NEW YORK – For sale soon: a variety of torture devices from the 16th century, including shame masks to enforce silence, a 14-foot table-like rack to stretch the victim's body, and a tongue tearer to punish blasphemers and heretics. Even an executioner's sword.
New York's Guernsey's auction house plans to auction the privately owned collection, with proceeds to go to Amnesty International and other organizations committed to preventing torture in today's world, said Guernsey's president, Arlan Ettinger. "That is clearly the seller's intent," he said.
Ettinger described the items Wednesday as possibly the world's most extensive collection of historical torture devices — some 252 items — plus rare books, documents and other related artifacts.
He declined to identify the owner, beyond saying it is a family living in the northeastern U.S., within three hours of New York. No date has been set for the auction.
Of German origin and acquired in the late 19th century by England's earl of Shrewsbury, the torture collection has been in private American hands since last publicly shown in 1893 in New York and at the Chicago World's Fair. Its owner for many years after that was Arne Coward, a Norwegian-born survivor of the Holocaust. His descendants are the present owners, Ettinger said.
On Nov. 26, 1893, an article in The New York Times described what was then a 1,300-item collection, noting that "thousands of people have gazed upon these terrible relics of a semi-barbarous age," all of which "have been in actual use."
As if to underscore the relevance of the exhibit to modern times, Ettinger said, the lead story on the front page of Wednesday's New York Times was headlined: "Torture Memos: Inquiry Suggests No Prosecutions."
The 252 devices include iron masks, boots, thumbscrews, foot squeezers, ropes, leg irons, chains, rings, manacles and "witch-catchers."
Notably absent is what the Times in 1893 called the "justly-celebrated iron maiden," a coffin-like case with deadly spikes on the inside. Ettinger said the fate of the iron maiden and other items is unknown, but they may have been lost in a fire that destroyed many buildings at the end of the Chicago world's fair.
The diabolical devices are a unique, but not unlikely, offering by the Manhattan-based auctioneer, noted for its sales of the offbeat.
Guernsey's auctioned off Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball in 1998 for a record $3 million, and it plans what Ettinger says will be the world's first "tennis auction" at this year's U.S. Open in New York, selling an array of sport-related items from antique rackets to trophies and historic contracts. "So it's not all painful," he said.
Ettinger said there was no way to tell what the torture collection is worth or how much it may fetch at auction. In the 1970s, he said, an obscure magazine "read only by historians" estimated its value at $3 million — about the same as Mark McGwire's home run ball.
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