in the eyes of our wives.

The people who make the television documentary Going..Going..Gone were at the packed gallery during the auction, camera’s whirring, and I subsequently featured in the TV series trying my darndest not to look too excited as the bidding mounted.

Typically, David Lange wanted the last word. He told the Evening Post, in a story headlined “Beware the curse of the Arab sword,” that Roger Bhatnagar ought to get rid of the sword quickly. “It brings bad luck,” he suggested.

“Giving it away didn’t do the Emir a lot of good - he died.”

The sword then turned on himself: “I lost my job.”

“The next victim was antique collector John Barlow, who was later convicted of a double murder.
Then Paul Henry lost the safe National seat to a transsexual!”

But perhaps David Lange should have applied the Archimedes test. Archimedes, noting he displaced his own volume of water in his bath, put a king’s crown into water to test the amount it displaced to settle arguments over whether it was solid gold or not. Given the amount of water that he would displace in his own bathtub, and being an educated man, Lange should have been aware more than anyone of the sacred principle.

Meanwhile Paul Henry and I are still trying to work out how doubling your money in six years can possibly be construed as “bad luck.” 

(First published  January 3rd 2001)

“God’s gifts put men’s gifts to shame.” - Elizabeth Barrett Browning


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