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Swellboy on… Tsarist billiard balls

A rare opportunity arises to purchase a set of Tsarist billiard balls

Swellboy on… Tsarist billiard balls

Image: Brijesh Patel

October 26 2010
Nick Foulkes

I suppose it is a mixture of narcissism and curiosity that has me wondering what others think of me. A week or so ago I received a phone call from Denis Bellessort, saying that he had something that was right up my rue, so to speak: a set of billiard balls that had belonged to the Tsar. I would dearly love to know the mental picture he has of me that prompts him to ring me up whenever he has a set of oversize ivory spheres formerly the property of Nicholas Romanov Esq. I am neither Russian, nor do I play billiards (although I used to shoot some pool with Alan Price) and you would have real trouble fitting a billiard table, even one of those toy ones made of plywood, into my Shepherd’s Bush cottage ornee; yet I was the first person he called with his news.

Denis (as the single consonance with tell you) is French, very French, in fact about as French as Maurice Chevalier serenading Albert Camus with a ballad about existentialism outside Les Deux Magots.

I first encountered him when he worked at Cartier on Bond Street; it suited him. He would never use a single word when there was a possibility of delivering an entire soliloquy in heavily accented English, and as we all know loquacity is the next best thing to encyclopaedic knowledge. Moreover, he loved and lived for the aesthetics and the heritage of the famous French jeweller.

I will never understand why Denis left Cartier, but leave he did, and, after trying out various other employers on Bond Streets Old and New, he has set up in business on his own account, peddling upmarket bric-a-brac, which he prefers to dignify with various epithets. In his hands they become wonders, miracles of craftsmanship, examples of the finest orfèvrerie, essays in lapidary exquisiteness and gemological exclusiveness, etc etc.

When Denis calls, I put the kettle on, cancel the rest of my day’s appointments, take the land line off the hook, light the largest cigar I can find and settle in for a good afternoon’s entertainment. Talking to Denis is a little like tuning in to a nice period drama on Sunday night telly: it is pure escapism and I must admit that I got quite carried away by his tales of imperial billiards at Tsarskoe Selo.

Apparently these priceless billiard balls are twice standard size – perfectly reasonable when you think that the Tsar’s domain stretched from the eastern part of Europe right over to Vladivostok, which, as it happened, turned out not to be such a blessing after all. He got involved in a war with Japan, where his navy was clobbered and his regime weakened and of course there was the family squabble that erupted into the Great War in Europe that finally put paid to the Romanov dynasty.

“Denis, what do you expect me to do with them?” I asked.

He responded that I should take pleasure in handling them; that I savour their weight of a quarter of a kilo each; and that I should revel in the poetry of the heavenly harmony that these priceless globes, fashioned from the elephant’s tooth, made when they hit each other. When I closed my eyes, he said, I would find myself magically transported back into the world of the Tsars and those jolly family evenings with lovable Uncle Rasputin by the fireside in old St Petersburg.

“How much?”

“Ah, why do you insult me with such quotidian questions?”

“How much, Denis?

“Ah, difficult to put a price on such a…”

Denis, how much?

“£108,000, but of course if you wish to pay more…”

I fell silent and I think he sensed that perhaps I would be unable to scrape together such a sum at short notice. So, without missing a beat, he was on to the next item, something as exquisite, but for the connoisseur on a tight budget.

“How about a lovely Cartier pocket watch on its original silk cord with a pearl winder? It is the only Cartier watch with a pearl winder, so rare that it is unique and so delicate that the mere application of thumb and forefinger on a regular basis will damage the pearl winding crown.” It was, he said, only £48,000. Then, with his infallible logic, he pointed out that I would actually be saving myself an entire £60,000. At least he had the good grace to laugh.

In these days of Cleggeron cuts and double-dip recessions, it is nice to know that someone is looking after my financial interests. I somehow think that Denis would make an excellent sidekick to Sir Philip Green when it comes to devising ways of saving money in the civil service.