A call to arms

15 December 2004
By Peter Vincent

When a battered vintage musket was found while a paddock was being ploughed near Ballarat in 1900, locals guessed it was one of the guns stolen from soldiers shortly before the ignominious defeat of disgruntled miners at the Eureak Stockade.

When the musket was finally bought from a creaky Ballarat antique store in the 1960s - authenticated as a weapon registered to one of the two regiments that attached the stockade on December 3, 1854, leaving 27 dead - the revival of interest in the rebellion was under way. Soon locals would be scouring attics and lifting floorboards for anything to do with the uprising, which has been interpreted as a seminal event in the emergence of Australian democracy - if not its cradle. During a visit to Australia, Mark Twain called it "a revolution - small in size, but great politically".

Since then, a thriving tourist trade has grown up around the legend, with several museums and historical centres built in Ballarat. The event has inspired a film and two musicals.

So far 13 muskets have been found, all with serial numbers tying them to soldiers. Auction house Christie's says most are worth between $5000 and $10,00.

According to a Sydney collector and militaria dealer, Paddy O'Brien, genuine Eureka memorabilia is extremely rare. Most is government documentation, usually fetching a few hundred dollars.

But interest has grown to the point that anything connected to the uprising can fetch thousands of dollars, including revolvers, clothing, buttons and badges. Even the medals awarded to soldiers who also fought at Eureka, but for their service in India and New Zealand, are sought-after.

One of the most valuable true collectibles, in the sense that dozens are thought to be in circulation, are first editions of the eyewitness account written by an Italian miner, Raffaello Carboni. Crhistie's auctioned one in 1997 for $11,500, but collectors estimate they could now fetch up to $30,000. A handwritten account written by Samuel Lazarus was auctioned for $36,800.

The highest price paid for Eureka memorabilia was $244,500, in 1996, for 13 watercolour sketches of the events surrounding the uprising, by Canadian eyewitness Charles Doudiet. The Ballarat Fine Art Gallery bought the sketches.

The gallery is also the owner of Eureka's Holy Grail - the diggers' flag. Some historians have seen the gallery as a less-than-perfect custodian, as for many years squares were, incredibly, cut from it and given to visiting dignitaries. That practice ceased in the early 1970s and the flag was restored in 1974 by Val D'Angri, who is believed to be a descendant on one of the original makers. It is thought to have been insured for $10 million.

Eurkea collectors are a patriotic lot. Many who hunted down memorabilia from the 1960s onwards donated their quarry to public collections, including those held by the Gold Museum, the Sovereign Hill museum and the Eureka Centre.

Collector David Senior says this is because the artefacts are "the property of the nation": "The early collectors were not trying to hoard selfishly; it was about trying to makre sure things to do with Eureka were preserved.

"When it comes down to it, collectors know they're not the owners, just the custodians."

The Doudiet sketches aside, O'Brien believes Eureka memorabilia has seldom achieved the prices it should be worth.

"It comes down to the recognition of the event, and for some reason, outside of Ballarat, you don't generally get high prices. However, I think prices are starting to increase in recent years."

Rob Parsons, of Christie's in Melbourne, says Eureka is still seen as an event of mostly Victorian, and not Australian, significance. The 150th anniversary exhibition of Eureka memorabilia was offered to NSW institutions, but none wanted it. It is currently on display in Ballarat and will be shown in Canberra from April 2005.

Parsons suspects use of the Eureak flag by Norm Gallagher's militant Builders Labourers Federation in the 1970s politicised the event, with the result that conservatives - especially outside of Victoria - were reluctant to embrace Eurkea as a national story.

This story can be found in The Age - Money - Wednesday, December 15 2004

Click here to read more about Eureka at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery

© Copyright 2005 The Antique and Historical Arms Collectors Guild of Victoria. All rights reserved.