Kelly Clarkson buys Jane Austen ring; export blocked

Jane Austen turquoise and gold ring in its original boxAt the Sotheby’s English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale in London this July, a turquoise and gold ring which had once belonged to Jane Austen was purchased for £152,450 ($244,000). As is their wont, Sotheby’s did not release the name of the buyer, but now the buyer has revealed herself. In an interview with British tabloid the Daily Star, singer and first American Idol Kelly Clarkson identified herself as the bidder who won Jane Austen’s ring.

The ring has a flawless provenance. When Jane died in 1817, she left all her possessions to her sister and best friend Cassandra. Three years later, Cassandra gave the ring to Eleanor Jackson, soon to be her sister-in-law as the second wife of her brother Rev. Henry Thomas Austen, the brother Jane was closest to. Eleanor Austen passed it to her niece Caroline, who had known Jane briefly when she was a little girl. It has been kept in the family this entire time, only becoming public knowledge now because of the sale. This ring is the first piece of Jane’s jewelry to come up for auction in a generation. Note from Eleanor Austen, wife of Rev. Henry Austen, Jane's brother, to her niece Caroline bequeathing her the ringIncluded in the lot is a hand-written note Eleanor wrote to Caroline shortly before her death in 1869:

“My dear Caroline. 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!”

Unfortunately for Ms. Clarkson, she won’t be wearing Jane’s ring back home. She applied for an export license as required by law, but the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest advised the Secretary of State not to grant it on the grounds that the object is of national importance. With the export ban in place, the item cannot leave British soil. Kelly is going to have to cross an ocean to visit her ring.

The Reviewing Committee assesses each object according to three criteria established by a 1950 export policy committee chaired by Viscount Waverley. There are three Waverley criteria against which an export item is to be judged:

1. History — Is the object so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?
2. Aesthetics — Is the object of outstanding aesthetic importance?
3. Scholarship — Is the object of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

Jane Austen's ringAlthough Jane Austen’s ring is a lovely cabochon natural turquoise, it’s too simple a design, I suspect, to qualify as a national treasure under Waverley two. There is little of scholarship value in the ring. Jane was known to have simple tastes in jewelry, something reflected in her characters and in at least one letter to her sister Cassandra from May 24th, 1813:

“I have bought your Locket, but was obliged to give 18s* for it-which must be rather more than you intended; it is neat & plain, set in gold.”

It’s a limited area of study, however, and there’s nothing in the correspondence or in the literature about this particular ring. Keeping the ring in country isn’t likely to add anything of major import to Jane Austen scholarship.

Jewelry on display at the Jane Austen's House Museum; topaz cross on the right is Jane's, Cassandra's is on the leftThat leaves Waverley one, which assesses an object’s significance as an individual artifact or in the context of local history or of a collection, or in its association with important events, people or places. It’s that personal association with one of England’s greatest authors which I suspect underpinned the Reviewing Committee’s decision to recommend an export ban. The ring is also quite rare, as Jane Austen lived a modest life and wasn’t dripping jewelry to begin with. Even less of it is known to have survived. The most famous piece is a topaz cross, now on a necklace with a cross of Cassandra’s, both of them gifts from their seafaring brother Charles who purchased them in 1801 with prize money he received for the capture of a French ship during the Napoleonic Wars. The crosses are on display along with some of Jane’s and Cassandra’s other jewels at the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire.

First edition of "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion," printed 1818Kelly Clarkson won’t leave England entirely empty-handed. At the same auction, she also purchased a first edition Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published posthumously in 1818, for £4,000 ($6,200).

In the article, Clarkson also cops with pride to being one of our brethren of history nerds by way of explaining all the nerdy things she does whenever she’s in the UK. This time she forwent her usual tour bus in favor of a car and driver that would allow Kelly and her sister to see the sights wherever they wished. They apparently had a Jane Austen theme going on, since one of the stops was to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire where the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet was filmed.

34 thoughts on “Kelly Clarkson buys Jane Austen ring; export blocked

  1. What possessed the Austen family to give this up? While it’s hard to believe it is truly a national treasure, it was certainly a family treasure. Unless the owner was facing dire poverty, selling something like this reeks of avarice. Jane could write another novel about a family that regards its heritage as a means for personal enrichment.

    1. Lots of people are going through hard times right now. I imagine it would be very difficult to make the choice between, say, keeping a roof over your head or keeping a family heirloom. Short of that sort of extreme situation, though, you’d have to pry that ring off my cold,dead finger.

    1. You have to apply for an export license for cultural objects that are 50 years old or older and above a certain monetary value, probably £43,484 ($70,000) in this case. There are a few exceptions (stamps, for instance), but basically if you’re buying old stuff in the UK, be prepared to apply for an export license which may or may not be granted depending on the assessment of the Reviewing Committee.

  2. I wonder if the sale were forced by a family feud — someone dies without a will and the children are fighting over it. Sometimes the only way to satisfy that sort of conflict is to sell the disputed item and divvy up the proceeds. Sad, though.

  3. What I meant was, does Sothebys (or anywhere else) tell you that before purchase, or is it an “oh, by the way”, after you have forked over the cash after you buy it?

    1. I don’t know what Sotheby’s disclaimers are for overseas bidders. I suspect they at least warn them of the possibility. In this case, the pre-sale estimate was below the export license threshold, so they may not have believed it would be an issue. Also, Sotheby’s doesn’t know who’s going to be the sucessful bidder before the auction. If a British resident had won, export wouldn’t have come up.

  4. Maybe when Ms Clarkson is out of the country, she’ll let her ring stay in good company with the other pieces in Chawton.

    1. That’s what I’d do if I were her. She wouldn’t wear it all the time even if she could take it home, so why not loan it to the museum with the stipulation that she gets to use it when she’s in the country?

  5. I think Ms. Clarkson should take the ring home and enjoy it fully. After all, if it had been purchased by a British buyer, the whole “national treasure” argument would never have come up, and that person could have kept it all to themselves without controversy.

  6. Kelly sang at inaugeration today and wore a turquoise ring! I wonder–and does anyone know?–if that was the Jane Austen rign, a copy of the Jane Austen rign, or just any turquoise ring. Maybe Kelly also collects turquoise rings? I’d love to know about the one she had on today.

    1. It’s definitely not the Jane Austen ring. The ring Kelly is wearing today is set in silver or white gold rather than the yellow gold of Jane’s ring, and the band around the turquoise is thicker. The stone is also a deeper blue, I think. It’s very similar in style, no doubt about it. I have no idea if Kelly collects turquoise or just really likes that simple, elegant mount of a single large stone. Great ring, though. 🙂

  7. Hi,

    Thanks for answering! I could barely see the ring on my TV, so I’m wondering–please tell–how you are able to discern, or know about,the kind of gold in the band and the band thickness. Did you see today’s ring in person, speak with Kelly, have some other way of knowing these things? I hope you write again–thanks much!

  8. Thank you very much for the link to the ABC video. Glad I got to hear Ms. Clarkson sing again; I think she did a moving, sensational job. I could see the band more clearly on my computer than I had seen it on TV, and you are correct in all you said. There’s a place in England that sells replica Jane Austen rings, and one can be acquired in silver–maybe Kelly was wearing the replica ring. It is interesting–to me, anyway–to see her with so similar a ring on, on this important occasion. I’m guessing, of course, but I think Kelly may have had her Jane Austen ring in mind when she chose the one she wore today. I wonder if other Jane Austen admireres noticed. Thank you!

  9. The ring is a replica Kelly’s fiance had made by the same designer who made her engagement ring. It is a close replica except he chose to add diamonds to the band

  10. The ring is a replica Kelly’s fiance had made by the same designer who made her engagement ring. It is a close replica except he chose to add diamonds to the band (Sorry for repeated duplication of my comment. Since I see the discussion on the ring during her performance was from some time ago, I wasn’t sure if people would revisit this page for an update, so I commented on each discussion so you might be able to get an email alert.)

    1. What a thoughtful fiance! I think the replica is in excellent taste, and I like the subtle embellishments like the wider band and the inset diamonds. Thank you kindly for the link, Jennie. :thanks:

  11. Hi Jennie,
    Thank you for your comments; I’m really glad your wrote them.
    I am looking forward to reading more about Kelly Clarkson and the Jane Austen ring in the February 28 issue of People Magazine.
    It’s interesting to think that Kelly wore the replica ring when she sang at the inaugeration; and she certainly sang most beautifully then, as she did last night at the Emmy Awards.
    Again, thanks!

  12. The original ring has an amazing past, and this new ring, will have an amazing future. Kelly even wore it again at the Grammy’s last night! 🙂 It’s incredible the stories that can be told by a piece of jewelry.

  13. Excellent free PR for a singer I’ve never heard of, at least not until now. She couldn’t have bought that much press attention for the same money.

  14. Um. After visiting the British Museum and seeing how they pretty much pilliaged national treasures from any country they wanted and still refusing to give them back (Elgin marbles) or taking 1,000 years (the stone of scone), I find the hypocrisy of their export laws stunning.

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