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John Hamill on the value of masonic artefacts

What’s heritage worth?

While historic items may not have huge monetary value, Director of Special Projects John Hamill explains why they are still national treasures

A few years ago the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, with incredible assistance from a dedicated team of brethren in the Provinces, conducted one of the largest national archive surveys that has ever taken place in this country. The result was a formidable database of all the lodge and chapter records in masonic hands in this country. It will be a veritable gold mine for future researchers into English and Welsh masonic history and is also proving to be a major source for local historians.

The survey was limited to ‘words on paper’ and, partly because of time constraints, did not include regalia, furniture, masonic equipment or artefacts. That leads me to one of my hobby horses: that masonic historians in the past have primarily depended on only the written records that are available and have largely ignored what can be learnt from non-documentary items.

During the twenty-eight years I was involved in the Library and Museum, I was privileged on many occasions to be invited to speak in the Provinces. 

I soon developed a habit of arriving early, if visiting a masonic hall I had not previously attended, in order to have a look at what they might have hanging on their walls or in, often dusty, display cases. I soon began to appreciate the wealth of material that still survived and began to keep notes of anything unusual or rare. I also began to realise that very few of those running the halls were aware of the treasures in their custody, or that some of them had a monetary value.

Happily, that neglect and ignorance has been changing since the late 1990s with the creation of the Masonic Libraries and Museum Group, which is formed of dedicated volunteers with a love of masonic history. The group has gradually persuaded their respective Provinces that they have collections of importance, which should be properly catalogued and looked after because they form an important part of our heritage – and in many cases, include items that are irreplaceable.

History for sale

A recent auction sale in south London illustrates the value certain masonic objects can have. The first part of the sale was probably the last major collection of masonic jewels and artefacts in private hands in this country. Formed by Albert Edward Collins Nice between the 1930s and his death in 1969, it was rich in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century jewels, which, in addition to having masonic importance, were superb examples of the jeweller and silversmith arts. Competition was fierce and some surprising prices were paid for the star items.

The Antiques Roadshow and its many spin-offs have given the public a false sense that because something is old it must be worth money. Monetary value, however, is not everything. Particularly in a specialist area, an item can have very little monetary value to the outside world but be of major importance to the history of the organisation concerned. In my early days in the museum, people would wander in with an item and ask what it was and if we would be interested in having it. Today, thanks to antique-valuing programmes on television, they ask what it is and what it is worth!

We live in an age in which the importance of our heritage in all parts of our lives is being increasingly recognised. We took the major step of finding out, and taking steps to preserve, our archival heritage in Freemasonry. Perhaps now is the time to take the same steps in relation to the treasures, in the widest sense of that word, that rest in our buildings.

‘An item can have very little monetary value to the outside world but be of major importance to the history of the organisation concerned.’