Antique arms & armour from Midmar Castle, the first of the five great castles of Marr in Aberdeenshire, owned by Mr Ric Wharton, who famously salvaged £50 million of gold bars from the wreck of HMS Edinburgh in 1981, sold nearly £300,000 in a single owner auction at Lyon & Turnbull.
On the evening of September 16, 1981, Ric and Jackie Wharton were dining with friends when the telephone rang. Wharton took the call in the kitchen. A woman’s voice at the other end of the line said simply: “Dog 36.” It was the prearranged code that told Wharton that his diving company had pulled off the salvage operation of the 20th century, wresting £50m of Russian gold from the wartime wreck of HMS Edinburgh.
Many of the items in the sale were bought by Wharton with the proceeds of the salvage, for the home he had gambled to help fund the HMS Edinburgh operation, Midmar Castle, a classic 16th-century Aberdeenshire castle at Inverurie.
“International buyers resorted to the telephone and the internet, as they couldn’t fly in to Edinburgh for the sale because of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud, but this didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. Many of the lots were hotly contested by bidders in Israel, Poland, Romania, Italy, Greece and the U.S.A.” - John Batty, Arms & Armour Specialist at Lyon & Turnbull
Significant items in the sale included: a rare Lorenzoni system Flintlock Repeating Gun dated 1770 once owned by the Nizam of Hyderabad, which sold for £12,000; a rare Indian Flintlock Dagger Pistol from the same collection made £4,200; a German Bohemian Wheel Lock Smooth Bore Sporting Rifle belonging to Baron von Zylan made £12,000.
The first lot in the sale, a scale model of the diving support vessel MV Deepwater I, used in the salvage of HMS Edinburgh, sold for £1,700.
Other lots that went for well over their estimate included: a beautiful articulated German Augsburg armoured breastplate which sold for £7,300; a presentation bronze cannon from the battle of Nivelle in the Peninsular War, dated November the 10th 1830, which made £9,500; and a Fine Middle Eastern Flintlock Rifle which made £14,000.
Ric Wharton commented on the sale saying “Good quality items did extremely well, however many of the top dealers and collectors had to resort to bidding by telephone rather than being in the saleroom as they were unable to get to Edinburgh due to the ‘No Fly Zone’ imposed by the Government”.
Wharton’s great adventure helped to fund the restoration of Midmar and the creation of the collection. He was aided by the development of the first dedicated diving-support vessel, equipped with a revolutionary “moon pool” in the centre of the ship, through which a diving bell could be lowered in virtually any weather. This single development brought the wreck of HMS Edinburgh within his reach. Wharton first heard of the ship in 1980, in April 1942, HMS Edinburgh had successfully escorted a convoy laden with wartime munitions from the west coast of Scotland to Murmansk, in Northern Russia. On the return trip she carried Soviet gold as payment to America for supplies.
On April 30, on the ship’s homeward journey, it was torpedoed by the German submarine U456, which had been hiding under pack ice. Two days later, a German destroyer again torpedoed the crippled ship. It was finally abandoned, before being deliberately sunk by a British torpedo. Fifty-eight men died in the attacks.
The ship went down in 840ft of water, at the same time, nobody could be certain of the ship’s position on the sea-bed. The financial risks were enormous. “We rated the chance of a successful recovery at only 10% to 20% and estimated the operation would cost about £3m, and the survey alone, £500,000”, says Wharton, “We based our bid on a so-called ‘salvor’s share’ of just 45%, more than £22m.”
Incredibly, the first sonar sweep of the seabed by their survey vessel, in a search area the size of London, located a wreck. On dive 27, John Rossier, a Rhodesian diver, screamed up the intercom: “I've found the gold.” Blinded by clouds of thick silt, he had been moving debris into a skip when he came across a piece that was heavier than the rest. Bringing it close to his mask, he saw the glint of gold: a bar marked with the Soviet hammer and sickle and a serial number. Soon, the divers were finding bars in large numbers. But bad weather closed in after 431 of the gold bars had been recovered. There were still 34 bars, worth almost £4m, to recover. A return trip in 1986, using a new high-tech Wharton Williams dive ship, retrieved another 29.
All prices premium inclusive.