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Artwork that inspired the UK's obsession with the riddle of the golden hare sells for 20 times estimate
The Orrery, which gave artist Kit Williams the inspiration for how to create the clues for Masquerade and sold at Ewbank’s Auctions for a 20-times-estimate £17,000. Image courtesy of Ewbank’s Auctions.

WOKING.- A unique artwork that provided the key to solving the celebrated riddle of the golden hare – a national sensation in the late 1970s – has sold at auction for 20 times its estimate at £17,000.

It was in 1979 that artist Kit Williams published Masquerade, a picture book that sparked a nationwide treasure hunt for a hidden jewelled 18-carat golden hare, whose whereabouts were concealed in a set of cryptic clues featured in pictures and text throughout the book.

The nation became obsessed by the story and it took two Manchester teachers three years to solve the mystery, by which time the hare had been dug up from its hiding place in Ampthill Park, Bedfordshire, by someone who had secured inside knowledge of its whereabouts.

Now Ewbank’s Auctions of Surrey have sold another amazing artwork by Williams, revealing that it was this that inspired Williams in his creation of Masquerade as it provided the means he needed to created his code without giving an advantage to crossword fanatics and expert puzzlers.

The Orrery, as it is titled, is a hand-painted carousel that Williams created in 1975, depicting a series of intermingled figures rotating in a landscape around a central mechanism. The circular wooden frame surrounding the image carries a message: DANCE THREE RINGS THE SONG THRUSH SINGS ADD ONE A DAY TO ENSNARE THE HARE. At the top of the frame a model of the song thrush leans over, its beak pointing to a single letter. Rotating the carousel also rotates the letters so that the bird’s beak points at different letters depending on where it stops. This leads to the eventual appearance of the hare in a window cut into the picture.

Journalist Paul Slade picked up the tale on his blog Relating the challenge of devising a structure for the Masquerade puzzle, he writes: “Williams returned home, and set about devising a structure for the master puzzle itself. It had to be something detailed enough to identify the burial spot with great precision, but cunning enough to present a real challenge. The artist had never been a fan of crosswords or anagrams, and felt sure anything he could devise in that format would easily be cracked by expert puzzlers. And he wanted to avoid anything that could be solved by simply setting a computer to work on it. “I thought ‘I’ve got to devise a system that has never been used before’,” he told BBC Four. “It had to be something very simple, but absolutely unique.”

The Orrery gave Williams his answer

“Once he'd solved that one, Williams decided on a hiding place for his prize and began thinking about the paintings themselves. Pondering how to encode the crucial information in each of his planned 15 pictures, Williams’ eye fell on a rotating painting he called his orrery. Like its 18th Century inspiration – a mechanical model of the solar system – this painting accurately tracked the phases of the moon. But Williams’ version was filled with human and animal figures, who tumbled round in a circle as he clicked the lettered frame from one position to the next. Suddenly, he had his answer.”

The stunning artwork came from the estate of Elliott Kastner (1930-2010), an American film producer responsible for such classics as Where Eagles Dare (1968), The Long Goodbye (1973), The Missouri Breaks (1976) and Angel Heart (1987).

The Kastner estate consigned dozens of items to the Entertainment Memorabilia auction at Ewbank’s. Together they had hopes of around £8,000-10,000 but went on to sell for over £60,000. As well as the stunning price for The Orrery, highlights included original hand-painted artwork of Marlon Brando for the film Missouri Breaks by Bob Peak, the American artist whose work often featured on the cover of Time Magazine and whose film poster designs include West Side Story, Apocalypse Now, James Bond, Superman and the first five Star Trek films. The work here is signed by Peak, who presented it to Kastner as a gift. Estimated at £1,500-2,500 it sold for £13,000.

Another signed piece of Peak’s hand-painted artwork for Missouri Breaks, featuring Jack Nicholson, went for £6,500 against the same estimate.

“All in all this was a stunning sale,” said specialist Alastair McCrea, whose department registered a total of more than £1.25 million from entertainment and sports memorabilia auctions alone in 2019.

“The Kastner provenance, the unique nature of some of the pieces on offer and the beautiful and highly significant associations of Kit Williams’ Orrery – especially its role in inspiring Masquerade and the golden hare – proved irresistible for many dealers.”

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