Auction  March 29, 2019  Rebecca Rego Barry

Odd Lots: 17th-Century Prisoner Graffiti

Courtesy Bonhams

As one would expect, the semi-annual Oak Interior auction at Bonhams London is chockful of sturdy chairs and clunky chests. There’s also plenty of antique iron, brass, pewter, stone, and copper–if you happen to be furnishing a castle, this is the sale for you–but the lot with the most presence is this rough-hewn English oak jail door dating from the 1630s (or earlier) and showing “fascinating and macabre prisoner graffiti,” according to the auctioneer.

Courtesy Bonhams

Lacking the appropriate spray paint, these 17th-century graffiti artists used whatever sharp object was at hand. What did these creative inmates commit to the ages? One carved a gallows with a hanged man and a flanking ladder; either he was contemplating his ultimate fate, or he was trying to drum up a game of hangman. Another jailbird offered a delicate illustration of three crosshatched birds. A third simply stated: “1638 … The 22th December … Here was I … Tho*Crimer.” Perhaps Thomas was guilty of etching all of the graffiti himself. What else he was guilty of we do not know.

Courtesy Bonhams

Standing only five feet tall by about two feet wide, the door isn’t terribly large, and yet it would still make a towering statement as a piece of home décor. The center peephole could even frame another piece of prison art, or street art. And, if doing time is on your mind, a 17th-century oak-framed sandglass might complete the look. (This one is not called an hourglass because it only measures twenty minutes.)

Courtesy Bonhams

The door is slated to sell on April 2 for £2,000-3,000 ($2,600-4,000), while the sandglass might set you back £800-1,200 ($1,100-1,600).

About the Author

Rebecca Rego Barry

Rebecca Rego Barry is the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places and the editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine.

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