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( Originally Published 1913 )
There are not many collectors of old keys-in this country. In France there are a considerable number of old-key collectors; it is true, no doubt, that the best keys made in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries were French. There is at least one extensive collector of old watch-keys in England; and old watch-keys in gold, silver, or pinchbeck, cut, chased, set with stones more or less precious and quaintly formed, are quite an interesting " line." I possess two bulbous ones, oval seals of onyx set in pinchbeck, with a swivel above and the key below, that hung at some dandy's fob-chain a century or more ago. But watch-keys are rather a class apart. It is of the larger varieties of keys that I now wish to write.
A Chief Distinction.-Generally speaking, no key of wrought or hammered iron can be of earlier date than the fourteenth century; generally speaking, no key made of bronze can be of later date than the fourteenth century. Note that when I say " made of bronze," I mean made of bronze entirely-the handle or " bow," the stem or " pipe," and the wards all being of bronze. It is the case that keys made of bronze in part or of ormolu which has come to resemble bronze, or of brass, or of other yellowish metal, were produced in the eighteenth century, and, for aught I know, are being produced to-day, the parts of them which projected from the key-hole being made of metal to suit the metal decorations on the piece of furniture as a wholecontemporary keys to old French furniture, to wit. I own a fine Georgian tea-caddy, for instance, the cotemporary key being bronze in its " bow " and " pipe." But in all these cases the wards, and at least a part of the " pipe," were of iron or some form of iron. Of course, if any part of a key be steel that rather modernises its date.
The Kinds to Collect.-I suppose we have all of us seen old keys lying in dealers' shops, and metal-brokers' and marine-stores shops are fertile hunting-grounds for this purpose. But a key is not collectable simply because it looks old. It must have distinction of shape, or it must show proof of artistic workmanship, or it must possess some uncommon quality of size, or it must be wholly of bronze or brass or other coloured metal, or it must bear evidence of antiquity, or it must be associated with some particular kind of old lock, if it is to be worth your while collecting.
Roman Keys.-That " there is nothing new under the sun " receives some proof from the fact that " Yale " latch-keys rather resemble the bronze latch-keys used in the Rome of " great Julius " and of Catiline. Old Roman keys sometimes are found to be of iron, but iron being the more perishable material, it is the bronze keys which have most remained. You can see some of them in the Guildhall Museum. A Roman key had a handle in the form of a loop or ring, the ring being sometimes joined to the stem at a right-angle, so that the ring might be worn on the finger ; this applies to the smaller sizes of keys only, of course. Solidity and simplicity were the rule in the Roman keys. Sometimes the " bow " or handle had the form of a hand; often the wards resembled a rake or a claw ; the workmanship was rough, and (even allowing for the effects of time) polish and finish were lacking.
Mediaeval Keys.-The heavy mediaeval key links the Roman key with the artistic Renaissance key. A typical mediaeval bronze key can be seen in the very remarkable, rich, and well-arranged museum and art gallery at Nottingham Castle. Mediaeval keys were usually bronze. Mediaeval keys have an ecclesiastical and churchy look-the symbol of the cross, or the trefoil (for the Trinity) will be seen in the bow; the wards are complicated, and suggest the Gothic. You will find such keys as these depicted in missals, and on tapestry, or carved as emblems on the tombs of bishops and crusaders. I think it may be said that mediaeval keys, being rare, are more valuable than the highly-ornamented and finely-sculptured keys of the Renaissance.
A General View.-In my " Chateau Royal " novel I describe the keys belonging to a collector, M. de Grandemaison : "Keys by the hundred; simple keys, intricate keys, master-keys, skeleton-keys, small keys, big keys, keys plain, keys lavishly ornamented, keys with two chimerae back to back for the handle "-these are Renaissance-" cathedral keys of the thirteenth century, Gothic keys of the fifteenth, keys of the Renaissance with handles shaped like salamanders, keys with the hedgehog device of Louis XII, seventeenthcentury keys shaped like dolphins, sham Gothic keys under Louis XV, keys with trapezoid handles contemporary with Henry II, and cross-shaped keys of the time when Henry IV came riding through the gateway of Chateau Royal to the arms of his mignonne. Upon the surface of many of these keys appear spidery lines of gold or silver, inserted to damascene and ornament the iron, but-sign of age-the gold has dulled to a coppery hue and the silver has the look of pewter."
English eighteenth-century keys were finely made and are worth acquiring, but they are not particularly rare.