Hang onto your Rembrandts

In these still uncertain times, not only the housing market is depressed. Now is not the time to sell your ’57 Telecaster, your burgundy Gordon Keeble, your Maurice Utrillo watercolour, your Patek Philippe or your collection of Rembrandt sketches. Or is it? Well, if you can forge an interesting link, then yes. Now is the time to sell your Telecaster if Bruce Springsteen has signed it. Now is the time to sell your Gordon Keeble if it once belonged to Roger Moore. Now is the time to sell your Utrillo if it happens to be one of the three views he painted of Victor Hugo’s house on Guernsey, and now is the time to sell your Patek Philippe if it is a Nautilus model currently celebrating its thirtieth birthday … but the Rembrandts? Better to hold on to them.  That would be my advice to the Queen just now, and probably also the advice of her newly appointed online collections curator Jemima Rellie.

Of course a Rembrandt, even a sketch, will fetch a very high price at any time: enough to heat Windsor Castle for a year or two at any rate. Her Majesty owns many such, while holding many more in trust for the nation. She also has no less than 600 sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, vastly more than any other collection in the world. Ms Rellie may very well advise her employer to auction off a few dozen of the less interesting ones if push comes to shove, at least before a hot water bottle becomes an essential bedtime accessory at Buckingham Palace. I’m certain that an online auction of royal Leonardos on e-Bay (some of them are tiny scraps to be had for a few hundred thousand) would raise the sympathy level for the Royals at least as much as it would diminish the threat of chilblains. Such an auction would certainly be a lot simpler than having to fill out those complicated application forms for government subsidies (in triplicate) to implement a Community Energy Scheme under the terms of the 2004 act, one for each residence perceived as a community in need of assistance: Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle (the world’s largest residential castle), Sandringham, Clarence House, St James’ Palace, The Palace of Hollyrood (the house and the abbey), Kensington Palace, Frogmore House, Balmoral Castle … that’s a lot of boxes to tick!

Now back in 2004, when Her Majesty’s bursary was tentatively inquiring into this course of action, the relatively swift refusal by the New Labour government to countenance the idea of heating palaces with money intended for schools and hospitals (albeit after a brief period of hesitation: those sycophants would have loved to oblige, but feared what the press would say) might have made those sketches a feasible option, as they could have secured a significantly higher price than today. The fact that such a course was not followed shows one of two things: either that art in the purest sense is more valuable to the Windsors than a few chilly breakfasts in woolly socks, or that the situation was not yet as grave as they were making it out to be. I fancy the former to be the truer interpretation. Today the subject has emerged from the time vault, thanks to the terms of the freedom of information act; otherwise we would be none the wiser. Of course, those slavering hounds who mangle the profession of journalism for the British tabloids are having a field day!

Cause for concern

So, what bothers me more, as a Brit in self-imposed exile: that the Royal Family tried to get a bunk-up on their spiralling energy bill at the expense, not only of the taxpayer, but also of the poorer quarters of our towns and cities? Or that my Monarch is sitting in a draught and putting her health at risk in palaces that are very far from conforming to even the most basic energy standards? To tell the truth, both are a cause for concern.

As one of the most consistent supporters of the weaker members of society, the Queen could hardly choose a better way to lose popularity than by siphoning off funds from the disadvantaged. The fact is, she should have other sources available to her: because if Elizabeth Windsor can’t balance her budget, it’s not for lack of trying. Her farms and estates are among the best run in Europe. Her real-estate portfolio, in terms of rented accommodation and leasehold property alone, is a model of fiscal propriety. The Royals and all those around them are some of the hardest working people on what is traditionally an island of slackers, an island that occasionally experiences a fevered decade of till-jangling à la Pink Floyd before returning to its natural torpidity. The Queen drove ambulances through the Blitz as a young girl. How many of you did that? She sent her kids to tough schools to learn integrity, endurance, initiative, responsibility and how to make decent porridge. Can you? She quite rightly, despite a history of problems in the family, is not ashamed to remind her people of the values that matter. She has never made a claim to be innately better than anyone else and will shake hands with just about anyone, including Morrissey. She has opened a lot more day-care centres, hospitals, science-wings of universities, bridges, motorways etc. than you or I have had cold lasagnes. She has launched whole navies full of noble ships and made everyone proud. She has suffered fools as prime ministers without reproaching them unduly for their folly and has even survived the occasional genius with an appropriate attitude of long-suffering. In the modern world she has made a towering success of the Commonwealth which, as the European hour was sounding, was considered by most to be an utter anachronism. How wrong they were! And she has contributed, through a highly astute policy of collecting, patronage and exhibition, to a dramatic increase in the value the Royal Collections bring to the nation’s artistic patrimony (just calculate an average of 10% per annum over nearly six decades and you begin to, literally, “get the picture”).

The queen’s domestic financial advisors should not have needed to figure out ways of making ends meet. The government should have gone to them long ago to ask what their reasonable needs are and how they can be most efficiently taken care of. If that means selling a Leonardo or two or renting out Clarence House to a Russian: so be it, but if it can be done without … all the better. Put bluntly: Elizabeth is an asset, a net creator of wealth, rather than a consumer of the same, while also being one of Britain’s most consistent importers of tourist dollars. Two phrases from the Gospels come to mind: “render unto Caesar” and “the poor are always with us”. Albion, however perfidious, is lucky enough to have a Caesar worth rendering something to. One who has often served her people a deal better than they have served her. I’m not suggesting we should cosset the Royals: believe me, they would simply hate that. They are far more frugal than most of us; always ready to get a few more miles out of a tweed jacket, a Burberry, a pair of gumboots, a Land Rover or a favourite suit. What I am suggesting is that we should be concerned to ensure that the great mansions housing some of the nation’s finest assets are as sustainable as possible, as well as being congenial workplaces for their hundreds of sometimes highly-skilled employees; neither cold nor damp nor dingy, as is currently the case for large tracts of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle as well as for some of the “grace and favour” wings at Hampton Court, to name but three places in need of an energy makeover.

I was going to spend this week’s post on smacking down that whining idiot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the load of offensive tripe he vomited at the UN. But he’s simply not worth the pixels. I prefer to pick a fight with Fleet Street any day. Give me someone closer to my own weight to punch the lights out of. Send the monkey back to Teheran, they’ll spank him there soon enough, God willing.

Edwin Drood

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