Harold Wilson may no longer be with us but the former British Labour Prime Minister was back in charge as hundreds of buyers paid thousands to buy his political and personal treasures.
The power of 10 Downing Street pulled in bidders from across the world to compete for a rich array of mementos in The Harold and Mary Wilson Collection Auction on May 10.
With gifts, cards or letters from presidents, royalty, astronauts and even Pope Paul VI on offer as well as around 15 of Wilson’s famous pipes and his Gannex raincoat, the unique archive sparked interest from every corner of the globe.
More than 700 lots went under the hammer and prices smashed estimates to smithereens with the overall total for the auction exceeding £226,000.
Bids rained in from internet, phone and room bidders, such was the rarity and rich royal or political pedigree on display at Hansons Auctioneers’ sale venue, Bishton Hall in Staffordshire. For example, there were items money can’t usually buy because they don’t come up for sale, such as Lot 490, an original watercolour by Prince Charles. It sold for £10,500 – believed to be a world record price.
Memorabilia relating to the world’s most famous political leaders was commonplace, such as Lot 209, an Order of Service and invitation to Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965. It made £4,500 from a low estimate of £200.
Connections to royalty were strong with numerous items relating to the royal family. Lot 292, a framed photo of the royal family, including Diana, plus five prime ministers including Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson, signed by all the royals pictured, sold for £5,200. Even single Christmas cards from the royals tripled estimates. Lot 128, a Christmas card from the Queen and Prince Philip, made £170 from a low estimate of £50.
And how many people own a gift from the pope? Lot 53, a 19th century rock crystal vase, was given to Wilson by Pope Paul VI. It soared to £4,700 from a low estimate of £1,500.
Wilson’s position enabled him to meet the most powerful, important and interesting people of his generation, such as astronauts. Lot 296, a photo of the crew of the fifth manned Apollo Space Mission, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin, signed, together with a photo of Wilson with the men, made £6,000 from a low estimate of £1,000.
And world leaders cropped up at every turn. Lot 268, a large collection of photos presented to Wilson by American president Lyndon B Johnson fetched £3,400. Celebrities played their part too. Lot 349, a photo of Wilson with the Beatles, made £170.
Quirky items included Lot 420, a bottle of centenary HP Sauce specially made for Wilson, who loved the condiment. It fetched £230. His famous pipes also proved irresistible. Lot 523, a Comoy’s Leonardo pipe owned by the former PM sold for £320 and his other pipes sparked similar figures. As for his raincoat, it made £500.
The remarkable collection was sold by Hansons on instruction from the executors of the late Lady Wilson’s estate. Wilson, British Prime Minister twice, from 1964–70 and 1974–76, died at the age of 79 in 1995. His wife Mary died aged 102 in June, 2018.
Jim Spencer, Hansons’ associate director, said: “It was a privilege to catalogue this collection. Seven van loads of material were waiting for me. It was like a 50,000-piece jigsaw.
“It was an unprecedented sale. Everything was kept over the years, every gift or signed book or presentation album of photographs. I don't think a Prime Minister's entire life has come up for auction like this before. But here it was, gifts from presidents, photographs, letters, Christmas cards, everything.
“I kept finding things. I had to check every scrap of paper. Wilson dominated my dreams. To see it all come to fruition in this phenomenally successful sale has been the highlight of my career.”
Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons, said: “I am thrilled for all concerned that we have achieved this exceptional result – including what I believe to be a world record for the sale of the Prince Charles watercolour. I very much hope we have done Harold and Mary Wilson proud.”
The Harold and Mary Wilson Collection was sold at Hansons Auctioneers, Bishton Hall, Wolseley Bridge, Stafford ST17 0XN, on May 10. To find out more, email [email protected] or call 01283 733988.