Tuesday, 30 July 2013

One Ring to Rule Them All ~ The Continuing Saga of Jane Austen's Turquoise Gold Ring

When second in line to the British throne, Prince William, announced his engagement to girlfriend, Kate Middleton, it seemed only fitting that he give his mother's famed sapphire and diamond engagement ring to his future wife.  So it is with jewelry the world over, as it passes through the generations, the jewels and metal expressing so much more than just monetary value.
And so it was, last summer, when Sotheby's of London announced that a ring, once owned by Jane Austen, was to go on sale: it caused much excitement and expectation in the general public.  The ring itself had perfect provenance, having been passed,  on Jane's death, to her sister Cassandra, and so continued through the generations of the Austen family.  A family letter explains all:

It is two hundred years since the publication of Austen's 'precious child' Pride and Prejudice, and now, possibly more than ever, the world is gripped with Austen fever.  How strange then, that this simple, yet beautiful ring, with it's elegant turquoise setting and plain gold band, was only estimated to be worth £20,000 - £30,000?
Indeed, interest in the ring was such that Sotheby's actually allowed the ring be taken across the sea to their Dublin office, in Molesworth Street, where some forty to fifty people gathered to see it.  It certainly generated much interest in the general public and the media too, especially when the auction ended with the ring being purchased, not by the British Museum, nor the Jane Austen House Museum, nor even by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, but by a private bidder, who was later revealed to be none other than successful American singer, and winner of American Idol, Kelly Clarkson.
Clarkson, who is a self-confessed history buff, paid an impressive £152,450, for the privilege of owning a piece of Jane Austen history, but to the surprise of many, the young American was not permitted to take the ring home with her to the United States, because she was refused an export licence.
Clarkson on a recently aired episode of 'Who Do You Think You are?'
Apparently, if purchased goods are valued at more than around £43,000, one must apply for permission to export them from Britain, and if they are said to be of 'outstanding aesthetic importance', significant in 'some branch of learning or history', or 'so closely connected with (British) history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune', then the Reviewing Committee, consisting of eight experts, may not grant the export licence.
Such was the case with Jane Austen's, (now Kelly Clarkson's), turquoise ring.
Of course, this must be most distressing to Clarkson, who was clearly disappointed, so much so that her fiancĂ©, Brandon Blackstone, had a replica ring, made for her, albeit with a more glitzy, diamond encrusted band.  However, one would wonder if the original ring would or could stand the bangs and knocks of everyday wear, and maybe it is for the best that the ring, worn on Kelly Clarkson's finger on recent television appearances, is not the two hundred year old original, but a replica.
Still, it must give Clarkson great satisfaction to know that she can, whenever she likes, visit her ring, as one would a foster tiger at the zoo, and get to handle something that once graced the fingers of the great, yet humble, Jane Austen.  It might be even more delightful to imagine, that Clarkson might, one day, come to see the export ban in a positive light, and offer to loan the ring to a respected museum, when she is out of the country and cannot enjoy the ring herself.  In that way, other fans of Jane Austen might enjoy the ring too. It does not hurt to dream.
Kelly with another, but slightly larger, blue ring!
In fact, I think the claim that the ring is a national treasure, is a spurious one - it is an international treasure if anything, as and such, its importance goes beyond geographical borders.  I, as an Irish woman, claim as much fondness for Jane Austen and her writings as any UK citizen might do. Austen is as popular in India as in Indiana and no one country can claim a monopoly on her.
Also, there is something in this story which is very in keeping with the spirit of Jane Austen's work.  If we imagine this self-made Kelly Clarkson, a young woman setting out, with her sister one morning, with a purse full of money, to make their way across the wide ocean, with one purpose in mind - to do a spot of shopping.  Her mind is set upon the thing - she can not be persuaded otherwise.  'It is too extravagant', someone might have warned, 'think what you are about!'.  But the young lady persists and wins the day and a very pretty ring into the bargain.   I embellish, forgive me.  For all I know, the bidding may have happened over the phone.  Yet, when I think of how Jane Austen delighted in shopping, in the liberating freedom of riding around London in a carriage by herself, and being her own woman, I think of someone not so very far removed from Kelly Clarkson, and how the author would have, on the whole, approved; for female independence, free from monetary obligation, always pleased Jane Austen.
Replica ring available online for £130
The big question now, though, is where is this mystery ring?  The one displayed by Clarkson is clearly a replica, of sorts, so where in England resides the original?  One cannot help but imagine the ring, for the last year, sitting in a vault somewhere, like something J.R.R. Tolkien might have imagined, just waiting for its chance to come out into the light.  As an devout fan, Clarkson undoubtedly has utmost respect for the ring and cares, more than most, for its safety.  Yet, it is not known for certain who has the daily responsibility of looking after this treasure and where it is currently stored.

When contacted, a Sotheby's representative said that he couldn't comment on the ring's location, other than to confirm that it is in private possession and it is subject to a temporary block on export from the UK.
Lady Diana Spencer's engagement ring, which now belongs to Kate Middleton.

The 'temporary block' suggests that the ring will soon be reunited with its current owner, perhaps in time for her upcoming nuptials, when it will truly be Jane Austen's ring, no longer, but the prized possession of Mr and Mrs Brandon Blackstone.  One can only hope that the groom-to-be is as big a fan of Jane Austen as his bride, and that together, they become the happy custodians of an heirloom that once belonged to another very special lady indeed.


...... And in another development today, the British government has intervened to defer a decision on the future of the ring to be extended until September 30th, or December 30th, at the latest, if proof emerges of "a serious intention to raise funds" to match its six-figure price tag. Culture minister Ed Vaizey said, "Jane Austen's modest lifestyle and her early death mean that objects associated with her of any kind are extremely rare, so I hope that a UK buyer comes forward so this simple but elegant ring can be saved for the nation." (http://www.independent.co.uk)
Judging by the commentary surrounding this contentious issue, it is easy to see that fans of Jane Austen are divided about what should happen to the ring.  One cannot hope that some agreement can be made, whereby the ring could be shared, and be put on public display for half the year, say, as happens with some art collections.  The Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton stated today that they would be delighted to have the ring and are considering fundraising as an option.  Either way, watch this space and await a statement from Kelly Clarkson herself, who, though famed for her forthright opinions, but is uncharacteristically quiet on this particular subject.

Stop Press Again!!!
It is official - Jane Austen's turquoise ring has been purchased from Kelly Clarkson by The Chawton House Museum.  Sufficient money was raised by fans from across the globe, and the ring is coming home to Chawton.  Ms Clarkson is reported to be 'Happy' that many fans can now enjoy the ring at the museum.  And so, for once, it seems that all's well that ends well.