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The Other Boleyn Bird

November 12, 2021
a bird made of wood - anne boleyn

Image courtesy of: Paul Fitzsimmons / Marhamchurch Antiques

Sometimes you don’t need a stained parchment map with a big, red X to find some treasure. Some treasures can be found in the most unexpected places, including when we’re unknowingly staring right at them. For example, just a few weeks ago, a British family discovered that their sphinx-style lawn statues are actual Egyptian artifacts. Earlier this week, a British antiques dealer made a similar find. In 2019, Paul Fitzsimmons of Marhamchurch Antiques bought a gilded wooden falcon for £75 ($101) at an auction. It was described in the catalogue as an “antique carved wooden bird,” and, though it was all in one piece, it was tarnished and almost completely black, likely caked with soot after being hung on a wall near a fireplace. Marhamchurch specializes in 15th to 17th century furniture and wood artifacts, so it seemed right up their alley.

Even at the time of the auction, there was something about this particular wooden bird that led Fitzsimmons to believe that there was more to it. Fitzsimmons had a hunch that the carved bird had some sort of royal connection because of the design: it is a falcon, with a crown and scepter, perched near a bed of red and white roses. Interestingly enough, this description matches that of the personal sigil used by Anne Boleyn, Queen of England and the second of Henry VIII’s six wives. Sure enough, after a good amount of research, Fitzsimmons can confidently say that this small, gilded bird carving belonged to the famous queen.

Though purchased for only £75, Fitzsimmons estimates that the artifact is worth, conservatively, about £200,000. That estimate is on the conservative end because it does not take into consideration the fact that Anne Boleyn is the most well-known of Henry VIII’s wives. She has been one of the most visible figures from the Tudor era in terms of pop culture representation. She has been portrayed by the likes of Natalie Dormer, Vanessa Redgrave, Natalie Portman, Merle Oberon, and Claire Foy. More recently, though, Anne Boleyn can be seen on Broadway and the West End in the Tudor-themed rock musical Six.

Anne Boleyn’s presence in popular culture comes with a fair bit of irony, mainly because of the iconoclasm following her execution. Art relating to Anne Boleyn is very rare in Britain today because, according to Fitzsimmons, “Henry VIII did his utmost best to completely obliterate every trace of her. All her emblems were removed from the palace, and nothing survived.” Therefore the excellent condition of the piece only adds to its value, both historical and material.

Fitzsimmons has expressed his intent to loan the piece to Hampton Court Palace, which was one of Henry VIII’s residences. Historians like Tracy Borman, chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, speculate that the carving was once kept in Anne Boleyn’s private chambers, making the piece’s return to one of her former residences all the more appropriate.