It is an unpredictable business, selling off the family silver. When the family possessions of the late Duke of Kent were auctioned in London yesterday, there were two things of which one could be fairly certain: that there would be a huge interest in the sale and much speculation about why the Duke’s heirs — who include Prince Michael of Kent — needed to mount what has been described as the Royal Family’s car boot sale.
What might not have been predicted is that an egg cup would be sold for £14,000, while a Coronation chair would fail to sell at all. Even a back-scratcher went for £4,000 and a set of tea towels from Sandringham fetched £2,000, helping the collection of 336 lots to reach a total of £2.1 million.
The red silk-covered chair chair, made for the Duke of Kent to use at the Coronation of his brother, George VI, in 1937, was meant to be one of the star items. It was one of the few lots put on display at the Christie’s sale and had been given an estimate of £15,000 to £20,000.
When bidding struggled to reach £9,500, failing to reach its reserve, Ted Clive, the auctioneer, was obliged to withdraw it from the sale. “I was surprised,” he said afterwards. “But stranger things have happened. It is an important object, but an important historical object. It is clearly an exhibition object — it is not something that could be used. On the day, there was not a potential buyer for an exhibition object.”
He had better luck with the egg cup, but then it was no ordinary egg cup. Billed as a Russian grey Kalgan jasper egg cup with rhodonite egg, it was stamped with the Russian imperial coat of arms, and sold for about ten times its estimate of £1,000 to $1,500.
The auction was not the first time that the late Duke’s property has gone under the hammer. After he died in a plane crash in 1942, Princess Marina, his widow, was dropped from the Civil List. Most of her husband’s money was left in trust for his children, Prince Michael, the Duke of Kent and Princess Alexandra. The three-day sale of his possessions in 1947 raised £92,300. Princess Marina died in 1968.
The family says that many of the lots had been in storage and they decided that it was time for a clear-out. The auction does come at an opportune time: Prince and Princess Michael, who are not working members of the Royal Family, will from next year have to pay £120,000 annual rent for their home at Kensington Palace — previously the rent has been paid by the Queen. In 2006 the couple sold their home at Nether Lypiatt in Gloucestershire for £5.75 million.
The auction included silverware, furniture, tapestries and other works of art. It is a fine art judging how much people will pay at auction, particularly a royal one. Christie’s followed its traditional practice of publishing highly conservative estimates for most lots. A picnic set that belonged to George V, put down at £500-£700, went to an internet bidder from the Netherlands for £11,875. A pair of mahogany George III hall benches estimated at £30,000-£50,000 went for £187,250.
The lots sold included:
Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna’s dressing table service: £6,000
An album of photographs by the Grand Duchess: £8,125
King George II Coronation canopy bell: £13,750
Silver necklace with miniature photographs of Victoria, Albert and their nine children: £2,750
Portrait by Queen Victoria of her daughter Princess Louise, after Franz Xavier Winterhalter: £10,000
Cartier Art Deco gold-mounted clock: £76,850
Silver model of Bentley-Jackson Special “Mother Gun”, as driven by Prince Michael in 1992: £20,000
Gold and enamel necklace by Nardi of Venice, given to Princess Michael of Kent: £7,500
Silver and enamel notepad holder, given to Princess Mary, later Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood: £4,750