Thomas Karl Illingworth Collector Extraordinaire

by

Bill Tonkin.

 

            The first time I met Karl was at our convention in 1987 organised by Andrew Brooks at the Black Swan in York. It was here that for the first time members had a chance to meet one another. This was the start of a lot of long lasting friendships, it was there Nancy and I met Stanley Hunter, Don Knight and Mike Perkins for the first time. Karl like myself and many others there were not founder members, this select group was restricted to nine collectors and friends that Andrew knew. Andrew had put in a notice in Picture Postcard Monthly announcing the formation of the Exhibition Study Group and in response to this our membership shot up to 46.

            The first Newsletters as they were called then in 1980 were produced by Andrew, but Karl soon took over the printing and distribution at his own expense for most of the first 23 issues, up to 1998. I had become Editor in 1993, and the system then was for me to prepare the master copy and post it to Karl who did the rest. If Karl was not about I spoke to Rob. Stewart who as far as I could make out was his 2IC at Illingworth Developments Ltd one of Karl’s businesses. Karl had known Rob since their school days, and Rob had early started working for Karl and moved up as Karl prospered.

            Karl had started out in life carrying bricks up a ladder in a hod for his father who was a brick layer by trade. His first business venture was to buy a derelict two up and two down cottage, renovate and sell it at a profit. This showed him the way forward, and he was soon deeply into property development and by the time I got to know him, he was a seriously wealthy man. He was one of the first to move into owning residential nursing homes for the elderly and when in 1989 he invited the Study Group to hold our third convention in his home he had no problem supplying beds for those attending as by then he told me he had 200 beds in homes he could borrow.

            His home was crammed full of his collection and I remember when I went into a large double room shelved from floor to ceiling full of crested china I actually stopped breathing for a moment. I have heard the expression ‘breath taking’ but it is the only time I have ever experienced it. Later counting how many pieces were in one foot of shelving I estimated there was about 3,000 pieces of crested china in the room. The bulk of it was Wembley and other exhibitions. His other collecting interest was the Manchester Ship Canal and there was a lot of crested china for that too.

            Mike Perkins was there and we were able to spend a lot of time going through Karl’s post cards and making notes of cards to include in the Wembley book we were working on. Karl had five Pathe Freres Cinema post cards and I still have the notes and photo-copies I made in 1989 and when I checked on the four cards I bought at the Shepton Mallet Fair on the 24 February 2012, I knew they came from Karl’s collection.

            As he built up his collection of exhibition memorabilia, he made no secret of the fact that it was his ambition to found a museum for exhibition souvenirs. He once considered buying the South African Pavilion built for the 1938 Scottish Empire Exhibition from Nobel Industries, who originally bought it after the exhibition closed to use as a sports pavilion. Unfortunately the metal work in the window frames had so rusted, it was just not practical.

 

              

 

                The Moorcroft Vase at our               Karl with the Elkington Shield at our 1993

                        1991 Convention                                              Convention

 

            Another interest of his was the Manchester Town Football Club where he had his own box. He was part of a small group who used a helicopter to travel to the away games. He told me that our convention was the only thing that took precedence over football, and he looked forward all year to our convention, which he never missed, the last one he attended was in 1997.

            By now Karl was looking for major items and at our 1991 convention he showed two such items, the Moorcroft vase which he paid £6,000 for, and the Wembley Fire Brigade brass helmet. In reply to a question by Andrew Brooks he admitted he had probably spent best part of a quarter of a million on his collection by then.

            In 1993 at our convention he showed us the Elkington shield that had been awarded a gold medal at a Paris exhibition possibly the 1900.

            Without doubt the largest item Karl ever managed to obtain was a huge vase or urn, This was coming up for sale in an auction and Karl was interested in it, which was one of a pair that was exhibited and gained an award at an international exhibition. The other one to the pair was on display in a pottery museum. Karl visited the museum and realised the one coming up for auction was in better condition than the museum copy, which was missing the ornamental lid and had one or two chips. See photograph on the front of this Journal taken in the museum where the vase was on display.

            I cannot remember where the photograph came from, I can only assume that Karl took it when he visited the museum and must have passed it on to me. I cannot even recall where the museum was, it was possibly something like the Coalport China Works Museum, but I didn’t make notes of the facts at the time.

            Karl attended the auction and managed to acquire the vase. It was made in parts and was held together by a large iron screw up the centre. When this was undone the top came apart from the base and he was able to pack the pieces in the back of his car and drive it home.

            At a committee meeting held in April 1994 at Karl’s house in Manchester, I reported that Mike and I had not been able to find a publisher for our book ‘Postcards of the British Empire Exhibition Wembley 1924-1925’, and during the discussion Karl very generously said that one of his companies would sponsor the printing costs. An offer which was gratefully accepted.

 

 

Karl, his Bentley with personalised number plates TKI 1 and Andrew Brooks at our 1995 Convention

 

            When the invoice came I phoned Karl who said he would send a cheque to me. When it came I saw Karl had paid the £3.500 printing costs with a personal cheque. I phoned him and reminded him he was going to pay through on of his businesses, but he replied he had decided to make it a personal cheque. I suggested that at the end of each year I would repay money raised by the sales of the book to him, but this he did not want. I said we could not accept the money as a gift and made the suggestion that the Study Group form a publishing fund to help future authors, and the money generated from the sales of our book go into this fund. He thought this was a good idea and that is how the publishing fund came into being, through Karl’s open handed generosity. Since the creation of the publishing fund, the Study Group has paid for no less than seven books nearly all made available to members at the bare printing costs.

            On 3 June 1995 we held a committee meeting at a motor way cafe at Newport Pagnall and about all I can remember of that was Karl telling us of the problem he was having getting just the right shade of red for his new Bentley, a problem none of the committee had experienced.

            At this time Karl was a great benefactor of the Study Group not only funding the Publishing Fund but also paying for the production and distribution of our Newsletter for nearly eighteen years.

            Then an incredible rumour got around that he was in prison. I phoned Rob Stewart and told him I had heard this rumour and was it true? He gave me a strange reply saying he would ring me back in a couple of minutes and put the phone down. Sure enough he rang back and said he had just spoken to Karl, and yes it was true. This was to me unbelievable and I asked what Karl had been up to. The answer and I can still remember the actual words were “He was helping out some people who were not so well off as he was and it all went terrible wrong” He had been sentenced to three years. I heard afterwards that his father in law and brother in law had both gone inside as well. I only spoke to him once while he was inside, and the only thing I can remember of the conversation is in answer to my query he said his collection was safe, as I heard the banks were calling in his loans. That was in about 1998

            After he was released Karl dropped out of sight, it appeared he had moved from White Hall,

Whitehough, Chinley, the large house he had purchased before his troubles, and his where-abouts were not known.

            The collecting world of exhibition material soon became aware that a new buyer had appeared on E-bay ‘1924lineone’. At first there were only a few known facts known about the newcomer, his requirements were wide, he apparently collected all British and Foreign exhibitions, and he had the money and will to outbid any opposition. It was not long before a name was put to this buyer, Rob Stewart. A new name not known previously as a collector, but putting two and two together it appeared more than possible that Karl’s old school friend was still working for him. A Letter to Karl through Rob Stewart went unanswered.

            Two members of the Study Group Alan Sabey and Ken Rumsey at different times contacted Rob asking him not to out-bid them for items they wanted and in both cases their wish was granted, and they got the items they wanted, with Rob abstaining from bidding. By this time Rob had made an incredible 35,000 purchases on E-bay. This number was given to me by Brian Hill the husband of one of our members who checked on 1924lineone a few years back, but I am going from memory as I don’t still have his letter to confirm this number of sales.

            And then things started to go wrong, another member Jean Osbourne had sold material to 1924lineone and had trouble getting her money, although it did come through in the end. Soon after Jean told me 1924lineone had been banned from using E-bay.

            A new actor now comes on the scene on E-bay, Karl’s daughter Alexandra who was selling Wembley advertising labels on E-bay. She told Alan she was selling some of Karl’s duplicate labels.

            The story now takes a terminal twist with Cathy, Karl’s wife starting to dispose of his collection through a number of dealers. In 2010 one dealer Peter Robards bought over a 1,000 Wembley post cards, items of postal history and pieces of crested china from Cathy. There is no doubt this came from Karl’s collection as I know the history of one post card I bought from Peter. Karl had bought it originally on E-bay through Rob for £38, Cathy sold it to Peter with a lot of other material and I bought it from Peter for £3. I know it was the same card as I have the original E-bay print out showing the front and back of the card. Once again my attempt to contact Karl through a letter delivered to Cathy his wife by Peter, went unanswered. In a previous Journal (No. 100 Spring 2011) I have told how Kenneth and myself spent three days over Christmas 2010 going over Karl’s collection that Peter had bought from Cathy. Later Peter bought more crested china from Cathy and I got a sizeable chunk of it at the 2011 Shepton Mallet fair.

            Peter by now had acquired so much of Karl’s exhibition collection from Cathy that he used a Stamp Auction firm BSA Auctions to dispose it at a special two day sale on Thursday 18 and Friday 19 August 2011. On the first day they intended putting up 1123 lots covering all the main exhibitions world wide from 1851. including a large amount of Wembley crested china. The second day was devoted to finishing any left overs from the previous day, and then going on to exhibition medals, medallions and tokens, starting with lot 1500 and going up to lot 1773.

            Unfortunately BSA Auctions although they may be very competent in dealing with stamps, fell down when it came describing other items in the first days sale. In stamp auctions the catalogue only has to give a SG number followed by M or U and this tells the vendor all he wants to know about that item. While one line will do for stamps, the same will not do for china ware and Peter told me he was a bit disappointed with the results, and he was left with a lot of unsold lots. These he intended disposing of through E-Bay. Fortunately it was a different story with the medals and they saved the day for him.

            We are now getting to the end of the story with the latest disposal of many tens of thousands of exhibition items through the Adam Partridge Auction Sale on 11 February 2012. An ‘all must go’ sale with no reserves. Bids for lots down to £5 were accepted.

            Sadly no news of the sale leaked out to collectors of exhibition memorabilia, and when I raised this with a member of the Adam Partridge staff, I was told they had never heard of the Exhibition Study Group. Apparently they just advertised the sale in an Antiques magazine, so our members all missed out. They did very kindly send me a catalogue and list of hammer prices. It has to be said there will never be another sale like it.

            Descriptions of the lots were kept to a bare minimum, for example Lot 750 “Various, a quantity of post cards including London 1909, Brussels 1935 etc.” went for £10 while over 70 lots mainly described as “Various approximately 100 stereoview cards for various exhibitions” went for anything between £70 and £140. That is except three lots which went for a lot more because they were wrongly described as Crystal Palace 1862 going for £220, £270 and £440. I hope the buyers were not too unhappy when they got home and examined their purchases and realised the 1862 was not held at the Crystal Palace. Ah well, caveat emptor, which my Concise Oxford Dictionary tells me means ‘Let the buyer beware (he alone is responsible if he is disappointed)’ which I think sums it up very well. It is mind boggling to think of Karl accumulating over 7,000 exhibition stereo cards, and even more surprising that they all sold. There must be a lot of very keen stereo collectors somewhere out there.

 

A Pathe Freres Cinema post card from Karl’s collection.

 

            It is difficult to come to any conclusions about the sale, because there are no details given, or very little. Regarding Wembley post cards Lot 765 an album of approx. 200 post cards some relating to Wembley including four Felix the Cat went for £140 plus a buyers premium of 18 % , but not knowing how many of the 200 were Wembley doesn’t help us much. Another “album of 140 Wembley cards including 6 pullouts” fetched £75 plus 18 %. The last item is the only lot where a price can be related to a given quantity of Wembley cards, including the buyers premium the cards went for 63p each. Certainly at Shepton Mallet in 2012 where these two lots surfaced in one dealers stock, there were some very good and very scarce cards indeed amongst them.

 

            I think Shepton must be a lucky fair for me as I have done very well there in the last two years, mainly it must be said getting material from the disposal of Karl’s collection.

            And what of Karl, there are plenty of rumours, but no hard facts. At the time his daughter Alexandra was selling his Wembley advertising labels the family was still living together. It must have broken his heart to see his collection go for, in many cases, peanuts, and very small ones at that.

 

© Exhibition Study Group 2012

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