Collecting vintage telescopes

The star is in the ascendant for antiques that offer a view of space as it was seen centuries ago, says Virginia Blackburn

c1810 Dollond of London brass refractor telescope, £3,850 from Hatchwell Antiques
c1810 Dollond of London brass refractor telescope, £3,850 from Hatchwell Antiques

Man may be preparing to launch into an era of recreational space travel, but the fascination with simply gazing up at the stars has not lost its appeal. “A telescope is a window on to the universe,” says Allan Hatchwell, owner of Chelsea-based Hatchwell Antiques.

Left: 1719 Pietro Patroni binocular telescope, sold for £338,500 at Christie’s. Right: c1810 19th-century Dollond of London refracting telescope with case, £1,500-£2,500 at Christie’s
Left: 1719 Pietro Patroni binocular telescope, sold for £338,500 at Christie’s. Right: c1810 19th-century Dollond of London refracting telescope with case, £1,500-£2,500 at Christie’s | Image: Christie’s Images Ltd 2013

The first telescopes appeared in the Netherlands in the Dutch Golden Age of the early 17th century, when the country’s mastery of science and the arts was the envy of the world. A huge leap forward in scientific know-how, these attractive and often highly decorative brass pieces have been collectable ever since. The record price achieved to date was for a 1719 Italian binocular telescope by Milanese optician Pietro Patroni, which sold at Christie’s in 2013 for £338,500, but interesting 19th-century examples can be found from around £1,000. Hatchwell Antiques, for example, has a c1810 brass refractor telescope (the earliest telescopes were refractors; reflecting telescopes followed later, after Isaac Newton built the first practical example in 1688) by Dollond of London, a leader in lens manufacture that later became opticians Dollond & Aitchison, for £3,850.  

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“The telescope must be in good working order unless it’s spectacularly early,” says James Hyslop, head of travel, science and natural history at Christie’s, whose department holds two sales a year in which telescopes often feature. Of course, the telescopes produced today are extremely powerful, but many collectors delight in seeing space as it was viewed several centuries ago, says Debbie James, curator of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, housed in the building in Bath where Sir William Herschel, an amateur astronomer, discovered Uranus in 1781. “People find it fascinating that someone set up a telescope in his garden and discovered a planet.”

1805 Gregorian telescope, £2,850 from John Bly Antiques 
1805 Gregorian telescope, £2,850 from John Bly Antiques  | Image: Barry Macdonald

And today it is amateur astronomers who are driving the market in antique telescopes. For London dealer John Bly, collectors are interested in originality, “mechanism, good working order. People like using them,” he says, adding that specific makers are especially sought-after. Pieces by James Gregory, who designed the Gregorian telescope, are popular, while anything by German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who designed some of the very earliest telescopes, fetches an “astronomical price”; one with indisputable Kepler provenance could make £1m, says Bly. He currently has a fine Gregorian telescope from 1805 at £2,850.

19th-century W&S Jones achromatic refracting table telescope, £6,800 from Hansord Antiques 
19th-century W&S Jones achromatic refracting table telescope, £6,800 from Hansord Antiques 

For Lincoln-based dealer John Hansord, however, collectors fall into two groups: “those interested in the scientific instrument who often seek out telescopes by rare makers, and those who want something to look good in a bay window”. But many examples would tick both boxes. Hansord currently has a good 19th-century achromatic refracting telescope (£6,800) by W&S Jones – there is a near identical one in London’s Science Museum – in an original mahogany case with handwritten instructions; and a Gregorian telescope (£3,450) in the manner of George Adams, who made telescopes for George III and other nobility and scholars of the time.

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One collector who combines aesthetic appreciation with an active interest in the history of astronomy is Peter Louwman, a Dutch businessman who works within his family’s automotive group. “I bought my first antique telescope in Vienna in 1966 and now have a very broad collection from many countries and in different optical designs,” he says. “I used to buy at markets and auctions but now the dealers contact me.” His 300-strong collection is housed at his family’s impressive classic car museum, the Louwman Museum in the Hague, and includes an exceptionally rare, early example dating back to about 1634.

At the other end of the collecting scale, with six telescopes in various states of repair or refurbishment, Bart Fried, the New York-based proprietor of an import/export company, bought his first piece 30 years ago in an estate auction “for a lark”. The 1905 signed Brashear sparked a lifelong passion; he currently has two portable Brashear examples, from 1896 and 1907, which he uses regularly and takes with him when he travels. “I appreciate the fine optics and the craftsmanship,” says Fried, who founded the international Antique Telescope Society, which has approximately 200 members around the world who share information and can give great advice. “With antique telescopes, a little knowledge can be very dangerous – and expensive. It would be very easy to overspend on a telescope that either does not work properly or is not what it seems.”

A particularly crucial selling point is the condition of the lens, and the original case is also a desirable feature. “People look for completeness and originality,” says Richard Dunn, author of The Telescope and senior curator and head of science and technology at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. “They are more valuable if they are signed with the maker’s name, and personal associations such as an engraving of the owner’s name – especially a famous person – add to the appeal.” But makers and former owners are all but forgotten when the telescope is pointing up at the sky, says Hatchwell. “When they are used properly, you are actually aware of the earth moving.”

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