Why big-game hunting trophies are back in vogue under the auctioneers hammer

Have big-game hunting trophies had their day? Not by a long shot, reports John Vincent. But stuffed lions and elephants feet are definitely not for sale!

They blasted their way across the British Empire, those colonial types who shot anything that moved. For chaps with names such as Carruthers, FitzHerbert and Cholmondley-Smythe, nothing was off limits. Lions, tigers, snow leopards, jungle cats, crocodiles, gorillas - all were fair game.

Zebras, hippos, rhinos, giraffes, buffaloes and monkeys also dropped to the guns of hunters who cared little if their trophies pushed some species to extinction. Frederick Grant Banks (1875-1954), for instance, is said to have killed more than 1,000 elephants, mainly in Uganda. The haul of Walter Dalrymple Maitland "Karamojo" Bell (1880-1954) included 1,011 elephants, 25 lions, 16 leopards, four white rhinoceros, 67 black rhinos and 600-700 buffaloes.

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The enormous haul of Major Richard Vernon-Betts, one of the last of his kind, included Indian tigers, bears, spotted deer, muggers, sambar stags, crocs, panthers and black bucks. But when it comes to big-game hunting, few can compare with Old Etonian Albert Edward Leatham, whose extraordinary haul included a previously unknown species: an Ichang tufted deer bagged in the mountains of central China in 1904. He also landed a 10ft, 500 lb long tarpon fish off Florida in 1901.

A warthog which sold well at Tennants in a recent saleA warthog which sold well at Tennants in a recent sale
A warthog which sold well at Tennants in a recent sale

The legendary hunter, a pupil at the famous college in the 1870s, also blasted his way across India, marching out into the sun after downing "a few meat lozenges for breakfast" to bag vast numbers of big-game. He proudly donated many of his trophies to his alma mater's burgeoning natural history museum, including that tufted deer and heavyweight fish. Dozens of Old Etonians followed suit, with Frederic, Lord Wolverton, bequeathing the heads of two lions he shot in Somaliland in 1893 and another old boy, MT Kennard, giving a snow leopard.

But times change and by the 1990s the museum was considered irredeemably passé. And so it was that in the autumn of 1996, with Prince William in his second year, I found myself at Eton, peering up at the trophies from the hunting fields of Empire three weeks before Bonhams auctioned them for £82,000.

Curator Dr David Smith told me at the time: "Interests have shifted very decisively towards computers, art and design. The museum is deserted most of the time." And Eton's vice-provost Timothy Card added: "Unfortunately, much of the material has become irrelevant to the needs and interests of present-day schoolboys."

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So then, surely, interest in acquiring the cased and stuffed kills of bloodthirsty Imperialists would continue to dwindle in a conservation-conscious, more politically correct age? Not a bit of it, according to Robbie Bright, natural history and taxidermy specialist at Tennants, after overseeing a successful sale which included the collection of Army officer and hunter Colonel Stephenson Clarke.

He tells me that collecting big-game trophies is now back in vogue. "Those in their teens and 20s don't like it but middle-class 30-50s year old with money to spend are buying to decorate their homes. For space reasons, people are moving away from huge dioramas towards smaller, wall-mounted cases - the strange, unusual and colourful. " Dedicated collectors are prepared to pay big money, with one shelling out a world record £220,000 for a pair of long-extinct New Zealand Huia birds, mounted in the late 19th century. "We also sold recently a shoulder-mount tiger for £16,500.

"Nobody batted an eyelid at that. But we don't sell lions as everybody thinks of The Lion King [the 1994 Disney film]. Nor do we sell elephants' feet. Prices are still rising and a lot of now-elderly who have seen the market are selling. Prices are rising and have been doing so for the past four or five years, although the African big-game trophies bubble may have popped; the market is saturated. But anything from Australia and New Zealand, in particular, is doing well."

Highlights at the recent sale included the head and shoulders of an endangered Hunter's antelope from Kenya (£3,720), captive-bred Verreaux's eagle (£4,340), early-mid 20th century pair of cased New Zealand stitchbirds (£2,110), a Ural owl (£1,985), a resplendent quetzal, national bird of Guatemala (£4,960), the head and neck of an early 20th century Cape buffalo (£1,860) and a complete South African warthog (£1,055).

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Finally, for clarification, nothing shot after 1947 may be sold and all sales are in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the agreement aimed at ensuring international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species.

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