Furniture | Past Masters

VIP desks

A celebrated former owner can make a desk’s cachet something to write home about, writes Simon de Burton.

May 13 2011
Simon de Burton

The last time I spoke to classic-car consultant and collector Simon Kidston, he was awaiting delivery of his latest automotive purchase, an item with no wheels, no engine, the aerodynamics of a brick and dubious cornering capabilities – but plenty of legroom and numerous places to store your driving gloves.

The object in question is a large pedestal desk, ordinarily worth around £1,000. Kidston, however, shelled out £5,520 for it at a Bonhams auction – and happily so, because this was not just any old desk but the one from which the late Formula One World Champion Graham Hill had done his off-track dealings.

“I knew I had to have it as soon as I saw it in the catalogue, which showed a photograph of Hill sitting behind it with the phone to his ear and the top littered with books and papers,” says Kidston. “I remember meeting him when I was a small boy and he flew down to our Dorset farm for lunch with my father. The opportunity to own the actual desk where he would have done all sorts of racing deals and undoubtedly sat and talked with other leading lights of the Grand Prix world was just too good to miss. It’s a solid piece of motor-racing history.”

VIP desks tend to invoke that sort of enthusiasm. Perhaps more than any other object, they appear to absorb something of those who used them and to suggest that a little bit of the owner’s world – and even a touch of their particular talent – might just rub off. One wonders, for example, whether Ring of Bright Water author Gavin Maxwell would have enjoyed such success had he not penned some of his work at the very same piece of furniture William Wordsworth used to scratch out many of his greatest poems.

One thing is for certain, however: a celebrated former owner can add considerable value. Take the case of the writing desk at which Charles Dickens authored Great Expectations, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, part of A Tale of Two Cities and even his final written words (“some trifling business matters”, according to his eldest daughter, Mamie).

Offered for auction in 2008 by Jeanne-Marie Dickens, the widow of a direct descendant of the writer, it greatly exceeded the expectations of Christie’s specialists to achieve a more-than-five-times-estimate £433,250. Sold along with the legend’s writing chair, it was bought by Irish multimillionaire Tom Higgins, founder of pay-as-you-go tarot service Irish Psychics Live and a lifelong Dickens fan. The underbidder was not, as might be expected, the Victoria and Albert Museum or some other great British institution, but a Russian oligarch.

“The desk really was a collector’s dream – it belonged to one of the greatest literary figures of all time and had cast-iron provenance,” explains Rupert Neelands, senior specialist at Christie’s book department, which handled the sale. “It came direct from the family, and there is even an engraving created shortly after his death – The Empty Chair by Sir Luke Fildes – that shows the desk in Dickens’ study at his home, Gad’s Hill.

“Without the Dickens connection it would have been worth a tiny fraction of the eventual price. The buyer was quite simply a Dickens enthusiast who was able to take the price way beyond the reach of any of the recognised Dickens museums.” Fittingly, the funds went to the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, of which the author was a keen supporter.

But while a famous connection adds value, the same is not necessarily true of an infamous one. In March 2009, Bonhams offered the 19th-century tulip and rosewood desk that once belonged to Lord “Lucky” Lucan, who vanished into thin air after his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, was found battered to death in his Belgravia mews house.

“The desk fetched £13,200, but that was because it was a very nice piece of furniture, not because it had belonged to Lord Lucan,” says Bonhams director of English furniture Guy Savill, who has also seen the writing desks of actor Sir John Mills and cricket commentator Brian Johnston cross the block.

Perhaps surprisingly, just two years ago Cambridge-based auctioneer Cheffins only drew a modest £3,000 for the desk that Agatha Christie used at her London home, 22 Cresswell Place, despite it being offered for sale complete with an address book and a 1946 letter from her close friend, the poet Robert Graves.

In terms of what to look for when buying a “celebrity” desk, the experts concur that provenance is everything – and that it is best proved by irrefutable written evidence, period illustrations of the piece in situ or, best of all, photographs.

Another pointer, however, is contents. When I spoke to Lynda Lawrence, co-partner at Canterbury-based online dealer Antiquedesks.net, she was excitedly waiting for her restorer to bring back to its former glory a desk that seems to have belonged to Sir Michael Walker, British High Commissioner in India from 1974 to 1976 (who, apropos of nothing, rather undiplomatically shot a spectator in the foot during an archery competition at the King of Bhutan’s coronation).

“We bought it from a regional auction, but it seems quite likely that it belonged to Sir Michael, as we found photographs and letters inside and, most significantly, an invitation to a garden party hosted by Indira Gandhi. The desk has clearly been in a very sunny room, too – one side is completely bleached,” says Lawrence.

American buyers are great enthusiasts of provenance, according to Glyn Elias, director of The Dorking Desk Shop, which once sent a Churchill desk across the Atlantic (it sold at auction for around $110,000) and currently has one in stock that belonged to Bright Young Person Stephen Tennant (£8,500), another that was bequeathed to Admiral Lord Nelson by his father (£35,000) and another that was novelist George Eliot’s (£18,000).

“There is often a great deal of effort involved in researching the background of a desk, but anything we find that confirms its links to a well-known person we include in the sale. It helps to assure its future, increases historical interest and, of course, adds significantly to the value,” says Elias.

Amazingly, Elias expressed no interest in buying the desk at which this piece was written, despite its known history – salvaged from a skip outside my first office in 1988, taken home as a temporary measure and in daily use ever since.

See also

Collecting, Vintage, Desks