LONDON — Britain might as well be selling off the crown jewels.
The most famous handbag collection in history hits the auction block next week alongside Margaret Thatcher’s most iconic clothing, her personal letters, pearl necklaces, and a 26-inch porcelain bald eagle that was presented to her by President Reagan.
The life-sized bird, with its head tilted firmly to the right, stood proudly in the entrance hall of Thatcher’s home until her death in 2013. A plaque on the base reads “for her staunch and spirited support of the market economy principle.”
This cartoonish emblem of the once-close relationship between Britain and the U.S. has little artistic merit, but it’s imbued with historical value—it appears far more suitable for a museum than a Christmas gift guide. Nonetheless, it could be available on Tuesday for as little as $7,700.
Christie’s auction house in London says it has been inundated with interest from the Middle East, Japan, Australia, and the U.S. as vultures circle some of the most politically significant outerwear of the 20th century.
When Thatcher made a breakthrough Cold War visit behind the Iron Curtain in 1987, the image of her wave to the crowd in a camel-colored coat, resplendent with a lush mink collar, became a more iconic image of thawing relations than any handshake with Mikhail Gorbachev.
That piece of history has an estimated value of around $5,000 (with the waterproof boots she was wearing thrown in for free).
Many of the items, which have been put on sale by Thatcher’s family, are expected to sell for far less—a few hundred dollars are estimated for her pens, sets of coffee cups, and a silver bowl inscribed with her slogan: ‘THE LADY’S NOT FOR TURNING.’
Adrian Hume-Sayer, head of the Christie’s sale, admitted that apart from one or two of the most obviously iconic items they had been forced to value Thatcher’s personal belongings at no more than their objective base value despite their place in global history.
“Where there was a significant historic event that we couldn’t ignore we’ve taken that into account, but otherwise we’ve given it its intrinsic value as an item,” he told The Daily Beast.
This market-based disregard for the historic importance of Thatcher’s private collection has left supporters and former colleagues aghast.
John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary and a close personal friend of Thatcher, complained to The Telegraph that her clothes ought to be preserved for public viewing.
“I have no doubt that many people would still love to see them,” he said. “If the family wish to have them put on display at a national institution, then of course I would be very happy to help achieve this.”
It seems that they would rather cash in.
The Victoria and Albert Museum, the home of London’s finest art and design collection, held discussions with the family about acquiring some of the iconic clothing a few years back.
The museum’s decision not to pursue the opportunity has attracted criticism but staff at the museum insist that no formal offer was ever made.
“The V&A is now pleased to be in conversation with the family and representatives of the late Baroness Thatcher which we hope to take forward in the New Year,” a spokeswoman said.
But it’s not clear which items will be left after the sale next week.
The V&A is not planning to take part in the auction on Tuesday, although the Margaret Thatcher Center will be bidding for some of the most important items after a fundraising drive to keep British history from foreign investors.
The collection, which is laid out like a museum exhibit at Christie’s for potential buyers, offers an extraordinary insight into the mind of Britain’s first female Prime Minister.
“She had tremendous interest in clothes,” said Hume-Sayer. It’s not the first thing one associates with Thatcher—a towering figure on the political right—but as a rare woman among global leaders she was able to use her choice of clothes to project a powerful image.
“Her mother had been a dressmaker and buttons were something she paid particular attention to—accessories like that were something her mother had taught her were always vitally important,” he said. “She was also very adept at sewing herself, she was not above doing these things. She wanted everything to be perfect. Detail was in everything she did, and her clothes were absolutely no exception.”
In the catalogue accompanying the sale, Cynthia Crawford—known as “Crawfie,” Thatcher’s personal assistant throughout her time in power—described trips to a store called Tender Buttons whenever they were in New York.
“Even when she went to New Orleans to make a speech, I got on a trolley bus and went shopping for buttons. We used to take buttons off one outfit and put them on another,” she said. “Mrs. Thatcher always felt they made an outfit.”
The most extraordinary buttons to go on sale next week were sewn onto a bright red jacket and skirt by Aquascutum, (from $1,300) which Thatcher used to wear on regular trips to the U.S. and during other foreign visits.
She avoided wearing red in Britain because of its association with the opposition Labour party.
Blue—the color of the Conservative Party—was her staple. Christie’s admitted that they struggled to come up with a value for the royal blue ensemble she wore to deliver her famous “No, no, no!” speech in the House of Commons in 1989.
The unforgiving speech and no-nonsense woolen suit came to symbolize the prime minister’s steely domestic reputation.
She wore it again for her final party conference speech and for one of the last TV interviews before her resignation. For an estimated $3,500, you can give it to your aunt this Christmas.
The valuation nightmare continues with the handbags.
Nestled among the luxurious Christian Dior accessories and a rare ostrich skin bag sits a plain, scratched and slightly battered navy blue example. It’s intrinsic value may be negligible but there’s no doubt which bag would be favored by the true Thatcher aficionado.
Christie’s estimate that it’s worth something over $3,000—about the same as a brand new high-end Fendi.
Perhaps the most revealing lot for sale is the iconic white coat and headscarf she wore during a tank exercise in 1986.
The image of her flowing pale outfit, in contrast to the dark military vehicle, became an iconic symbol of the Iron Lady.
What didn’t feature in the photographs that were beamed around the world were the clunky brown walking boots hidden inside the tank.
The sensible Mephisto footware, available for an estimated $20,000 along with the rest of the historic outfit, even featured a wedge heel to ensure that Thatcher projected the image she had planned.