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The joy of scrounging and the tales things tell

I’ve always been a scrounger, ferreting around in dark corners for the old and the interesting, hunting for odd and unusual stories. Here are a few bits and pieces gathered in my travels.

The case of the flattened shell

It’s a German artillery shell case, cunningly crushed almost flat by some clever machine that has managed to leave the finished product oddly symmetrical. Not only that, when you view it side-on, it seems the flattened metal has the form of a strange malevolent face. On the bottom of the shell case you can read its pedigree: “Patronenfabrik, Karlsruhe”.

At first I assumed it was a piece of German Great War trench art, but the strange thing is, it appears to have been produced as a piece of advertising for a British-made anti-fouling paint – “Rahtjen’s Composition“, designed “fur schiffsboden” – to coat the bottoms of ships and boats. Just as I was mulling that problem over, the owner of the antique shop where I was viewing the item (Peter Woof of Evandale Antiques, Tasmania) stepped in to supply an intriguing back-story. This ashtray (or whatever it is meant to be) came from a deceased estate that included the effects of the Australian Great War soldier, Keith Heritage.

Keith Heritage, in 1915.

Heritage – a champion rower – is reputed to have been the first Australian to enlist in that war. According to his Wikipedia entry, he signed up on August 11, 1914, and participated in the Australian task force sent to take German New Guinea in 1914. The Australians were successful, and it seems many of them brought back a variety of souvenirs. After his time at New Guinea, Heritage also served at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. He was awarded the Military Cross, and was a captain at the time he was killed, at Pozieres in 1916.

The dealer showed me a chair that had come from the same estate, emblazoned with the words “NDL SS Sumatra”. This was a ship belonging to the German shipping line Norddeutscher Lloyd, captured by Australia’s new battle cruiser, HMAS Australia, during the action. The dealer was certain that the ashtray also came from from the SS Sumatra. That would make sense: the British anti-fouling paint was evidently being promoted in Germany before the war, and this artifact was part of the advertising campaign. Perhaps the product was used to paint the bottom of the Sumatra. At any rate, after its capture the Sumatra was put to work for Australia’s New Guinea administration. It met a tragic end on June 26, 1923 when it sank between Port Macquarie and Crescent Head with the loss of 44 crew and one passenger.

NB: Among the souvenirs brought back to Australia by victorious troops were some valuable glass plate negatives, the work of German ethnologist Richard Thurnwald. These were seized by Australian soldier and photographer Thomas Rodoni, and for some time were thought to be his work. A fascinating article about these negatives can be found on the website of the University of Newcastle.

The university’s Living Histories site also contains this superb collection of images and documents collected during the campaign by Alison Douglas Adam, a Newcastle man who spent many years working as a clerk for the Huddart Parker shipping company in Newcastle.

I’m positive she’s not my type

To begin with, I wondered why somebody had delicately painted on the back of a glass negative. I tried to scan the negative as I normally would, but the image came out wrong. It wasn’t a positive, exactly, but there was something strange about it. That’s when we put a black card behind it and – lo and behold – the point of the painting became clear. This was no standard negative. It was an “ambrotype” , which more or less dates it to the 1850s or 1860s. It was evidently once displayed in an oval frame, now missing. Who is the lady? I believe I will never know.

It’s a tin and a table decoration all in one

I’m not really a big collector of decorative tins. It’s far too big a field. But now and then I can’t resist, and this odd tin – found at the Wollombi Fair a few years ago – is one such case. At first glance it is fairly unattractive, like a model of a strange UFO. But there was something about that raised part on top that suggested this tin had a trick to play, and I soon discovered it. I guess it was sold with chocolates inside, and you could remove the lid and fit it to the bottom of the tin to create a handy little tray to dispense them from. And perhaps you might keep it after the chocolates were all gone and use to to hold – oh, I don’t know – a collection of old military buttons?

There’s ink in the centre of the Earth

This funny little paper-covered sphere is a miniature globe of the world. Whoever put it together used a noticeable lack of care in ensuring the hemispheres matched. Apart from that, though, it’s very cute. A little catch, when pushed, opens it up as seen on the left. Another little catch opens it up still further and voila! – a portable inkwell.

And this is where he kept his nibs

I’ve something of a weakness for things shaped like books, so this pretty little tin caught my eye. Turns out it’s a container for pen nibs, part of a system called by its creators – D. Leonardt & Co – the “universal pen”. Like the inkwell above, this is something I will never use. But still, it’s nice to look at.

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