Polar exploration is hot right now, and it's not a consequence of global warming. Anything Antarctic-related is liable to bring the collectors flocking to the auction rooms, virtual or otherwise.
"I blame the surge in Antarctic tourism," says Matthew Haley, head of the Books and Manuscripts department at Bonhams. "Many of the collectors are people who have been on trips to Antarctica where, as far as I know, there is no gift shop."
Those with old albums of polar photographs pay careful attention. They may well be worth more than you think. There's a fascinating pair of polar exploration photographs by Herbert Ponting in tomorrow's Collector's Cabinet Auction at Mullen's Laurel Park (Lot 85: est €300 to €500). One shows pipe-smoking explorers hunched over a brazier and is captioned "Antarctic Scott's Expedition Eating, Drinking, Resting".
The other is of "The chef of the Expedition, Clissold, the cook whose ingenious concoctions were the admiration of all". Apparently, what the chef couldn't do with seal meat wasn't worth knowing, but the photograph reveals a trade secret in the familiar form of a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup. Penguin-au-vin, anyone?
At the stellar end of the spectrum, anything directly related to the Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) is pure gold. A presentation album of 'Photographs of Scenes and Incidents in Connection with the Happenings to the Weddell Sea Party, 1914, 1915, 1916' by photographer Frank Hurley sold at Bonhams' sale of Travel & Exploration for €98,495 on February 26.
The album related to one of Antarctic exploration's most heroic adventure stories - and one of the few to have a happy ending. Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) ran into difficulties when Endurance became stuck in ice. The crew camped on the ice and the expedition's Australian photographer, Frank Hurley, took photographs of the crew, and the dogs, and the disintegrating ship.
"Hurley was an extremely talented photographer and he wasn't one to be diverted from his trade by a marginal thing like being at death's door," Haley says. "His composition is phenomenal and the quality is equivalent to that of a 54-megapixel digital camera."
This quality was achieved by means of using glass plates, rather than film. They were stored in a wooden box, a bit like a filing cabinet. When the ship went down, Hurley and Shackleton went through 400 glass plates, kept 120, and smashed the rest. What is extraordinary is that any of the photographs survived at all.
The crew of Endurance were stranded on a disintegrating ice floe, deep in the Weddell Sea, with no prospect of rescue. But Shackleton intended to survive and to bring back every single one of his crew.
They all piled into the lifeboats and set off for Elephant Island, 557km from where Endurance sank. Shackleton's biographer, Roland Huntford, records how the story became a whalers' yarn.
"So what do they do? They sit down and pray to God? Or start writing dramatic diaries about all is lost, same as Captain Scott? Na-a-a-w! Shackleton just say: 'OK boys! We go home!' - and he bring 'em all home, safe and well."
The photographs survived because Shackleton understood the importance of documentation. Once back on dry land, he would need them to present to his funders and to secure the funding for future expeditions.
"The vendor had inherited the album and she thought that it might be of interest, but she was astonished to find out how much it was worth," says Haley. In the same sale, a single photograph from Scott's fatal Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913) (est €570 to €913) sold for €5,975. It showed Teddy Evans on board the Terra Nova with William Lashly and the Kerryman Tom Crean, who saved him by dragging him back to the ship on a sledge when he came down with scurvy.
On Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Crean was one of the rescue party who sailed 720 nautical miles in an open boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia to raise a rescue party. But, in the pantheon of polar explorers, he is one of the lesser gods. "I think that the attention of collectors is turning towards the more minor figures of polar exploration," Haley says. "I certainly hope so."
See bonhams.com and mullenslaurelpark.com