Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Last Word on Jane Austen's Ring

Sunday, October 6, 2013
Isabella reporting,

Last year one of the few pieces of jewelry known to have belonged to author Jane Austen was put up for auction by a descendant. The ring, left, is simple and unassuming in design - an oval odontalite (a less expensive substitute for turquoise) stone, set in gold - but it was the connection to that first owner that made it so special. Interest in the auction was high, and grew higher still when the final prize realized at the sale was £152,450 (or about $236,000), considerably more than the £20,000-£30,000 that was original estimate projected by the auction house. Our original post about the sale is here.

The winning bidder's identity wasn't known at first, (more about that here) but when it was finally revealed that American Idol winner and pop singer Kelly Clarkson was the buyer, the howls of outrage began in Britain. The government declared the ring to be a "national treasure," and a temporary export ban was put into effect. Ms. Clarkson was prohibited from taking the ring home to Texas, and the Jane Austen's House Museum - a disappointed bidder in the original auction - was given until the end of September to match the amount of the winning bid. A world-wide campaign successfully raised the funds, and graciously Ms. Clarkson gave up her prize - not that she had any choice. The Museum will soon be putting the ring on display, while Ms. Clarkson had an exact replica made to wear whenever and wherever she pleased - surely a somewhat bittersweet memento.

It's interesting to read how differently the story was presented by the media in America and the UK. While the facts are the same, the perspective certainly isn't. NBCNews.com's headline was Kelly Clarkson forced to sell $250,000 ring to Jane Austen museum, while the BBC.co went with Kelly Clarkson thwarted in bid to keep Jane Austen ring

The policy of designating and restricting "national treasures" is a complicated one; every major museum in the world contains national treasures removed from other nations, treasures that are never going to be returned to their one-time owners. So what do you think - should Kelly have been permitted to keep the ring she paid for, or does it belong on display in the Jane Austen's House Museum?

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

It definitely belongs in the museum.

B.A. Matthews said...

Personally, I think that if the ring was a national treasure, it should have been decided before an American bought it. Had someone in Britian bought it, they wouldn't have declared it a national treasure. The way they're doing it really makes it seem as though they just didn't like the buyer.

Elizabeth said...

What a complicated issue! It pulls both ways, I think and has such a familiar ring of national ownership in art and history. The British might have been outraged by the thought of an American taking the ring from England, but then what would the same people say about the Eglin Marbles? Furthermore, it might be a 'national treasure,' but it had been under private ownership until the auction and there was little to be said about that. I can see both sides. Historically speaking, it would be hard to see something like that disappear once again into private ownership, and yet Ms Clarkson took part in a valid and legal process to acquire it and won it fairly.

Karen Anne said...

Belongs at the museum. Just like Britain should return the Elgin marbles to Greece.

The only justification I can see for not returning "national treasures" to their country of origin is if they are likely to be destroyed there. Example, I would not send anything back to Egypt.

To be fair to Clarkson, she probably could have kept the ring if she didn't take it out of England, it sounds like.

Jennifer Aves said...

You mean she could have kept the ring if she, what, moved to a different country? To be with her ring? And then every time she left the UK, to visit her parents, meet with her record label, or tour or something she'd get a special strip search at the airport to make sure she wasn't taking the ring with her? That's your idea of fair to Ms Clarkson?

Anonymous said...

The question here is about access - and using an incredibly powerful object to tell the Jane Austen story. The ring was in private ownership (passed down by descendents, quite rightly) when those owners decided to sell the ring it is perfectly right that a museum should be given the opportunity to purchase to provide access to the public through display/exhibition. As the hammer price for the ring was much higher than expected (exceeding the museum's budget) it is only right they were given the chance to come up with more funds in order for the ring to be brought back to Jane Austen's home and displayed amongst other items which give context to the story and are associated with her. What would have been the public benefit in Kelly Clarkson having the ring? Objects are far more powerful when placed in context. Furthermore a museum has the expertise to care for the object and conserve it correctly - how would Kelly Clarkson have looked after it? Does she have preventive conservation knowledge, I don't think so!

Susan Bailey said...

Clarkson should have been allowed to keep it. Instead, she's made to look like the bad guy when in fact she's a devout fan. The government was slow to act and very ungracious and the descendant, rather than offer the ring privately to the museum, sought to get the highest price. While the ring is probably in the right place, the way it got there is disgraceful and Clarkson deserves more from the government than a cheap imitation (like a heartfelt apology and a clearing of her name).

Marti said...
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Marti said...
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Marti said...

It should have been stipulated BEFORE the auction that the ring couldn't leave England. Still, it was a legal sale between two private parties.

Anonymous said...

Although I agree it shouldn't leave England I do feel sorry for her. She is obviously a fan, and it does her credit that she behaved so graciously about it

Karen Anne said...

Jennifer I'm sure she travels all over the world. It wouldn't bankrupt her to fork out $100 a year for a safe deposit box in England. Or for all we know, she has a house there.

Raymond Luna said...

This shows the greed of the Austen Family and the hypocrisy of the British government. The Austen family could have donated the ring to the museum (if it had the perceived historical value) but yet they chose to make money off of it, hence the auction. Ms. Clarkson bought it in good faith. Im sure the many readers here would be upset too if they purchased something legally, then told they do not own rights to it. Until Ms. Clarkson bought the ring, many people, including myself didnt even know it existed. So much for a national treasure.

Ashlea said...

I suspect she knew the risk that she wouldn't get to keep it before she bid. It's an imperfect system but it allows seller to get the best price and the museums a second chance to raise the funds.

Not to be a Britidh apologist, but I'm happy to see the Elgin marbles safe while the Greek economy is in ruins and the Rosetta Stone safe while Egypt is in turmoil and museums are being vandalized.

Anonymous said...

It certainly does seem like the public outcry has more to do with Ms. Clarkson being American than anything else. But let's remember; this wasn't a closed-door, wheel and deal, which is what happened in Philadelphia with the Gross Clinic, if anyone is familiar. In that situation, a wealthy heiress to an enormous retail dynasty tried to buy the iconic Philadelphia painting and secret it out of the city to her own museum in the Midwest. The city was outraged, and raised a campaign to save it and keep it in the city (which they did).
The problem here is that this was a legitimate public auction, in which any person can come and make a bid on an item. Those are the rules. When Van Gogh's works go to auction and bring millions from buyers all over the world, does the Netherlands have a fit? I feel for Ms. Clarkson. She certainly legally did not have to acquiesce; it's a credit to her character that she graciously did so.

nightsmusic said...

If it was such a national treasure, the British government should have stepped in before the auction even took place and made other arrangements.

As it stands, I was both surprised to find Ms Clarkson such an Austen fan and happy that she was gracious enough to not make a spectacle out of the whole process and simply void the sale.

But the British government is truly the bad guy in this. If Ms Clarkson knew about the auction, surely someone there would have as well!

Undine said...

I suspect that Jane herself could see this whole controversy, she'd have quite a good laugh over it.

KWillow said...

She should have graciously donated the ring to the Austen museum.

nightsmusic said...

@kwillow

Why? She bought it in good faith. Donation deductions in the US are only good in the US. Anything donated to a British museum wouldn't be deductible on our tax system IIRC so not only would she have spent the money in good faith, then she's out the money completely?

No, this still falls on the British government for allowing a 'national treasure' to go on the auction block in the first place. They either should have removed the item from auction, rescinded ALL bids and formally asked the family to donate it or found a way to buy it from the family without the museum having to do it, but to make Ms Clarkson pay twice for the British government's lack of foresight is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

If it was a national treasure, how come there was no Briton willing to pay as much as Kelly C.? Certainly Stella McCartney, Kate Moss, Nigella Lawson, Adele, Jessie J. and others could have bought it if they wanted to? This was very badly done.

Donna Hatch, historical romance author said...

Why on earth would a national treasure be put on the auction block in the first place? If no one other than a British citizen living in Britain were allowed to own a "national treasure" that should have been stated up front so there was no chance of this sort of thing happening.
While I agree the ring resting place is where it should be, the British government set this up badly and they owe Kelly C a very big, very public apology.

Material Cultures said...

There seems to be some misunderstanding within the comments of how the "national treasure" status of objects is determined. The British government does not get involved in declaring something a national treasure until an export license is applied for. For antiquities, rare books, paintings, archives, and other objects strict limits are set with regard to their age and value, and any object meeting those requirements must have an export license before it leaves the country. Once a license is applied for the government can step in, make the case that an item is too historically important to be removed from the country, and provide an opportunity for other buyers within Britain to step forward. (In practice this rarely happens, and the majority of export licenses are granted.) If no buyers come foreword the export can proceed, and this would have been the case if the museum had not raised sufficient funds for the ring. Auction houses usually notify bidders if an item will require an export license (this is often stated in the catalogue), and Clarkson certainly knew about this beforehand. If she had left the ring in a British bank vault after the sale the British government would have had no recourse, but once she applied for export they had the right to prevent it. It is not a case of the government simply disliking the buyer and callously stepping in "after the fact" to prevent the sale. They stepped in once the legally required license application was made, as is standard practice. Austen herself is a national treasure, and very few of her possessions still exist. It was perfectly reasonable for the government to declare the ring a national treasure.

nightsmusic said...

"Austen herself is a national treasure, and very few of her possessions still exist."

My, and I think others POV's as well. Austen is a national treasure and by extension, those few things she possessed are as well. Thus, this item, or any other that may be proven authentic, shouldn't be allowed on any auction block but donated and let the Brit who does take it off their own taxes if that's possible there. But making Ms Clarkson look like the bad guy in all of this stinks. Period. And at the least, she's owed a public apology for being nothing more than a fan who found out about an item and had the means to purchase it.

Shame on the relatives who wanted to off it for a price rather than do the right thing and donate it in the first place and shame on the government for chastising Ms. Clarkson and making her look like an ogre.

Karen Anne said...

I really don't think the person who sold the ring can be faulted. It would be nice to be in a position to donate it to a museum, but who among us is going to toss away $250,000. That could be someone's retirement money or financial safety net.

It's not like they were destroying the ring.

The Elgin marbles would be perfectly safe in Greece. The Greeks are not tearing down their historic sites.

Anonymous said...

Well said Material Cultures. Some of the posts on here are very mis-informed about the British legal system.
Placing export bars on items is common practice in the UK in order for Museums to raise funds to purchase and therefore provide access for the public (which include US tourists). Does this not happen in the US? Perhaps you should petition your Government for a change in the law, oh sorry I forgot, you don't have any history to protect!

nightsmusic said...

You're right anonymous, we don't have much. Oh, except for that one little skirmish with an ill equipped, undermanned, untrained, group of merchants and farmers who happened to kick one of the best trained armies in the world back across the ocean to gain our freedom. No, not much history at all.

Enough with the personal stuff though. If your law is such that it only functions after the fact, then the bottom line is, it's a bad law and should be changed so this kind of thing doesn't happen in the future.

And what would have happened if no museum had raised the money? Then would the government have demanded Ms. C give it back and take the loss?

Lori said...

I think it does belong in a museum. That being said, if they didn't want it to leave the country, then why offer it for auction the way they did? It should have been declared a national treasure to begin with OR it should have gone to the highest bidder, no strings attached. It doesn't seem right to change the rules in the middle of the game.

 
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