Walk This Way: Kimball Sterling’s September 2023 Antique Canes Auction
Kimball Sterling of Johnson City, TN presented its Antique Canes auction on September 16, 2023. This event included 100+ weapon-, system-, folk-, and dress-style canes. Walking sticks, which appeared in Egypt as far back as 4,000 BCE, were first used by elite society members as symbols of affluence and authority. Fast forward several millennia, canes would go on to become an essential element of any proper gentleman’s attire during the Victorian era (circa 1837 – 1901). Kimball Sterling’s recent sale included many fine examples from that period. Here are a few highlights that caught the eye of the Auction Daily team. All prices noted include the auction house’s 23% buyer’s premium.
The top lot in this sale was #2, a gold quartz dress cane. Estimated at USD 4,500 to $5,500, it traded hands at $4,920. This handsome example from around 1870 measured 37.5 inches overall and featured an octagonal gold quartz stone handle set in gold. The handle was elaborately carved and engraved with linear patterns and flourishes. The hardwood shaft had a dark brown, glossy finish and was tipped with a horn ferrule.
Gold quartz is quartz stone with naturally embedded gold veins. It can be found in underground rock mines, usually near rivers and streams known for their gold mining potential. It was discovered in Alaska in the late 1800s and became a popular decorative element in the early 20th century. It occurs naturally in a number of hues but the rarest and most coveted color is white because of the contrast between the gold and the stone.
Presentation canes– those given as a prize or as recognition for an achievement– were well represented in this sale. Lot #74, a massive presentation cane, was estimated at $800 to $1,200 and sold for $1,938. This impressive walking stick had a gold compartment-style ball-shaped handle. It was ornately decorated with dimensional flowers and engraved with the words “MM from McCamridge 1890” on the top surface. It was mounted to an ebony shaft with metal ferrule. This example, which could also be a defensive cane given its weight and heft, measured 39 inches long overall.
Ebony is a somewhat generic term for dense, black to brown hardwood from a genus of plants mostly native to the tropics. Unlike the majority of woods, ebony is dense enough that it sinks when submerged in water. Ebony wood has a distinct surface texture which develops a mirror finish when correctly polished, making it the ideal material for ornamental and decorative items like walking sticks.
A key category in this sale was canes featuring handles made from carved wood, horn, or ivory. Lot #13, a stag and snakes cane, was estimated at $500 to $700 and made $1,569. This 20th-century walking stick included a particularly well-carved and rendered handle of two snakes wrapped around a tree trunk with leaves. The snakes came to life with scaly surfaces, open mouths with fangs, and painted eyes. The carving was attached to the cane’s thick malacca shaft with a signed sterling collar. The cane was tipped with a matching stag horn ferrule and measured 36.5 inches overall.
Antlers have been used for functional and decorative purposes since the beginning of recorded time. This renewable resource, mostly composed of bone, is easily carved with standard wood carving tools. Antlers have traditionally been used to create buttons and fasteners, as well as handles for blade knives, cutlery or utensils, walking canes, and other accessories.
Canes with novelty features also caught the attention of collectors at this sale. Lot #69, a glove holder automaton cane, was estimated at $500 to $600 and realized $1,507. This example from around 1890 had a handle in the form of a finely carved fox head wearing a hunter’s cap. When the button on his beard was pressed, his glass eyes would change color and his mouth would open wide enough to store a pair of gloves. The cane was detailed with a leather collar, a malacca shaft, and a copper pike ferrule.
Unlike ebony, malacca wood is typically paler in color and is extremely lightweight. It comes from a species of palm trees native to the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. It naturally occurs in long, skinny stems and as such was the ideal material for creating walking sticks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was commonly used on canes that had a heavy handle, to balance out the overall weight of the walking stick.
Weapon-style, folk art, erotic, and dress canes brought this intriguing sale full circle. Lot #48, a marquetry flick stick, was estimated at $700 to $1,000 and scored $1,261. This 20th-century defensive cane featured a beautifully handcrafted, striped wooden marquetry ball handle. It would produce a three-quarters-inch long knife blade when activated. The hardwood shaft was skillfully finished with marquetry collars and a horn ferrule. This cane measured 35.5 inches overall.
For more information on Kimball Sterling’s Antique Canes sale on September 16, 2023, visit Bidsquare.
Find additional auction results on Auction Daily, including for Van Eaton Galleries’ recent Disneyland sale.