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Martyn Downer talks about his book Nelson’s Purse – Page 2

Martyn Downer, author of Nelson's Purse (Bantam Press), talks about researching: about jewellery when he was at Sotheby's and for his book Nelson's Purse...

READERSVOICE.COM: How did you go about sourcing jewellery from around the world when you were working for Sotheby’s auctions in London, New York and Geneva?
MARTYN DOWNER: Sotheby’s is an internationally recognised name and through the company’s many offices around the world has an extraordinary ability to unearth paintings and works of art to then sell at auction.
My job as head of jewellery in London took me to many of those offices to meet clients who owned jewellery they were thinking of selling.
At one of Sotheby’s offices in Europe I met the owners of the diamond anchor brooch which started me on the trail to Lord Nelson’s lost treasures.
RV: Usually when you researched the provenance of an item of jewellery when you were doing valuations as head of Jewellery at Sotheby’s in London, how much research would you do and what steps would you take?
MD: The provenance, or history, of any object is an essential part of its value.
Most items of jewellery, particularly the many modern pieces that Sotheby’s sells, have little or no provenance and, as such, their value is largely dependent on the intrinsic value of the gemstones with a premium paid for an attractive design or a famous maker’s name .
Occasionally, however, an item of jewellery would be offered for sale which carried a rich history – a jewel from a royal or noble background for instance.
In these cases buyers are prepared to pay high, sometimes spectacular,prices as they did for the jewels of the Duchess of Windsor in 1988 and of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1996 when a string of artifical pearls fetched over $200,000!
Any jewel that hinted at an intriguing past, such as Nelson’s diamond anchor brooch, would be thoroughly investigated before being offered for sale to compile as full a story as possible to publish alongside it in the sale catalogue.

The starting point for enquiries was always the owner, of course, although long hours in the library generally followed.
RV: In Nelson’s Purse you said that the pieces you remembered were usually those with stories attached to them, and not because of their monetary worth. Can you give a general idea of some of the types of stories you heard about other pieces, apart from the Nelson artefacts, you’ve come across?
MD: Previous ownership by a celebrated public or historical figure was not the sole reason for the fascination attached to particular jewels.
I remember selling a collection of diamonds, for instance, discovered secreted in the head of an antique doll bought in a junk shop.
Even more extraordinary was a blue diamond brooch found hidden in an owl’s nest in the garden of its recently deceased elderly owner.
The brooch subsequently sold for over £1million.
RV: In your acknowledgements in Nelson’s Purse you said Peter Robinson of Curtis Brown suggested that you write the book. When and how did he contact you and can you give a bit of an idea how you planned the whole project from there?
MD: Peter caught sight of the story in the British press when my discovery was announced in July 2002.
Happily he was acquainted with my brother-in-law who put us in touch.
After writing a proposal (largely on a beach in Scotland!) for the sort of book I thought I could write; Peter placed it with Transworld Publishers in the UK and, using an equally skillful literary agent in New York, the Smithsonian Institute Press in the USA.

I left Sotheby’s on an eight month sabbatical in December 2002 to research and write the book.
Of course, this was hopelessly optimistic.
I subsequently left Sotheby’s permanently and find myself, two years later, embarking on a second book and a new career as a writer.
RV: Was it difficult putting all the pieces of research together? How did you keep track of everything and where it fit in the story?
MD: Nelson’s Purse is anchored on the remarkable archive of papers (over 800 pages) I discovered in Alexander Davison’s lost trunk.
Most startling to scholars of Nelson (which I am not) was the series of 72 letters written to Davison by Nelson’s estranged wife Fanny over the months surrounding their highly public separation in 1800-01.
The letters revealed Fanny to be every bit as emotionally highly charged as Emma Lady Hamilton, her glamorous, and infamous, rival for Nelson’s love.
Details of Davison’s life came from further research among his descendants’ family papers while both the British Library and the National Maritime Museum in London have large holdings of Nelson’s letters and papers.
Managing so much primary source material was a challenge – particularly as I had never tackled anything like this before – but once I had settled on a path through the story and had the thread of narrative in my head, organising it all was not too difficult.
Using my laptop, I put the papers into chronological order, cross referenced with my secondary sources.
Inexperience often made me “over- research” a particular area or to pursue blind alleyways – although, in mitigation, I believe this apparent failing has given the story some added narrative colour and texture.