The expert at the British Museum’s eyes widened when he saw the cat. When the auctioneer took it in for a second opinion, he was pretty sure they would laugh him out of there. But maybe this wasn’t a forgery after all.
If this was the real deal, he could be looking at a life-changing amount of money – not to mention the find of the century. And to think they were going to throw it out!
Antique expert David Lay was used to receiving calls from family estates to look at items their loved ones had left behind. But when he answered this particular call at the Penzance Auction Room, he was more intrigued than usual.
David made room in his schedule to head to the Liddell property as soon as possible. What he found when he got there lead to one of the most memorable moments in his career.
Doreen Liddell passed away in November 2014, leaving her family heartbroken – and with the daunting task of sorting through her belongings at her Cornwall, UK, home.
So rather than trying to determine what was worth keeping and what should be sold or thrown out, they decided to call in David for an expert opinion on what was in the garage. Unfortunately, they had no way of knowing they’d directed him to the wrong part of the house.
David rooted through the contents of the garage and didn’t turn up anything, so went to explain to the Liddell family that there wasn’t anything he could do for them.
But as he navigated through the boxes of Doreen’s possessions lining the corridors of the house, he spied something on the mantle that piqued his interest.
Sat there above the fireplace, waiting to be either tossed into a box or taken to the dump, was a seven-inch cat statue.
David suspected he had come across something of Doreen’s that could be sold at auction, but when he found out where she had gotten it from, he thought he might have been barking up the wrong tree.
“We were going to just toss it out,” Doreen’s daughter said. “It’s just something she picked up from a yard sale.”
David realized it must have been a replica. He had never heard of someone buying an ancient Egyptian artifact at a yard sale. It just didn’t happen. But he decided to take it into the auction house anyway, just to be on the safe side.
David couldn’t contain his curiosity a second longer. He got his magnifying glass out the moment he returned to the office and took a closer look.
The antique expert couldn’t believe what he was seeing, nor could he bring himself to declare it as the real deal without first finding out a bit more about it. David had to know who Doreen’s husband was.
Doreen’s daughter was suspicious when David called. Why was he suddenly so interested in her father?
David explained that he suspected the cat statue may have dated back to around 600BC – making it 2,500 years old. But before he could take it any further, he had to know what her father did for a living.
David was thrilled with the response. It turned out his suspicions were correct. Doreen’s husband had worked at the Spink and Son auction house in London.
He knew there had to have been an antique expert in the family for them to have such a rare item sat in the living room. Could it really be that an ancient Egyptian relic had found its way into an old lady’s home in England?
The reason that her husband worked at Spink and Son excited David so much because the auction house was one of the world’s leading experts in ancient Egypt.
Not only that, but Spink and Son had auctioned off the estate of renowned archaeologist Howard Carter. And it was his discovery in 1922 that would suggest Doreen’s cat statue was worth a lot of money.
Howard Carter discovered the tomb and sarcophagus of Tutankhamun. It was a legendary find in that it was the only tomb in the Valley of the Kings that hadn’t been raided by explorers centuries earlier.
Was this fireplace cat statue part of Carter’s inventory that was sold off when he passed away? There was only one way to find out.
But, considering the potentially valuable antique was just stuck on top of a fireplace (it was hot to the touch when David first picked it up) and not properly protected, it was entirely possible that what David had happened upon was just a very convincing forgery.
But after explaining his theory to the Liddells, David thought there was good reason to get a second opinion on the piece.
The Liddells realized they must have been mistaken in thinking Doreen had picked up the cat at a yard sale. She did spend an awful lot of time looking for bargains, but this could have been something their father brought home from work.
With that, David rushed the cat to the British Museum to have a friend look at it. After gathering all the evidence, David estimated that the cat could fetch £5,000 ($6,500) to £10,000 ($13,000). But it turned out he was very wrong indeed.
The cat statue eventually sold for £52,000 ($80,000). David said, “The British Museum was genuinely delighted to see such a ‘perfectly proportioned’ piece.”
Museum spokeswoman Mimi Connell-Lay was blown away that the cat statue might have been lost forever had David not stepped in, “David asked the family for some background, and amazingly they had no idea it was valuable. They were about to throw it in the trash.”
It’s not the first Egyptian bronze that went for big money at auction. In 2013, a slightly larger 13-inch cat statue went under the hammer for a staggering £1.3million ($1.7 million).
So if you ever see an Egyptian-looking cat statue perched upon someone’s fireplace, maybe look a little closer. It could be worth a lot more money than you might think.