Sometimes it is the lesser things in life that hold more interest – or at least are the more memorable. This can be especially true of jewellery at auction. A perfect diamond may sell for millions, but apart from its perfection and its price, there may be little else to say about it, whereas an intricately designed Art Nouveau brooch costing hundreds can hold one captivated for hours.
Oscar Wilde’s letter to the impresario George Alexander regarding his plans for what was to become The Importance of Being Earnest is rather more fascinating than a diamond and expected to fetch £150,000 as this column goes to press. While it holds many interesting gems to do with characters and plot, I find it less enticing than another Wildean lot coming up for sale in the same auction: his answers to a questionnaire when he was a student.
Dating to 1877, the two-page questionnaire reveals that the poet and playwright’s ready wit was already close to fully formed. He deemed happiness “absolute power over men’s minds, even if accompanied by chronic toothache”, while misery was “living a poor and respectable life in an obscure village”.
Wilde’s favourite occupation was “reading my own sonnets”, while is dream was “getting my hair cut” and his distinguishing characteristic “inordinate self-esteem”.
He believed the essential quality of a wife to be “devotion to her husband” and aimed for a life of “fame or even notoriety”, a realised ambition that he would later come to regret.
Much of the talk recently among auctioneers and dealers has been about online activity replacing traditional methods of selling. The discussion brings to mind how, over the past 20 years or so, the email has replaced the letter. It’s quick, convenient and effective for business, but it also means that the only correspondence that hits the doormat these days are bills (those not arriving electronically, anyway), flyers for pizza restaurants and promotional leaflets for everything from fun days out to funerals.
I pity the young who have never experienced the thrill of a hand-written envelope with their name on it popping through the letterbox. It also means that we are quickly losing that window on the soul that has helped us understand the thoughts and feelings of the notable and notorious over the years.
Two letters coming to auction in the past week or so remind us of this. The first is a poignant note from 1991 addressed by Princess Diana to a friend, in which she muses on what the next ten years will bring – a haunting thought as she was only to live for another six years.
The other is really exceptional, a thankyou letter from the newly crowned King George VI to his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (remember the film!) in which he expresses his undying debt to Logue for helping him get through the Coronation. Accompanied by the gift of a cigarette case, it sold for £76,000.
Emails may be convenient, but they aren’t everything.
Art as an asset class has been much in the news in the past week with the revelation that British Airways – beleaguered as it retires its 747 fleet in the wake of the pandemic – is to sell off work from its art collection.
Firstly, who knew that British Airways even had an art collection? Possibly the most famous public commercial investment in art in this country has been the British Rail Pension Fund, which spent generously on art, parting with £40 million (around 3 per cent of its holdings then) between 1974 and the 1990s for around 2400 museum quality works in what was a ground-breaking experiment at the time.
The investment was treated as a hedge against inflation, with the British Rail Pension Fund rivalling the Getty in reputation as a power investor in art.
Thanks to the experiment proving largely successful, many other businesses followed suit, with art becoming seen as a relatively less risky asset class once bonds and gilts took a serious knock in the crash of 2008.
Now BA is looking to offload a wealth of Young Brit art by names like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Anish Kapoor as it looks to build cash reserves. Not only is this a bold move and one that could have repercussions for BA if the sale does not go well, it could also prove a landmark in the long-term fortunes of the leading Young Brits.
With things in the market fast developing, it will be interesting to see whether BA chooses to expose the works in the harsh light of an open auction or look to go the private sale route. Either way, the leading auction houses will be looking to get in on the action, but they will be up against serious competition from increasingly savvy and powerful contemporary art dealers who have already snaffled some tasty prizes from under their noses.
Watch this space.
After all the philosophising about the future of auctions in recent weeks, it’s time to come back down to earth for a bit of fun. One of my favourite things about our world is the tendency of the extraordinary and bizarre to pop its head up every so often. I’m delighted to say that this has happened at least twice in the past week.
First up is the most expensive video game ever sold on the rostrum. A 1985 Super Mario Bros cartridge made just over £90,000. These cartridges would have been mass produced just 35 years ago, with most being played to death before being discarded as technology upgraded. The original buyer here knew what they were doing, and clearly never intended to play the game. This purchase was all about investment as its condition today can testify. Still in its original sealed container, complete with the original hangtab, this was collecting nerdery in its ultimate expression.
On the bizarre front, we have a vampire slaying kit, which comprises a pocket pistol, a carved ivory wolf in robes, a cobalt blue phial with unknown contents, a crucifix, miniature Bible and even shark teeth, among other esoteric contents, all fitted snugly into a small, gothic-style wooden box. Possibly dating to the mid/late 19th century, it carries hopes of £3000.