For several months, Jane Austen’s ring has provoked quite a sensation.

Back in July 2012 US pop idol Kelly Clarkson placed the winning bid at a Sotheby’s auction for £152,450 against the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire. According to the Telegraph there was a tense bidding war between 8 parties for the celebrated author’s ring. It was considered particularly special due to its recent discovery as its existence was unknown to Austen scholars.

Kelly Clarkson was the new owner of the ring but when Clarkson applied for an export licence, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) recommended that the ring should be kept in the UK. (The Reviewing Committee advises the Culture Minister and Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS).)

UK’s Culture Minister Ed Vaisey used the export bar to prevent the turquoise and gold ring from leaving the UK until funds could be raised to save the ring. According to a BBC report at the time, Mr 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.”

The Culture Minister first deferred the decision on the export licence until the 30th September and then a further reprieve was granted until December for money to be raised in the UK. (The deadline can be extended if there is proof of “a serious intention to raise funds” to match the six-figure sum.)

However following a successful fundraising campaign for the museum, many donors came forward, some Austen fans across the world made donations, a £100, 000 came from an anonymous donor and then a further £49,000 was donated.

The Daily Mail reports that one of the donors included celebrity TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh.

The ring has sparked some debate about what is deemed to be a National Treasure. Why is this ring so special? Does it have any artistic merit? Is this just sentimental value and the ring must be saved simply because it belonged to one of England’s greatest writers or does it hold more cultural significance?

Firstly the ring is rare, as it is one of only three pieces of known jewellery that belonged to Jane Austen and secondly there are documents that lend provenance to the ring that apparently make it a piece of cultural importance. The ring came in its original box and with papers that showed all the author’s family members the ring had passed to.

When Jane Austen died in 1817 she left the ring to her elder sister Cassandra, who then gave it to her sister-in-law Eleanor Austen when she became engaged to Jane and Cassandra’s brother, the Reverend Henry Thomas Austen.

In 1869 Eleanor then handed the ring down to her niece Caroline Austen, with a note that said: “The enclosed ring once belonged to your Aunt Jane. It was given to me by your Aunt Cassandra as soon as she knew that I was engaged to your uncle.

“I bequeath it to you. God bless you!

Caroline Austen never married and she then passed the ring to her own niece Mary, whose descendants then placed it in auction.

The ring therefore had remained in the Austen family for 200 years until Clarkson bought it.

The ring has also some romance to it.

According to the Telegraph, Dr Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s literature expert had said that in an attempt to find out the origins of the ring, they had taken the ring to Dublin as it was thought that it must have been given to the author by her Irish lover, Tom Lefroy.

Austen had described her “Irish friend” Lefroy to her sister Cassandra in a letter as to: “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.”

However, as the goldsmith was from London, it may be more likely that her brother bought the ring for her.

The romance may lie in the not knowing.

National Treasures

This is the fourth “national treasure” recently declared by the government that has led to the imposition of temporary export bars.

The other national treasures are:

Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin’s famous Bentley Blower, super-charged racing car. (Unless a UK buyer matches the overseas buyer’s offer of £5m, the car will be exported.)

An archive of letters from General Wolfe that includes 232 letters from Wolfe to his parents from 1740-1759 and an important collection that documents the Gregory Expedition to Northern Australia in the mid-1850s that includes 21 oil paintings on canvas , writings, charts, photographs and drawings.

To be classified as a national treasure the artwork must pass the Waverley criteria.
(Please see my article – Prince Regent, George IV’s jewels – a national treasure?)

The criteria are:

– Is it so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?

– Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?

– Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

Clearly the Reviewing Committee who are advised by the Art’s Council felt that it met the criteria.

The Austen ring will now go to Jane Austen’s House Museum. Kelly Clarkson has been invited to the Museum to see the ring and she has had to make do with an identical copy made of the ring.

There are some impressive works of art that are currently subject to temporary bars, in particular there are two paintings by George Stubbs (The Kongouro from New Holland (The Kangaroo) and Portrait of a Large Dog (The Dingo.))

Having looked at some of the other artworks that are currently under an export bar, such as “The laughing Rembrandt” on copper circa 1628 put on hold for a UK buyer to come forward and match a £16,500,000 offer for this Old Master’s masterpiece it is hard to see what all the fuss is about regarding the Austen ring.

The Rembrandt for example has been described by the Art’s Council as follows:

 “The painting is a strikingly beautiful example of Rembrandt’s early work, and the sophisticated play of light and shadow, even on a small scale, conveys Rembrandt’s characteristically daring and assured brushwork.

It is one of only a handful of paintings the artist made on copper, and while Rembrandt’s paintings are well represented in UK public collections, the vast majority of these works post-date 1631 and demonstrate a mature and confident master at work. This is a key work from the only period of Rembrandt’s career not already represented in a public collection in this country.”

And so to quote the great lady herself “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”

Jessica Franses