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February 10, 2012updated 08 Jan 2016 5:40pm

Selling Royal Memorabilia: From the Queen’s Letters to Tsar Nicholas II’s Doodles

By Spear's

God, Sell the Queen

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be — it’s more expensive, for one thing, especially if it’s in the form of a spicy or indiscreet bit of royal memorabilia, says Godfrey Barker
AT CAMBRIDGE, 100 years ago, I read out an essay in my weekly supervision which announced: ‘The reign of Nicholas II faded into nostalgia’ — or something equally meaningless. There was a cough. I stopped. My tutor lavished a steely gaze on this half-baked idiocy, then on the man who made it. He asked a question I still cannot answer. ‘Barker,’ he inquired coldly, ‘what is wrong with nostalgia?’

Nostalgia in the 21st century is serious business. Downton Abbey and its Sunday-night millions are the tip of its iceberg. But is there something wrong with it? What my tutor wanted to hear was that there is everything to learn from the past but that nostalgia is a refusal to engage with the present. It is mental exit from a complex world and escape into dreamland. Love it or scorn it, it is big money. And Dreamland has no bigger box office in 2012 than royalty.

Royalty on the market is sensational business. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee already swamps the windows of Waterstones (like Queen Victoria, the monarch is about to enjoy the highest popularity of her reign in her old age). But nostalgia is scaling absurd heights on the art market. No provenance like it multiplies value so much.

Look back with disbelief at a sale in Geneva just before Christmas of the letters and photographs of Ferdinand Thormeyer, childhood tutor in the 1870s and 1880s to the last Russian tsars. A scrap of paper scribbled on by Tsar Nicholas II went for £64,464, or 496 times the expectation. Addressed to Thormeyer, it was signed ‘from the person you once referred to as an ass — Nicholas’. Very charming, no doubt, but more? The Hotel des Ventes estimated this trivium at just £130.

Priced hardly less in Geneva than tablets of stone were faded sepia snaps of the Romanov family — especially those martyred in the mines at Ekaterinburg. Grand Duke Michael, made tsar in the first month of the Revolution in 1917 but never ratified by the Duma, was estimated to fetch £270-400 for his cheerful smile in happier days. Bidding did not stop. Ten ardent collectors forced him up to £30,747, or 113 times the lower estimate of the auction house. In all, 300 of Thormeyer’s Russian remains went for £1.37 million, or 79 times Geneva’s estimate of £17,250.

But Russia is nothing to the price of nostalgia in China. No less than £29.65 million was paid in Beijing in December 2010 for a pen and ink landscape by the youthful Yuan dynasty Emperor Wenzong (1302-35). Without the brush of the emperor, it was hardly worth £100,000. The same month saw a watercolour of An Old Cypress (1750) by the Qing Emperor Qianlong bid up to £7.82 million at Poly. No monarchs have been more extravagantly adored.

Back in the UK, a discreet but vigorous market in royal letters and photographs operates in hiding away from Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams, which have seemingly reached a deal with Buckingham Palace not sell Royal memorabilia. This market moves through a handful of dealers, but most of all through Argyll Etkin in Waterloo Place, St James’s. It runs from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II and spans the harmless to the sensational.

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The latter is best found in the indiscretions of Edward VIII — ‘petulant and self-indulgent’, says Ian Shapiro at Argyll Etkin — and uncommonly in the letters of the Queen Mother and Prince Philip. Diana definitely crossed the border, but her letters stay away from sale; what get traded are photographs by Demarchelier and Testino that she signed and her signed school books and schoolgirl letters.

There is a letter on the market in which the Queen Mother attacks the Labour Party in 1945 (‘Everyone seems restless and disgruntled, I suppose that the high hopes of a socialist heaven on earth are beginning to fade a little — poor people, so many half-educated and bemused. I do love them’), but this level of tactlessness is the exception rather than the rule and is near impossible to value. The royal market, however, pays as generously for the benign as for the ugly. An unremarkable thank-you letter written by Elizabeth II, says Argyll Etkin, sells for £5,000-plus, has a number of variations to the Queen’s personal friends and is typically kept lifelong by the recipient.

‘Supply to the market is mainly fed by death,’ says Shapiro. ‘Children who inherit royal letters and photographs from their parents are ready, when they have no personal meaning, to part with them.’ But there is a worrying legal question. Can one freely sell or publish a letter under the law of the United Kingdom? ‘If the Queen or anyone else writes you a letter,’ responds Shapiro, ‘it is yours, your physical property. But there is a matter of copyright. What you may not do is quote the letter in a public place in its entirety.’
Signed photographs of the Queen and personally signed letters are sure to grow in value in her Diamond Jubilee year

HIGHEST FASHION IN 2012 is the Queen — never, apparently, a bigger market item than now and rising fast in value. Photographs and wartime Christmas cards of Elizabeth and Margaret as princesses are especially rare and desirable (notably images by Marcus Adams and Cecil Beaton). Signed studio wedding photographs of 1947 and images of the Coronation year are also highly prized. The Queen’s Christmas cards are many and sell between £250 and £750 according to the fun or the historic importance of the photograph and the intimacy of the message. Those signed and inscribed with greetings by Autopen are of fractional value, while the Queen’s personally written signature, ‘Lilibet’, is a major bonus.
Christmas cards from the Queen Mother (a much more vivid writer than her daughter) and Prince Philip (most enjoyably candid when he feels like it) are also collected in the UK and US. Diana is controversial, and friends who knew her feel her letters should not be traded. ‘The rule of the market,’ says Shapiro, ‘is that they can be traded if they are not embarrassing. History decides. One has to be disciplined.’ Why, he asks out loud, do recipients not destroy the letters that could damage her?
Strong opinion adds value. Victoria, not slow to anger, sometimes wrote in the third person: ‘The Queen wishes to express her disbelief…’ (at the appalling behaviour of X and Y). X and Y sometimes received missives dismissively signed ‘VRI’. These, though, are absolute rarities.
Letters of Edward VII are also hard to find — disappointingly, given the many ladies in his ‘loose box’. George V is freely available but falling in fashion; the King who magnificently declared ‘Bugger Bognor’ was preoccupied when writing with hunting, shooting and the weather. Queen Mary is more popular, notably in photographs where she is heavily jewelled.
Edward VIII is heavy money, his life dividing into several chapters — Riviera playboy, King, Bahamas, New York. He co-operated freely with photographers, was not shy of signing autographs and openly displays his flawed personality in his letters. George VI in contrast wrote dully and in a slow hand and has not been rescued on the royal market by The King’s Speech. The Queen Mother, much sought after a decade ago, is now slipping for her letters, much less so for attractive signed photographs.
Anyone who sees this market as the most colourful investment out there cannot do better than sink a few thousand into Wills and Kate, meanwhile. Those who received their first married Christmas card in 2011 were effectively sent a fat cheque through the post.
Images courtesy of Argyll Etkin Ltd.

Godfrey Barker writes about art. His new book, The Rich and the Price of Art, is published in Chinese in February


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