A pair of duelling pistols up for auction hold a fascinating history, having once been owned by a controversial British spy and adventurer. Huon Mallalieu explains.

In a later essay, Umberto Eco related how the protagonist of The Name of the Rose, Brother William of Baskerville, had taken on a life independent of his creator. In the medieval whodunit, the fictional monk travelled from Rome to Avignon in the train of a historical cardinal and, as the beginning and end dates of the real journey are known, the book’s action had a tight timeframe. Eco had been contacted by a reader who had come across an account of a festivity at another point on the cardinal’s progress and, logically, William must have ‘been’ there, too – unknown to Eco.

A pair of pistols in Thomas Del Mar’s December sale produced a slightly similar hallucinatory feeling of fiction coming to life. In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Rawdon Crawley, the betrayed husband of Becky Sharp, is determined to fight Lord Steyne, but the Marquess – despite having earlier declared ‘One or other of us must not survive the outrage of last night’ – buys him off to avoid the duel.

Had the 3rd Marquess of Hertford, who was Thackeray’s real-life model for Steyne, accepted such a challenge, he might have used these silver-mounted 30-bore duelling pistols. They were made by John Manton of London in 1790–1, with fine mounts by Michael Barnett, probably for the 2nd Marquess, from whom they passed to his son, the 3rd, and grandson, whose widow founded what became the Wallace Collection.

The cased pistols did not enter the collection, but were sold off at some point and eventually came to be owned by Major Hugh Bertie Campbell Pollard (1888–1966), a British intelligence officer during the Irish War of Independence. Pollard was an authority on modern and ancient firearms; among his works were The Book of the Pistol and Revolver (1917) and The Sportsman’s Cookery Book. He was also, for a while, sporting editor of Country Life.

In 1936 Pollard was one of a group of right-wingers who flew General Franco from the Canaries to Morocco to launch the Spanish Civil War. Pollard’s fellow Franco supporter Douglas Jerrold said that he ‘looked and behaved like a German Crown Prince and had a habit of letting off revolvers in any office he happened to visit’.

Jerrold later wrote a book about the trip, telling the tale of how he plucked up the courage to ask Pollard if he’d every killed someone. ‘Never accidentally,’ came the reply.

Pollard had owned these duelling pistols some years beforehand and sold them in 1922, for £30. In 1993, they made £32,200 at Christie’s and now they have reached £64,400 with Del Mar at the Blythe Road auction hub.