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Treasure or Trinket

Treasure or trinket? Royal family memorabilia

  • Fabergé Elephant and Castle
    Pieces once owned by a royal are often in demand. This model, circa 1900, was owned by Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester. (Christie's Images)
  • Duchess of Windsor bracelet
    Works associated with controversial royals are often sought after. Wallis Simpson's sapphire and diamond Cartier bracelet sold for £230,500 ($377,697) in 2013. (Sotheby's)
  • A sweet souvenir
    Wedding cake from the 2011 union of Prince William and Catherine Middleton sold for £420 ($692) (Reeman Dansie Auctions)
  • Signed items are favoured
    A 1950s Christmas card showing Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh at Balmoral, combined with a 1979 card, sold for £400 ($659) (Reeman Dansie Auctions)
  • Surprise treasure
    The only portrait of Arthur, Prince of Wales, (Henry VIII's brother) produced during his lifetime sold for enough to buy a house. (Philip Mould & Co)
  • Portrait of Edward VI
    This portrait of Edward VI, from the studio of court painter Guillim Scrots, depicts the young king not long before he died of consumption in 1553. (Sotheby’s)
  • The sleep of Venus
    This oil was commissioned by the Marquise de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress, and painted by François Boucher in 1754. It sold for $2.4m in 2014. (Sotheby's)

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Jan Hugo has collected so much British royal memorabilia over the last 33 years she now has over 10,000 pieces at her home in Australia's Hunter Valley. In fact, the collection has grown so large the Hugos have started offering tours of their house.

It all began when Jan received a coin commemorating Diana and Charles's engagement after her first daughter, Penny, was born, but it's the older pieces associated with George III, Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra she loves the most. “My oldest piece is a George III English penny from 1806,” she said. “I also have a figurine of Edward VIII, with Wallis Simpson standing behind him.”

Art and collectibles associated with royal dynasties, past and present, draws collectors from every corner of the globe. This week, Sotheby's is selling items belonging to several European royal families in London and a collection of courtly paintings in New York, including an Edward VI portrait and The sleep of Venus.

It's not just royal paintings and portraits that are in demand. Some of the thousands of royal memorabilia collectors out there, like Hugo, may have some surprisingly valuable items at home.

The appeal

A great deal of art from the Renaissance through the19th century depended on courts and princely patrons, said Christopher Apostle, Sotheby's head of Old Master Paintings. “Royal provenance can be very exciting.”

The most valuable royal pieces are imbued with the mystique of lost empires — such as imperial ceramics from 18th century China or Fabergé associated with Russia's tsars.

Mark Moehrke, director of Russian works of art at Christie's, said demand for Fabergé with an imperial provenance is growing, from buyers in Russia, the United States and Europe, but also the Middle East, Latin America, and most recently, South East Asia. “When fresh pieces come to the market, they create quite a stir.”

Most recently, two jewelled Fabergé models of an elephant and castle sold at Christie's last November to a Russian dealer for £290,500 ($470,610) each, over 10 times estimates.

Most coveted

Works associated with controversial royals, such as Wallis Simpson, are often sought after. Her Cartier sapphire and diamond bracelet sold at Sotheby’s in December to an Asian collector for £230,500 ($377,697), more than four times the price paid for a similar piece, without the royal pedigree, sold at Christie’s last year.

Original portraits of Elizabeth I are the most sought-after for collectors in the United States and UK, followed by Henry VIII and Charles I. “These are faces that everyone knows,” said specialist dealer, Philip Mould. “The most difficult to sell are the early 18th century Hanoverians. They were a plain lot and it wasn't a great period in British portrait painting.”

If a collector unearths a portrait subsequently identified as an important royal, it could be worth a fortune in years to come. In his book Sleuth, Mould explains that he once bought a painting that turned out to be the only portrait of Arthur, Henry VIII's brother, produced during his lifetime. Mould restored and sold it and bought his house in London with the proceeds. “Discoveries are always possible,” he said, “particularly with under cleaned or overpainted works.”

Hidden treasure

Mass-produced commemorative items have little financial value, particularly ceramics, which have dropped in popularity due to lack of interest from younger collectors, said James Grinter, managing director at auction house Reeman Dansie. But items formerly owned or signed by popular royals remain highly-prized.

“We recently sold an Escada tie that used to belong to Princess Diana for £3,200 ($5,289). A signed photo of Princess Diana in a presentation frame can fetch up to £3,000 ($4,927),” he said. “Most Christmas cards from Elizabeth II are signed by autopen, but ones with genuine signatures can be worth up to £500 ($821).”

And then there's the market for more unusual items, like royal wedding cake. “We sold the first piece of William and Kate's wedding cake to appear on the market and it went for £1,918 ($3,150)”, said Adrian Roose, director at Paul Fraser Collectibles.

What to look for

Experts would not speculate on what category is most likely to hold its value, beyond saying that mass-produced items are unlikely to appreciate. “Prices can go up and down dramatically. The best advice I can really give is to buy the best quality and condition you can afford,” said Grinter. Collectors should also consider the other costs of buying: auction houses and gallery commissions, tax and insurance, maintenance and storage costs for very valuable pieces. They must avoid keeping items in warm, humid conditions, particularly that wedding cake.

The bottom line

Buyers should never assume they can sell purchases for a profit, because prices are unpredictable and tastes change. “Younger people already don't know who the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are,” said Grinter. “And while Princess Diana is still in people's minds, she might not be in 30 years from now.”

Hugo is not remotely worried. Lack of interest from younger people in royal ceramics has allowed her to buy more. “It really is a living thing. Zara Phillips has just had a baby girl and they'll be a few plates issued for that. Prince Harry will get married and have children, so they'll be more items then, and William will have another child. As long as there's a royal family, I'll never stop collecting.”