Going, going, gone for a song

imageThe salerooms are booming and new records are being set – no wonder Lord Coleridge was aggrieved that his Tudor chain of office was sold for a fraction of its worth.

Two years ago, a couple from Pinner found a Chinese vase in a dusty recess of their parents’ house and took it to an auctioneer in Ruislip. Everyone was astounded when it was knocked down for £53 million. It was, as headline writers noted at the time, the ultimate cash in the attic.

Lord Coleridge, alas, was less fortunate. A descendant of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he was driven to part with what he took to be a Tudor chain of office, in order to maintain the family seat at Ottery St Mary in Devon. Naturally, he was disappointed when Sotheby’s told him it was a copy and sold it for £35,000. Disappointment turned to a warmer feeling when, some years later, Christie’s declared it to be genuine, and it was resold for 10 times that figure. Lord Coleridge has now taken Sotheby’s to court.

Tudor chains of office are not, you might think, to everybody’s taste. That, perhaps, is the point. This one (assuming it to be genuine) is extremely rare. If Sotheby’s made a slip, it was because there are hardly any to compare it to. The Lord Mayor of London’s plate butler could probably have given them a steer as to its authenticity, but few other people could.

“It’s such an incredible survival,” rhapsodises Sir Roy Strong. “Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth are still taught at school – and then the curriculum goes straight on to the Holocaust. There’s a huge industry around Henry VIII. I call it National Bodice-Ripping Week.”

But even Sir Roy admits that Tudor artefacts do not fit into the presiding taste of empty spaces and clean lines popularised by Ikea. The chain is “a museum piece, it’s as simple as that. It pertained to an office of state. It ought to be in the Tower of London.”

Instead, it is owned by the British collector Christopher Moran who is famous, in the art world, for his passionate love of the Tudor period, which has led him to build Crosby Hall, a spectacular house on the Thames in Chelsea, incorporating a great hall of Richard III’s reign. The new building, organised around a courtyard with a fountain of Diana, the garden of which was designed using plants original to the period by the Marchioness of Salisbury, was created by modern craftsmen using only 16th-century techniques.

To Mr Moran, the Tudor age was a high point of national achievement. “The craftsmanship at the time was uniquely English, and don’t forget that the materials they used were solid; there weren’t a lot of veneers, but solid wood and solid metals – in this case gold.”

Having been subpoenaed, he will appear in court today, along with the controversial collar, which, he says, will one day be displayed at Crosby Hall alongside his outstanding collection of Tudor furniture, pictures and metalwork.

Appreciation of the collar’s superb workmanship, in which pairs of the letter S alternate with intricately woven Tudor knots, is enhanced by the knowledge that Henry VIII himself would have presented it to Sir Edward Montagu, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench.

Collars of esses, as they were known, have the additional attraction of long and arcane history. The meaning of the S is obscure. By the reign of Edward III it had become a royal emblem. Did the S stand for sanctus, meaning holy, or Simplicus, who was a Roman lawyer and senator martyred in AD 287? It might have signified the motto souvenez vous de moy (remember me), or have stood for seneschal (steward) or Souveragne.

Over time, the collar of esses became particularly associated with the law. According to an essay on the subject by Doris Fletcher, an entry in Henry VIII’s Book of Payments for 1519 mentions a “collar of esses 55 ¾ ozs. at 40s.”, the making of which cost £6. That one, made for the diplomat Sir Richard Wingfield, was probably melted down at some point. Sir Edward Montagu’s – assuming Christie’s, not Sotheby’s, to have been right – is the only extant example known.

The collar of esses is exactly the sort of object that, a century ago, William Waldorf Astor would have hoped to snaffle up. An American millionaire, he was so stirred by the romance of English history that he bought Hever Castle in Kent, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. Not only did he fill it with armour, furniture and evocative objects, each one of which told a story, but he built what appears to be a Tudor village on the other side of the moat.

Designed by JL Pearson, it accommodated the guest rooms and billiard table needed to entertain an Edwardian house party. While extreme, Astor’s taste would not have seemed wildly eccentric at the time. The Age of Oak – as opposed to later Ages of Walnut and Mahogany – was the ideal of the prevailing Arts and Crafts aesthetic, popular before the First World War.

Tastes change; since then, the appetite for all traditional furniture has waned, to the point that what is disparaged as “brown furniture” has become a drag on the market. George II sofas that might have fetched £9,000 a few years ago go under the hammer now for less than £2,000. But the relatively high price of the collar of esses reflects the great truth that quality never goes out of fashion.

To many people, times are tight, and even aristocratic roofs are leaking. But the state of the art market shows that there is still money around at the top. This week, Christie’s Modern and Impressionist sale netted £135 million, including a world record for a Henry Moore sculpture of £19.1 million.

Even at the lower end, Christie’s South Ken has just had its best year ever. Correctly priced and well-presented, in a spare architectural setting, such apparently unlikely objects as Georgian chimneypieces can obtain a premium. “There are a lot of British buyers,” Charles Cator, chairman of Christie’s, says, “but also from America and the Far East.”

The big money is commanded by artists such as Picasso, the equivalent of international brands. Their number has been joined by such characteristically British artists as Moore and Francis Bacon. Lucian Freud’s reputation went global about five years ago. “There are American and Chinese buyers, as well as a small group of very rich Russians,” says James Knox, managing director of the Art Newspaper. “It’s not just Europe and America, as it was in the old days. If one part of the market goes down, there’s another there to support it.”

Some works can still appear, by these standards, quite cheap. “I saw a Pissarro the other day which went for £2.9 million. There are fewer and fewer good Impressionists in private hands these days, so that does not seem so expensive, compared to the £10 million or more you might pay for a Warhol or Jeff Koons.”

Old Masters are still “very good value”, with a newly discovered Velázquez portrait being sold by Bonhams for about £3 million. It was bought by a dealer for stock.

In order to protect their wealth, the very rich need to spread their portfolios between property, stocks, land and art. “The key to increasing the value of your collection,” Knox explains, “is to persuade buyers in New York that, say, the Scottish Colourists, whose paintings sell for £300,000 each, are comparatively cheap.”

Once one high net worth individual knows that a visiting hedge fund manager or biotech billionaire will recognise the art on his walls as representing serious spending money, the market has been made. In this climate, it’s no wonder that Lord Coleridge feels hard done by, knowing that his chain of office fetched a fraction of what it was worth.

But to Christopher Moran, the price is almost irrelevant; the collar of esses is “just staggeringly beautiful. You can’t put a value on it really. £2 million, £3 million – what would it mean? It’s just unbelievably beautiful, and it’s unique.”

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