Baltimore dental museum acquires instruments fit for a queen's cuspids


LONDON -- "They're cheering in Baltimore," said Christie's specialist when the auctioneer knocked down Queen Victoria's personal dental tools to Baltimore's National Museum of Dentistry for 14,000 pounds.

They sure were. The dental museum in Baltimore had long coveted these royal picks, mirrors, scrapers and scalers.

"They rank in importance with George Washington's teeth," museum director Ben Z. Swanson said in Baltimore, where he and others participated in the bidding by telephone.

The dental museum already owns a pair of the first president's fake choppers. Dr. Swanson hopes that Queen Victoria's dental kit will become as popular with visitors.

The Victorian dental tools, fitted into a velvet-lined, leather-covered case, were made for Sir Edwin Saunders, the queen's dentist, probably in 1846. They were made specifically for Queen Victoria and used exclusively on her.

They're as handsome as dental tools can be, with mother-of-pearl and agate and silver-gilt mounts worked in the form of the crown, roses, thistles and shamrocks -- symbols of the royal domains.

Queen Victoria is said to have been a nervous patient with numerous dental pains.

At the British Dental Association, Sir Edwin is revered as a fine dentist. He was rich, famous and had a first-class clientele. He also opened the first dental clinic for the poor and helped found Britain's first dental school.

He must have satisfied Queen Victoria. She made him a knight, the first dentist so honored.

Dr. Swanson bid by phone. George Glastris, Christie's medical and dental instrument expert, manned the phone here and passed on Dr. Swanson's bids to auctioneer Christopher Proudfoot.

As the price mounted by thousands of pounds from the initial bid of 5,000, Dr. Swanson had little to say except "yes . . . yes . . . yes . . . ," the receiver trembling slightly in his hand as he approved higher and higher bids in Baltimore.

A half-dozen officials and onlookers had gathered in a meeting room down the hall from the office of the dean at the University of Maryland's school of dentistry.

Dr. Swanson hunched over the phone, a pen poised over Christie's catalog: "Yes . . . yes . . . yes."

Then he paused, lifted his right hand above his head in a victory salute and cheered: "We got it! OK!"

Shrieks erupted.

In London, Mr. Glastris pulled the phone from his ear. The bidding had gone to 14,000 pounds, Dr. Swanson's only competition came from advance bids given to the auctioneer.

Nobody bid in the small audience of connoisseurs of arcane medical devices. They were there for a skeleton known as Elliot, various postmortem and amputation kits and an artificial arm made in Kansas City.

The final price for the Baltimore museum will be about $24,000, after Christie's takes its 10 percent fee.

Until days ago, the Baltimore institution wasn't certain it could raise the money to win the instruments.

Then Dr. H. Burton McCauley, a retired public health dentist from Baltimore, pledged $20,000. The museum set aside $8,000 from its acquisition budget. Dr. Swanson rounded up museum volunteers and officials who were ready to kick in up to $1,000 each.

fTC Still he choked a bit during the bidding. He became confused, he said, and for a moment feared the price had zoomed beyond reach.

"I kind of panicked," he said.

The $24,000 price tag may be a good investment. Dr. Swanson, who has his own collection of dental instruments, was offered the set a year ago for $60,000 by a London dealer.

Then again, 20 years ago he could perhaps have bought it for 1,300 pounds, less than one-tenth of his final bid to Christie's. That's the price the owner, Allan Sands, a wealthy London dentist, wanted then.

"I asked him if I could let him know the next day," Dr. Swanson recalled. "I had them in my hands. The next day I called him back, and he said he'd decided not to sell them."

Mr. Glastris, Christie's expert, reckoned the set was bought at a sale at Sotheby & Co. in 1966 for 200 or 250 pounds, something like $500 in those days.

After they arrive in Baltimore, the royal instruments will join a large collection now scattered in 21 storage sites around the city.

Only a few of those dental artifacts are now displayed in the museum's cramped rooms in the basement of the dental school, on West Baltimore Street. But in April 1996, the museum is scheduled to open in new quarters at Greene and Lombard streets.

Queen Victoria's tools were a great catch, but this is a museum with 30,000 or 40,000 artifacts, a plaster cast of Mrs. Tom Thumb's mouth.

It will take weeks for the museum to take delivery of the instruments, Dr. Swanson said. But dental history enthusiasts can hardly wait.

The kit of exquisitely wrought instruments is "a showpiece," said Dr. Elaine Miginsky, a volunteer and collector of dental paraphernalia.

"It's something that, as you walk by, draws you into it. It's in fabulous condition, it's so rich."

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