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Meet the authenticator

After a jewellery designer accused the BBC of tarnishing his reputation on the hit TV show, The Goldsmiths’ Company’s library team was brought in to settle a hallmarking dispute

Many television shows are associated with controversy, whether it be contestants inadvertently sabotaging each other on Great British Bake Off or an Ann Widdecombe-style upset on Strictly. A controversial episode of Bargain Hunt? Not really a thing… until now.

The afternoon telly staple was censured by the Beeb’s complaints watchdog after an antiques dealer, named Peter (second name mysteriously unknown), said his reputation was tarnished on the programme by false on-air claims that a ring he sold to contestants was not a Victorian original.

The jewellery designer approached the public broadcaster to raise his concerns, but struggled to secure a correction. Eventually, the BBC capitulated and contacted The Goldsmiths’ Company to investigate Peter’s claim of the ring’s origin.

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Eleni Bide was brought in to examine the piece of jewellery.

“It was the production team from Bargain Hunt who asked us, and it was quite a challenge, because they needed the issue resolved and they needed us to come up with an answer quite quickly,” she said. “They had a time limit on when they needed an answer as the programme was scheduled to be aired.”

Bide was fascinated by jewellery at a young age. At just six years old, she was enamoured by the Crown Jewels while on a trip to the Tower of London. “I think I asked Father Christmas for a crown that year,” she says. This fascination, along with her undergraduate degree in history, led her to study history of design for her masters, focusing on jewellery and metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Currently, Bide is librarian for The Goldsmiths’ Company, working alongside the Assay Office on hallmarking enquiries.

“I’ve worked for Goldsmiths for about 12 years now, a fair old time. As the librarian, me and my team look after the company’s library and archives. This includes our amazing archive, which goes back to the 14th Century and chronicles the company’s history, and also holds other important collections relating to jewellery and silversmithing from elsewhere.”

Establishing the truth was not easy, given both Goldsmiths’ library and Assay Office have been forced to navigate the complications arising from the pandemic and working from home. Alongside her team, Bide has been forced to adapt to the ‘new normal’ like the rest of us.

“This situation was more complex and required a team effort, with different people working on it to see if we can get the answer,” explains Bide. “In terms of authenticating hallmarks, we give our opinion as to what that mark looks like compared to the archival record. That’s what we were able to give to the producers of Bargain Hunt; our verdict on how the mark compared to the marks in the records and the dates that were suggested for the ring.

“We don’t have members of staff on site to consult the archival record because of coronavirus. One of my colleagues was scheduled to do a regular condition check of the archives. She hasn’t been working with us for a long time so she wasn’t as familiar with what to look for.”

She added: “In order to make sure we had an answer in time, she had to look at various records and then WhatsApp/video call me, while showing images in the archive.”

Conservation is a crucial part of managing a collection, which is made all the more difficult by Covid. While Bide’s team does make an effort to regularly go on-site for enquiries, her team is fortunate enough to have their own hallmarking libraries at home, albeit on a much smaller scale than Goldsmiths.

“There are four of us working as a team and my colleagues also have a selection of reference books at home as well,’’ she said. “This is because we’re all interested in jewellery and hallmarking in our personal lives. Between us, we’ve got a reasonable selection of reference books just in our houses.”

Her research into the ring confirmed the designer’s dating was accurate and the producers were forced to admit their error, as well as providing him with a letter to show his future customers he was in fact correct.

The BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit ruled Bargain Hunt’s efforts to address the mistake were insufficient, vindicating Peter.

A BBC spokesperson said: “We note the findings and have apologised to the dealer. The programme will not be rebroadcast with the mistake in it.”

Despite the pandemic, Eleni is determined to keep the enquiry service open during the health crisis for industry professionals, such as Peter.

“A lot of the time, we are able to answer inquiries by discussing them via email or Microsoft Teams, looking at our own reference books and helping people that way without recourse to the original archives,” she says.

“We’ll try to do that as much as possible and keep the inquiry service going throughout.”

Eleni Bide is the librarian for The Goldsmiths’ Company.

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