Abdication Collectibles The Antique Shoppe April 2018 Congratulations to Meghan Markle, the American divorcée Prince Harry will wed this May in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. The last time an English prince wed an American divorcée, things didn’t work out so well.  It was January 1936, when Edward VIII became king. He was the first bachelor to succeed to the throne since George III.  But although unmarried, he was not looking for a wife. For some years, Wallis Simpson, a twice-married American divorcé, had been at the center of his life. Edward wanted to marry his mistress and, if possible, make her queen. “Suitable” is not a word much in use anymore, but in the 1930s, Mrs. Simpson failed the test. When the king was refused permission to marry her by the British Cabinet and Dominion governments, he abdicated less than a year later in favor of his brother George VI. Most commemoratives from Edward’s short reign were made for his coronation, which was to have taken place in May 1937. His was not the first coronation to be canceled. (In 1902, his grandfather Edward VII was forced to postpone his coronation because of illness.) But he was the first English king to walk away from the job. It's supply and demand—not the fact that the event was canceled—that has the biggest influence on price. In the case of Edward VIII commemoratives, the collector is in luck. This is a buyer’s market with many nice things at affordable prices. Occasionally, they have a utilitarian value. Some years ago, the sale of a toilet-paper holder put one provincial English auction house in the news. The metal dispenser was decorated with Edward’s monogram, and sold with an unopened roll of paper for $425. Most commemoratives, however, are ornamental.  At the low end of the market are the mass-produced souvenirs that sell on eBay or pass through salerooms in group lots. For the beginner, this is the place to start.  Prices are enticingly low. A conspicuous exception is the printed tray and jug that belonged to Princess Margaret, who was Edward’s niece. It would be wonderful to know when she acquired these worn and shabby pieces. Were they given to her as a child or did she pick them up later in life?  The sale demonstrates the power of provenance. Dingy royal commemoratives, typically, sell for $10 or $20.  The final bid for Princess Margaret’s dingy royal commemoratives: $1,047. At the high end of the market are the limited edition keepsakes.  These have retained their value relative to the mass-produced souvenirs. They present special challenges, though, because the number made is not the always the same as the edition number. Many were still in production, when Edward abdicated, abruptly forcing manufacturers to reorient their wares to his brother George. A case in point is the two-handled stoneware loving cups by Royal Doulton. There were variant sizes and designs.  The large version (H 10 ¼ in) has painted relief decoration of Edward VIII and St. George (the patron saint of England).  It was to have been issued in an edition of 2,000, but only 1080 were made. Number one in the curtailed edition sold, in 2003, for $913 in London. It was an exceptional price for this model, which is typically knocked-down in the $700 range. Stylistically, the commemoratives for Edward’s coronation range from the artisanal to the ostentatious.  In the first category are Moorcroft wares, like the bucket-form mug in a muted palette of greens, yellows, and blues.   At the other end of the design spectrum is Paragon China, a manufacturer of middle-market fancy wares.  Paragon commemoratives are on the showy side. For Edward’s coronation, they came out with a line of gilded and crisply transfer-printed ornaments. It was for this occasion that Paragon began making its loving cup with gilt lion-form handles. The lion-form handle was not new. It had been used on earlier commemoratives, like those made for Edward VII’s coronation in 1902. But it emerged as a popular motif for the first time in 1936. Unbeknownst to the shopkeepers and factory owners—indeed, unbeknownst to anyone outside the king’s inner circle—Edward was contemplating giving up the throne to marry Mrs. Simpson.  The suppressed scandal became a crisis when she was granted a preliminary decree of divorce in October. Nonetheless, there was no mention of the king’s liaison in the English press. It was not until December 3—a week before Edward signed the Instrument of Abdication—that the story burst upon the public.    The concealment explains how so many coronation commemoratives came to be made.  Manufacturers, ignorant of the closed-door negotiations, were turning out cups and plates. Once the story broke, retailers became jittery. “Birmingham Coronation Orders are Being Cancelled—Huge Trade Loss if the King Abdicates” was one newspaper headline in the days before Edward stepped down. There was talk, after the Abdication, of banning or destroying the things that had been made for Edward’s coronation because the government worried that his supporters would undermine the new king.  More practically, a few manufacturers adapted the coronation wares to memorialize the brief reign. No doubt, they wanted to minimize their losses. Such pieces are rare.  The coronation went ahead, as scheduled, four months later.  It was a case of same time and place, but different king. There was not time to develop a new coronation line, so manufacturers adapted the existing designs. It helped that royal commemoratives were a traditional market with a longstanding reliance on heraldic motifs. At auction, commemoratives for the two coronations are often sold together. The gilt-enameled beaker that Minton made to honor Edward VIII was, in turn, made to honor George VI.  Another example of the “Abdication swap” is the two mugs that are based on a design by Dame Laura Knight, an English painter who also tried her hand at ceramic design. With their colorful heraldic decoration and lion- head handles the mugs are nearly identical. The differences are in the portraits and inscription. When things didn’t work out with Edward, the manufacturer (Wedgwood, possibly) carried on production with George. Modern royal commemoratives are a niche better known to collectors of Modern design than to collectors of royal commemoratives. One of the most desirable Abdication collectibles is the coronation mug by Eric Ravilious.  An up-and-coming printmaker, he had been recruited by Wedgwood in 1935. The ground colors are white and blue, and the motifs are a stylized black coat of arms and yellow bursts of fireworks. Mrs. Simpson, who was a lady with advanced taste, was one of the few to buy the mug.  It was withdrawn in December, only a few days after first appearing in the shops. Because of its rarity, prices run high.   It was paired at auction with the quickie follow-up George VI version.  The final bid ($2,000) is similar to the prices paid for other ceramic pieces by Ravilious. Collectors should beware attempts to talk up the price of Abdication collectibles. It was an exceptional episode in British royal history.  Nonetheless, there is plenty on the market at a range of prices.
Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Collecting Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971