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Jack the Ripper relics go up for auction and collectors show there’s money in mayhem

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A collection of Jack the Ripper-related items once owned by a police inspector involved in the notorious unsolved Victorian case goes up for auction this month.

It includes a mortuary photo of first victim Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, as well as photos and details of a suspect, Michael Ostrog. 

Also included is a facsimile copy sent to the police of a ‘Dear Boss’ letter and a ‘Saucy Jack’ postcard – both from anonymous senders claiming to be the Ripper.

The pieces are being sold as one lot by auctioneer Whitton & Laing in Exeter on March 22 with a £10,000 estimate.

Gruesome: The Ripper stalked the streets of Whitechapel in East London, killing and mutilating five women between August and November in 1888, before vanishing

Fascination in Jack the Ripper and other historical crimes is reflected in the increased value of related artefacts. 

In the Ripper’s case, it is not just the grisly crime that attracts attention – but the stories surrounding the perpetrator of this dark mystery.

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The Ripper stalked the streets of Whitechapel in East London, killing and mutilating five women between August and November in 1888, before vanishing.

Andrew Frazer Cole, of Whitton & Laing, says: ‘The Ripper continues to capture our imagination. Items connected to his crimes rarely come up, so we expect huge interest. 

‘Although it may seem ghoulish, as it relates to the Victorian era rather than modern times, it is far enough removed to be acceptable to collect related items. 

‘A key part of the appeal is it taps into the natural fascination that we have for unsolved murder mysteries.’

As with all historic collectables, provenance is key. The hoard was originally owned by Inspector Joseph Henry Helson, who was in charge of the investigation for the first murder. It was kept in Helson’s family and is being sold by his great grandson.

Other Ripper items recently sold include a postcard sent in 1888 by someone warning how the killer’s knife ‘is still in good order’. 

It was sold at auction for £22,000 in 2018, showing there is a keen appetite for the macabre.

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Another hoard of Ripper artefacts, which included handcuffs, a truncheon, whistle and a notebook carried by Police Constable Edward Watkins on the night he discovered fourth victim Catherine Eddowes was sold for a total of £18,000 ten years ago by JP Humbert Auctioneers in Northamptonshire, since renamed Humbert & Ellis.

There is something about the era and place – gas lit streets, foggy nights and the brick lanes of East End London – that is irresistible to the mind.

Jonathan Humbert – JP Humbert Auctioneers 

Founder Jonathan Humbert says: ‘Just holding items such as the whistle in your hand sends shivers down the spine. 

‘The body of Catherine Eddowes was discovered on Watkins’ beat and the murder was believed to have only just occurred. 

‘The Ripper may well have heard the whistle or even passed the policeman.’ The whistle alone sold for £2,600.

Humbert says: ‘There is something about the era and place – gas lit streets, foggy nights and the brick lanes of East End London – that is irresistible to the mind. 

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‘With an unsolved murder where the suspects people talked about included a Royal surgeon and even the Prince of Wales, it is no surprise this story has created a collectable market.’

It is not just gruesome crimes of the Victorian era that capture the imagination, but minor misdemeanours as well. 

A 500-page police ledger containing hundreds of mugshots of those arrested between 1890 and 1920 in Derbyshire and other areas was sold for £10,500 a couple of years ago by Hansons Auctioneers – more than three times its estimate. It had been rescued from a skip.

Jim Spencer, head of Hansons library department, says: ‘The images of this bygone age are incredible – drawing you into a fascinating snapshot of time and history. 

‘Many look like characters from the TV period drama Peaky Blinders, dressed in cloth caps and charged with bizarre petty crimes such as stealing a bag of soot. There are also gentlemen wearing bowler hats charged with embezzlement.’

The biggest find in the convict snapshots was pacifist Alice Wheeldon, who was convicted of plotting to kill Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1917. 

Despite being sentenced to ten years, she was released that same year after going on a hunger strike. It is believed the charges were trumped up and she died two years later.

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Macabre fascination: Jack the Ripper items still attract huge interest including a letter claiming to be from the Ripper

Macabre fascination: Jack the Ripper items still attract huge interest including a letter claiming to be from the Ripper

Other recent sales revealing an interest in the macabre include a notebook that belonged to Britain’s most famous hangman Albert Pierrepoint, who executed 400 people over a 25-year period up to 1956. 

One of the last he hanged was Ruth Ellis in 1955, the final woman to be executed in Britain. 

Her story is being turned into a TV drama this year. 

The hangman’s book included details of height, weight and neck type of each person so he could work out the ‘drop’ required. 

The notebook was sold along with photos of himself and his father, also a hangman, for £12,400 by SAS Auctions of Newbury in Berkshire, last year.

Humbert also believes an interest in how law breakers do not play by the rules that others in society abide by also adds to the appeal of crime memorabilia.

He says: ‘The Great Train Robbery of 1963 is almost a modern-day Robin Hood or highway robbery tale – with the audacious theft of £2.6 million in used bank-notes from a train hijacked by putting up a false red signal.’

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Humbert sold Great Train Robbery memorabilia in 2015 that fetched a total of £20,000. Items included Monopoly money played with when the gang was lying low after the robbery, which sold for £400. 

A watch worn by Ronnie Briggs – who later escaped prison and fled to Brazil – fetched £900, while a £1 note taken by the robbers went under the hammer for £750.

Humbert says: ‘Gangsters who like to play by their own set of criminal rules also have a glamourous appeal for collectors – despite the often unsavoury nature of what they actually did to gain their notoriety and fame. 

‘A great example of this is the Kray Twins, leading East End gangsters during the 1950s and 1960s. The twins Ronnie and Reggie still command huge attention.’

A decade ago, JP Humbert Auctioneers sold items owned by Ronnie. These included a miniature rotating clock birdcage complete with ‘canary’ that the twin kept in his Broadmoor cell that sold for £3,200. 

At a sale in 2009 held by Chiswick Auctions in London, a Ronnie Kray piece of art ‘Crucifixion’ went for £4,800.

But Humbert warns: ‘Be wary of buying items relating to criminals off auction websites as the market is flooded with fakes. 

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‘Ideally, use a reputable auction house who can validate provenance. Kray art is a classic example as it is almost childlike – so easy to copy. Otherwise, you may unwittingly become a victim of crime.’

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Source: Daily Mail

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