The Spy who came in from the Cold

19th February 2020

He was a famed Polar explorer whose exploits paved the way for transatlantic air travel and inspired the storylines for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels; now objects acquired on Quintin Riley’s expeditions to the Arctic have sold at auction for over £6,000.

Cornishman, Riley, was invited to join the British Arctic Air Route Expedition to Greenland by his old schoolfriend, Henry George ‘Gino’ Watkins, in 1930, a year-long trip that earned him and his companions the first Polar Medals to be awarded for Arctic Service for 60 years.

The items for sale at Woolley and Wallis auction house were acquired on this trip and a subsequent voyage to the same area between 1932 and 1933. They included models of kayaks, umiaks and sleighs, a pair of Alonquin snowshoes, an Inuit harpoon and a cedarwood carving of a polar bear, some of which obviously held a special meaning for the intrepid explorer.

“The models of the kayaks have a particular poignancy,” explains Will Hobs, Tribal Art specialist at Woolley and Wallis. “Riley’s dear friend, Watkins, was killed in a kayaking accident on the second expedition in 1932, and these models were acquired later on during that same expedition. An entry in Riley’s diary records that they were traded for a vest that had belonged to Watkins and a pair of Riley’s trousers. They were a reminder for Riley of the friend who had introduced him to this life that he loved, and who had tragically lost his in pursuing his dreams.” The models sold on 19th February for £2,250, including buyer's premium.

The sale also included three paintings by Greenland artist and storyteller, Karl Andreassen, annotated to the reverse by Riley during the expedition. They were the second highest lot of the small collection, selling for a premium inclusive £1,375.

Riley continued with his polar explorations throughout the 1930s and signed up to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1938. Towards the end of the Second World War he was appointed Commanding Officer of 30 RM Commando – the brainchild of Commander Ian Fleming. This commando and intelligence unit was used to infiltrate enemy positions, intercept enemy transmissions, crack codes and capture key personnel – all exploits that Fleming would later use when writing his famous 007 stories. In later life Riley was used as a technical adviser at Ealing Film Studios on the set of Scott of the Antarctic, and gave demonstrations of polar exploration at the Festival of Britain in 1951. He was killed in a road accident on Christmas Day, 1980.

“The mapping and weather studies that were carried out by Riley and his companions in those expeditions to Greenland enabled large strides to be made in the course of transatlantic air travel,” says Hobbs. “These objects, that he went to great pains to bring back with him, show the playful side of his character and remind us that, at the time, Riley was a young man in his mid-20s, achieving remarkable things in difficult conditions.”

The models and other objects were sold as part of the Tribal Art and Antiquities auction on 19th February. 

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