Revolution? What revolution? As Queen Elizabeth enjoys her Diamond Jubilee this year, royal correspondence, among other memorabilia, has never been more sought after
In Geneva, just before Christmas, a letter from the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, appeared at auction. ‘Dear M. Thormeyer,’ he wrote to his childhood tutor, ‘I wish you a happy New Year. From the person whom you once referred to as an “ass” – Nicholas.’ The value of this charming but trivial missive was estimated at £130-£200. It sold, with buyer’s premium, for £64,464, nearly 500 times its low estimate.
Among photographs of Russia’s doomed royal family – destined to be dropped down a mine at Ekaterinburg in 1918 by enraged Bolsheviks – an image of Grand Duke Michael taken by the tutor Thormeyer in 1902 was estimated to fetch £270. Michael was the brother to whom Nicholas II passed the Russian throne in the first month of the Revolution, March 1917, but who never constitutionally succeeded; he was not ratified by the Duma in St Petersburg. And even his cheerful face, seen in better times, earned a price of £30,747, over 100 times the estimate.
A dozen other photographs of the Russian imperial family, of Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II, their queens, their brothers, their sisters and their children sold for close to 100 times pre-sale expectation too. The entire set of 300 faded sepia photographs snapped by Ferdinand Thormeyer was expected to fetch a grand total of £17,250. When the exhausted auctioneer Bernard Piguet finally brought down his hammer, the outcome was 1.6 million Swiss francs, the equivalent of well over a million pounds. Royal memorabilia, it seems, has ascended the collectibles market throne.
Back in England, the Queen has never been more popular with her subjects. As her Diamond Jubilee approaches this summer, she is likely to become yet more so, perhaps riding 2011’s royal wedding lift to boot. Similarly, in 2010 an astonishing $44m was paid at auction for a pen-and-ink landscape by the short-lived Yuan dynasty Emperor Wenzong (1302-1335) and $11.7m for a watercolour of An Old Cypress dated 1750by the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799). Perhaps monarchs have never been more extravagantly adored.
London too has its own version of the hype over anything royal – notably for letters, photographs, Christmas cards, cufflinks, watercolours and other gifts handed out by the British and other royal families over the last 200 years. But it is not to be found at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams, which appear to have made a discreet pact with Buckingham Palace not to auction the Queen’s private correspondence – or that of Diana, Princess of Wales, who wrote important letters of high indiscretion to trusted friends. Instead a remarkably private business called Argyll Etkin Limited handles the market in Royal memorabilia. It is run from St James’s by Ian Shapiro and has been quietly handling personal material relating to the Queen, the Royal Family and historical figures of the 19th to the 21st centuries for over a decade.
Indeed, Shapiro just happens to have 20 personal letters by the Queen on offer at the moment, most of them effusive thanks to friends with whom she has lunched or stayed. They sell for sums of up to £5,000. He also has letters written by the Queen Mother, Prince Philip, American royalty – aka the Kennedys – and a hundred other historical figures.
Shapiro also holds an astonishing unpublished correspondence in English between two Russian grand duchesses at the start of the Revolution – Olga and Xenia were isolated in the Crimea, flitting between rented houses, terrified of the Soviet censors and of rumours that the Tsar and the imperial family have been put to death. The pages exude the fear that the same fate awaits the writers. ‘Oh Xenia dear. Do you think it is true that all the poor relations imprisoned in Petersburg have been shot?’ Shapiro quotes from one letter in Olga’s dense handwriting.
‘She refers,’ he explains, ‘to the arrest of four minor grand dukes and the arrival of the firing squad at the Fortress of St Peter and St Paul in the capital.’ He pauses. ‘Some of these pages are heart-rending. Those grand dukes were starved before they were shot. This is the very stuff of history. Of Russian imperial correspondence currently on the market, this has been the most important and sensational find in recent times.’
Royal letters, photographs and Christmas cards most often reach the market, Shapiro explains, when owners die. The letters lack the same meaning and sentiment for the children who inherit them; they are often tempted to seize high prices at sale. But who actually owns a letter under the law of the United Kingdom? ‘If the Queen writes you a letter,’ Shapiro explains, ‘it is yours, your physical property. But there is a copyright issue. You are not free to quote the letter in any public place in its entirety.’
With other royal families round the world, the law is similar. Sensitivity varies. Scandinavian monarchs, apparently, still resist publication of anything, even for the purposes of research by scholars. The House of Windsor, by contrast, is easygoing. This may be because the Queen and Prince Philip have shown themselves careful over 50 years not to pack their personal letters with opinions or revelations liable to cause future embarrassment, though the Prince has bordered on the indiscreet.
Diana definitely crossed the line, but those letters somehow stay away from sale; her market deals in signed photographs by Patrick Demarchelier and Mario Testino and in Diana’s signed school books and schoolgirl letters.
The Queen’s restraint even spreads to her Christmas cards, which ‘almost never’, Shapiro reports, carry any private statement beyond the occasional ‘with love, Lilibet’ (the name the Queen sometimes uses on cards which she signs in person and not by auto-pen). Though the Queen is capable of great personal warmth and generous thanks in letters to friends, she also avoids humour, no doubt because of familiar risks of being taken out of context.
The Queen Mother, however, leaves letters behind of immense fun and cheerfulness, most cheerful of all to her racing managers and her bookmakers. She was also capable of occasional vast indiscretions, as in one letter to her lady-in-waiting Lady Harlech (private collection) on their return in 1947 from a tour of South Africa to rainy, miserable Britain.
‘Dearest Minna,’ she writes from the Royal Lodge at Windsor on 17 May, ‘we came here for the weekend and found the silence almost more heavenly than one could bear – the only loud noise was made by a cuckoo – no grrra grrra of the train, no humming of the ventilation in the ship, no bugles, no banging or crunching or yelling…The surface of England is so truly peaceful and green and lovely. I am not so sure about the rest. 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 halfeducated and bemused. I do love them.’
In previous times, explains Shapiro, ladies in waiting would return letters from the monarch to the royal archive before death. In 2012 no-one can be sure where they will end up – or, in an age of industrial celebrity tittle-tattle, what they might contain. Even among signed royal photographs, insight sells – it is what is private and unpublished that is worth most.
Those who buy are not, for the most part, casual about it. ‘There are committed collectors out there with their own favourites,’ says Shapiro. The market changes with fashion. A decade ago the letters of the Queen Mother cost most; now her values lag well behind the Queen’s.
Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson remain popular, while Colin Firth’s Oscar for The King’s Speech has helped the price of George VI. Yet the value of his father, George V – whose favourite subjects were the less gripping ones of hunting, shooting and the weather – has slipped.
What is wanted most in reference to Elizabeth II is material from the Coronation and the 1950s – the new Elizabethan Age. Signed photographs by Marcus Adams and Cecil Beaton are at a premium; Beaton is the subject of a Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition this year, while the National Portrait Gallery will host The Queen: Art and Image from May. Wartime Christmas cards of the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, are also highly sought, as are signed studio wedding portraits from 1947.
‘I sense our monarch is entering on that great popularity Queen Victoria enjoyed after her Golden Jubilee in 1887, lasting to the end of her reign,’ predicts Shapiro, picking up, perhaps, on republicanism’s wane in recent years. ‘It matches, as it did for Queen Victoria, the popularity of her youth. It seems harder to find the same support between youth and age.’
Equally so, indeed, to find history in the Queen’s correspondence, unfailingly polite, highly personal but perhaps a little anodyne. ‘I do want to write to say to you how very much I enjoyed the lovely dinner party last night,’ she writes in one letter. ‘The guests were so charming, the dinner so excellent, the house so perfect and my hosts so dear and welcoming that I felt it was a long time since I had passed such an agreeable evening. Thank you both so much for inviting me.’ One wonders whether the professional courtesy of a royal thank-you note hides a more gripping dinner-table story.