The Dealer: What happens when you discover bones


Skeletons in the closet? Our antiques writer Ian Butchoff has jaw bones lost in the Boer War

Occasionally when buying furniture, I get more than I bargained for. A few years ago I acquired at auction a really beautiful mid Victorian desk made by William Aspinall of 70 Grosvenor Street. 

Veneered in Birdseye Maple on a mahogany carcass, the desk had a lovely honey colour and beautiful patina. It was a rare find too: Birdseye Maple is an expensive hardwood usually found in the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States, and is not commonly used on English Furniture – the exception being the veneers of Rolls Royce dashboards.

The desk made by William Aspinall circa mid 19th century

The desk made by William Aspinall circa mid 19th century

It was in need of a little TLC, so we gave it to our restorer to titivate.

Some days later he rang me in a state of excitement to say that hidden behind the central drawer was a secret compartment containing what seemed to be part of a human bone, and some family papers relating to Colonel Walter Charteris Ross.

An old black and white photograph of the Colonel Walter Charteris Ross

Colonel Walter Charteris Ross

With a little research we discovered that sometime in the mid-1800s, Colonel Charteris Ross’ father ordered the desk for Cromarty House in Scotland and it was later passed to Walter when he died.

Now, Walter was a highly decorated soldier who was unfortunate enough to lose part of his jaw bone in battle. He was hit by a bullet while leading a surprise attack on De Wet’s Boer Commando at the battle of Bothaville in November 1900.

He must have been both a brave and a strong man, as not only did he survive, but he made a full recovery, returning to the battlefield twice before retiring as a Brigadier General in 1919.

Cromarty House itself is a handsome Palladian mansion built in 1772 and occupies a commanding position over the Forth of Cromarty on the site of Ross Castle, home to the Lords of Ross.

It is presently owned by the Nightingale family, decedents of the famous Florence.

But back to my tale. I was really excited by this discovery as it’s extremely unusual to be able to identify the original owner with an item of furniture, and a very illustrious owner at that, so we decided to take the desk to a big Antiques Fair.

“’Look at this!’ I said producing what was left of the jawbone and turning towards the couple”

As expected, it created much interest, but it especially caught the eye of the wife of a very opulent looking couple. She sat at the desk, opened the drawers, moved her hands caressingly backwards and forwards over the top and advised the husband that this desk would work perfectly in the study. After a little haggling hands were shaken and a deal was struck.

Now was my time to reveal the coup de grace, and with a flourish I opened the drawer, pressed the secret release button to reveal the innermost treasure of the desk. 

“Look at this!” I said, producing what was left of the jawbone and turning towards the couple, only to be met with a horrified expression from the wife who just moments before had been beaming at her new purchase.

“Oh my god, what is that?” she exclaimed, recoiling in disgust.

“It’s Colonel Ross’s jawbone, shot off in a campaign during the Boer War,” I replied.

“Urgh, it’s ghastly,” she said.  ‘Awful, I don’t want it’.

“No problem,” says I, “we just won’t put it back in the Desk.”

At this point the wife had become slightly hysterical, and was almost shouting – “No, no, I know it was in there. I can’t live with this desk now, knowing that it’s where he kept his jaw.  That’s a really sick thing to do.  I couldn’t possibly buy this desk now!’

With that, she took her husband’s hand and yanked him off the stand and, looking like she had seen a ghost, started running towards the exit.

Crestfallen, I replaced the jawbone in the secret compartment and closed the drawer.  Somehow, I forgot to tell the ultimate buyer of the surprise that awaits them should they ever discover the hidden button.  Some secrets are best kept to oneself.

Ian Butchoff is the founder and owner of Butchoff Antiques, located on Kensington Church Street . He entered the trade aged 11 and is today recognised as a leading authority on 19th century furniture. He is a co-founder and board member of the dealers’ association, LAPADA, and will be writing a regular column for Londonlovesbusiness.com.