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Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 10:51 GMT
'What am I bid?'
The silver candlesticks withdrawn from sale
It's not the family silver, it belongs to the nation
The Treasury has cancelled the sale of its collection of 17th Century silverware. Although it denied literally trying to "sell the family silver", it wouldn't be the first time a government has looked to the auctioneer for some quick cash.

The ever prudent Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, doesn't seem the sort to worry about mood lighting.

What need is there for candles in modern government, when meetings can be held under efficient strip lighting or a (low-wattage) bulb?

Chancellor Gordon Brown
"Sold to the man in the grey suit."
So what to do with the HM Government's exquisite 17th Century silver candlesticks, snuffers and wick trimmers? Why sell them, of course.

Six lots - all once displayed at London's Victoria and Albert Museum - had been put up for auction, including trimmers ordered by William of Orange and engraved with the royal arms.

However, the sale was not expected to net much more than 100,000 - a mere drop in the ocean of government's multi-billion pound budget.

The move to get shot of this quaint (though hardly lucrative) entry in the National Asset Register puzzled some and angered others.

Sterling effort

Tory MP Julie Kirkbride of the Commons culture committee suggested: "The Chancellor knows the price of everything but the value of nothing."

The stinging cross-party criticism has prompted Mr Brown to hunt other ways to trim the fat from the national assets - though even had it gone ahead, the auction would have been but a pale imitation of those held to dispose of the booty horded by the world's top kleptocrats.

Mobutu Sese Seko
"The hat's not for sale."
Mobutu Sese Seko may have proclaimed himself "emperor" of Zaire, but he was certainly the king of the sticky-fingered post-war rulers.

He was thought to have squirreled away 2.5bn of public money during his 32-year reign. Following his exile and death, Mobutu's mineral-rich country was left wretchedly poor and torn by war.

Auctions of Mobutu's ostentatious swag were intended to recoup some of the stolen money, though an initial sale of his quite hideous tat - including a gold guest book presented by President Richard Nixon - failed to make much of dent in 2.5bn.

Rug rat

As well as the slightly disappointing 75,000 sale, the auction of Mobutu's 30-room Swiss mansion also failed to set the property market alight, not even reaching the reserve price of 2.5m Swiss francs.

Perhaps Mobutu gave away his best stuff. Certainly a rug in Mobutu's signature material - leopard skin - presented to Nicolae Ceausescu was a star lot in an auction devoted to the Romanian dictator's ill-gotten gains.

Alongside Ceausescu's cars, wine cellar and infamous suits (he's said to have a different whistle for every day of his 25 years in power), the rug went for $2,488.

Nicolae Ceausescu
"What am I bid for this suit? Only worn once."
Corrupt regimes are not averse to staging their own auctions. The Nazis went to great pains to show they viewed modern art as "degenerate" - even organising a show of the paintings they despised - but that didn't mean they weren't willing to profit for Picasso et al.

Having ripped canvases by the likes of Van Gogh and Gauguin from the walls of German galleries, they were willing to export this "degeneracy" in return for hard currency.

Naturally, being Nazis anything they couldn't sell was burned - though some quite fantastic works were spirited off to the private collections of Nazi grandees such as Hermann Goering.

Trade off

While such looting, and worse, helped feed the Nazi war machine, the legitimate sale of national assets is often necessary to fund perfectly worthy government endeavours.

The UK government recently deflected criticism of its sale of Glencairn, the British Ambassador's 34-acre official Dublin residence, saying the money raised could fund missions in other countries.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "This is not about selling the family silver, but the kind of savings which any sensible organisation would make."

Van Gogh's portrait of Dr Gachet
'Degenerate', but Van Gogh found favour with Goering
The Victorian mansion, complete with ornamental gardens, was one of 53 properties sold off in the last two years, raising a total of 49m.

Of course, putting diplomatic premises on the market can often leave governments out of pocket, depending on who erects the "For Sale" sign.

Prachya Davi Tavedikul, a former Thai ambassador to the Netherlands, sold his embassy to a Dutch businessmen - though neglected to tell Bangkok its mission was about to become an office complex.

The disgraced emissary said he'd signed a contract "by mistake" because he hadn't understood the Dutch small print.

Although a Thai inquiry found his linguistic difficulties hadn't stopped him taking a 16,000 down payment.

See also:

18 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Treasury's 'family silver' up for sale
31 May 01 | Africa
Mobutu trinkets net $100,000
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