An auction fit for a queen

Image of Susie Boyt

Little girls who five years ago were obsessed with princesses are now firmly fixated with pirates. The crushing courtier’s refrain to the novice princess – “It simply isn’t done!” – has been replaced with soprano cries of “Arrgh!” and “Shiver me timbers!” So it’s ring out the dresses crackling with pastel polyester satin panniers, and ring in striped shirts with ragged edges and peg legs. Skull and crossbones motifs are rife, along with sea shanties, in all playgrounds.

This development, I think, is robust. Although pirates are not infallible role models for the metropolitan under-fives, seeing your very feminine four-year-old skipping down the street scowling with twin cutlasses, and hearing the neighbours call her Mademoiselle Two Swords does send a little fillip to the heart. I met Mickey Rooney four years ago and he asked me, “Who today swashbuckles like Errol, Susan?” I was unusually stuck for words but I sure wouldn’t be today.

Besides, pirates are so dashing. For what did those princesses of old actually do? They suffered in their blended families, they were imprisoned or exiled, they did a great deal of housework with inferior tools, they got married, and then their stories ceased. I know that happiness stems from difficulties overcome, but come on!

Still, I have been thinking less of royal princesses than of queens this week. And not of their day-to-day existence so much as their accoutrements and materials; their make-up, if you will. How many pillowcases does Buckingham Palace’s linen room contain. Four hundred? Two thousand? How many gleaming silver nutcrackers make up a royal household? How many tea sets equal a queen, how many sugar tongs?

If you have a palace to equip in a hurry, you could do a lot worse than avail yourself of the estate of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, which is coming up for auction in Amsterdam this month. This sale, all for charity, is a charming historical insight into what being a queen means in terms of knick-knacks and bibelots, as well as an education in the resources essential to a fully up and running ballroom. The lots themselves read as a sort of checklist for a young monarch, or perhaps anyone who goes in for extreme entertaining.

This is territory in which I occasionally dandle a toe, so for two hours last night, while everyone else was asleep, I browsed the 1,600 lots, comprising more than 10,000 items. It was, perhaps, my best two hours this year.

Did ever one woman own more champagne flutes and saucers? These come in lots of 22, 34, 51, and even one lot of 162 pieces, which is described as “extensive”. Part of me feels that if I had 162 matching 19th-century champagne flutes, I would never complain about anything again, although in truth I prefer saucers – so there I am complaining already. (Not long ago I went to a party where the women were given champagne saucers and the men champagne flutes, which seemed rather doggedly literal.)

Wouldn’t I feel splendid with 44 coronation-style brocade ballroom side chairs to my name? Or 32 crested lobster picks? What if I could situate 24 silver champagne whisks casually on a marble side table for guests to use or grandly ignore? Would 22 crested silver ice cream spoons take my raspberry sorbet to what Oprah might term “the next level”?

Liza Minnelli sings a song about a woman going through a divorce so terrible that the character actually has a sort of breakdown during the song itself, and starts reciting scraps of nursery rhymes willy-nilly. In the song, the singer describes the ex-love in question, recalling their best times: “It was a party, just to be near you.” Well, with gilt brocade side chairs a go-go and a suite of cut glass up my sleeve, would I, too, not be worthy of that line?

Besides, these things seem very reasonably priced. You can get 22 glasses for €50, and some of the chairs are cheaper than Ikea! This kind of retail plunge takes a great deal of nerve, to put it mildly. The dastardly, “Oh you couldn’t possibly”, shopper’s superego alarm will sound in your head at such a high pitch that you will only succeed if you know exactly how to disconnect the mechanism. Of course, for a grandiose spree such as this, timing is everything. If only one had just been declared head of state of an up and coming country ... Why is one’s ancestral home never ransacked by extremely thorough-going burglars on the eve of such a sale?

But wait a moment! There are weddings fast approaching. There are goddaughters who have just moved to the country to feather their nests.

There are anniversary couples whose monograms match some of those etched on all that cut glass. There may even be hip flasks for infant pirates who like their milk close at hand. Look out Amsterdam, here I come ...

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