A letter about provenance, from Stuart Hardy, owner and caretaker of the Kelson Collection


The Kelson Collection

It has come to my attention that certain vintage ‘collections’ in private possession,  have had their authenticity questioned. What has become known as “The Kelson Collection” may very well fall into this category, and as I am privileged to have the items associated with that, in my possession – it only seems right that I comment!

For me it is not as simple as establishing ‘proof’ of what belonged to whom. Unfortunately for all concerned, it is not as simple as that. I would like to use the Kelson items as an example.

The majority of the items I have, that relate to Kelson, came to light at an auction at Cheffin’s Auction House a few years ago. Cheffin’s themselves were unsure as to the provenance – other than that they came from the Fane family, and at one time belonged to Selina Violet Fane Nee Fitzwygram, a fishing partner of Kelson. There is much speculation that Violet, as Kelson preferred to call her, was more than a fishing partner, but no ‘proof’ of these claims exist. However, at that sale, some of the fly-tying related items were purchased for a remarkably small sum by different buyers from both the UK and Ireland.

Immediately after purchase, the new owners discovered that in some cases, confirming suspicions pre-sale, items indeed appeared to belong to George M. Kelson, as well as Selina Fane. This assumption was made based on the fact that various items appeared to match fly-tying boxes described by Kelson in the Salmon Fly, and amidst the paraphernalia were a considerable number of items identified by Kelson’s hand. Kelson’s handwriting has been established based on evidence in letters, and interrelated connections with text in books, fly patterns and other signatures.

The new owners therefore felt confident in their assumption that the items they had purchased, indeed belonged to either Fane or Kelson, despite the fact that the collection contains a number of unmarked packets, and containers/packets with handwriting and addresses of other people.


Concrete Proof

At this stage there is no concrete proof, despite the fact that in many instances there is circumstantial evidence, like, for example, addresses connected with places Kelson was known to frequent, or associated directly or indirectly with people or manufacturers he knew. Ongoing research and open discussion continues to reveal consistent systemic relationships between the contents, and references contained therein.

Shortly after this purchase I was fortunate enough to see the items that remained in the UK, and took many photographs, as well as sourcing Cheffin’s archive, as I – like many others – was fascinated by the find. At the time I agreed with the consensus of most of the informed people who saw the items – this was a collection preserved and handed down by the Fane family that contained the legacy materials of both Kelson and Fane.

Unfortunately under pressure from a demand for materials – and their obvious financial worth – the then owner started to break up collection, and sell the items to willing buyers. Where finances allowed I endeavored to purchase as many of the items as I could. These items were marketed as being part of the collection, and while many of the items have Kelson’s handwriting, and what appears to be a second person’s ( Presumably Fane’s), on the packets and boxes, there is no hard proof that the items contained therein indeed belonged to Kelson. The Fane family could have added items with the prospect of financial gain, the auction house might have been unscrupulous, the new owner could have supplemented items… No one has any proof in the legal sense. In fact a certain Gentleman went to great lengths to block a sale of the items at Mullocks in recent years on the grounds that there was no legal proof that these items belonged to Kelson. However, it is highly likely that these items either belonged to Kelson, or Fane, or were at least associated with them.


The Facts

So what are the facts that we know about the collection, what can we prove, and what can we assume?

1) The custom boxes in my possession clearly fit the description in Kelson’s The Salmon Fly, that is to say there is a large leather covered tying box fitting the exact description, purchased from the UK owner, and a smaller oak box covered in green leather from the Irish owner also described in The Salmon Fly. These were definitely in the possession of the Fane family. In addition, few know that the Cheffin’s sale was not the only source of items, with packets coming to light from another Fane/Fitswygram source, with an exact handwriting match.

2) There are a considerable number of packets/boxes from the period. Silks, hooks, marked by Kelson’s script, and with references consistent with Kelson’s known associates, manufacturers, fly patterns, and other related insights.

3) There are packets containing materials known to be favoured by Kelson, including in some cases multiples of the same identical packets and contents, some marked and some not – Tiger Bittern being an example.

4) It is not possible to prove that all these packets or contents are authentic or not, but to the experienced eye, they are clearly from the period. They show excellent consistency and quality of contents – plus in many cases they match an inventory written by Kelson or Fane that was in the boxes.

5) One could argue that items may have been added at any time by any of the owners, intentionally or otherwise. But in my case, all the items I purchased from the UK Cheffins’ buyer, have accompanying photographs and statements to indicate their provenance at the time of purchase. This confirms that there was no tampering by me, after I obtained the items from the Cheffin’s sale.

6) Kelson’s handwriting on the packets in this collection, has been validated by two independent handwriting experts.


So, how should we describe this collection?

Although there is an extreme amount of evidence, there is no “100% proof” of provenance of all the items. What has become known as the Kelson Collection, is undoubtedly a unique collection of period items, that in all likelihood belonged to either George M. Kelson, or Selina Fane, with the weight of evidence supporting the fact that most of it was actually Kelson’s.

It is impossible to prove that it hasn’t been added to over the past 100 years or so, but it remains a one-off collection of singular importance, providing a window into the life of Kelson, Fane, and fishermen of the day. There are many people who would like to claim otherwise for reasons both pseudo-logical and emotional, but the wealth of validated information is there, for all to see.

I hope this has been of interest.


Stuart Hardy