Antiques from Africa # 31

Show me anyone eating biltong and you can bet the farm he or she will have a penknife close at hand.

Growing up in South Africa most kids soon learn the value of a simple tool like the penknife. Show me anyone eating biltong and you can bet the farm he or she will have a penknife close at hand. There can be nothing more satisfying than slicing off bite size pieces of Kudu, Ostrich or regular beef biltong with the sound of the bushveld all around. Kid’s introduction to penknives starts early and by 7 or 8 many have their own. This development encourages responsibility and while some cuts to fingers are part and parcel of this learning process, they soon grasp the basics.


As kids grow some develop into knife aficionados and I have a fair amount of clients who specialize in various types of knife collecting. For many it brings back memories of a favourite time, experience or person and this will shape the collection. The simple Joseph Rodgers folding single bladed pocketknife dating from the 1930’s pictured will be most familiar and recognized to collectors. It carries the makers mark of a star and Maltese cross on the blade which was registered in 1764 in Sheffield, the British home of cutlery. Over the next 250 years the name went on to become one of the most important found on knives and many thousands were exported worldwide. The quality of the manufacturing and steel used in the blades ensures that they are firm favourites with collectors today.

Boer penknife

Another type of knife that often turns up is this Boer War commemorative example. With pressed brass scales either side, showing on one the Traansvaal and Orange Free State coats of arms along with the motto “Eendracht maakt Macht” which means Unity makes Strength. On the other side are the images of Paul Kruger and Christiaan De Wet. These commemorative souvenir knives were all made in Germany well after the Boer War ended and were exported to South Africa. Normally having two blades this example has the valuable addition of a corkscrew leading to cross over appeal for corkscrew collectors.

Dee knife (4)_edited-1

The last knife pictured is a magnificent example most collectors aspire to own. Made in England the silver mounts are hallmarked for London 1872 and this museum quality tour de force is by Henry William Dee, a famous London based manufacturing silversmith. Containing just about every tool a colonial visitor would need to conquer Africa it measures 15 cm long and weighs in at almost half a kilogram. This type of piece is always a challenge for antique dealers as it is often the one that I would love to keep but the rent needs to be paid !