MP Michael Ellis, the UK’s Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism, has temporarily barred the export of an antique table not so much because of its intrinsic value, but because it was a long-time beloved companion of Charles Dickens. The piece is a gem in its own right, mind you. It’s a handsome William IV mahogany round table three and a half feet in diameter on a solid central pedestal with an acanthus collar at the base and paw feet. It was either made or sold by one M. Wilson whose name is impressed in one of the drawers.
Estimated to have been made in around 1835, the round table has a revolving drum top above eight drawers and is covered in green leather. It was used by Dickens during most of his career – first in his London home at Devonshire Terrace; then his offices on Wellington Street where he published Household Words and All the Year Round; and finally in his library at Gad’s Hill Place in Higham, Kent where he died in 1870.
It is also known to have contained the keys to his wine cellar, and appears to be one of the very first objects to have been formally labelled with Dickens’ name; one drawer contains an oval silver plaque stating that the table stood in his library.
The full inscription on the silver plaque reads: “‘Charles Dickens’ Library Table / which stood in / his Library at Gad’s Hill.” It was made by Robert Hennell and his cypher dates it to 1873, just three years after Dickens’ death. While the movements of the table cannot been documented with mathematical precision, experts believe it remained at Gad’s Hill Place. Charles Dickens’ first son Charles Dickens Jr. bought Gad’s Hill at auction in 1870 after his father’s death. Financial troubles compelled him to sell the estate in 1878. His younger brother Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, a successful barrister, acquired Gad’s Hill Place and thus the table, keeping it in the family.
The table remained in the family by descent until it was put up for auction in December of 2017. It sold at Christie’s London for £67,600 ($88,000), apparently to a foreign buyer who applied for an export license. The independent advisory committee that reviews export requests and recommends whether the Ministry should allow or bar them determined Dickens’ table was of national importance.
Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest member Christopher Rowell said:
“On one occasion, when he was abroad, Dickens precisely described this table and its position in his Library so that a friend could locate a set of keys in one of its drawers. His art criticism as well as his descriptive writing reveal his aesthetic sensibility and this elegant, if workmanlike, leather-covered mahogany library table was clearly valued by him. Its associations are of considerable interest to lovers of Dickens’ novels and writings.”
The status of the table will be in limbo until October 26th, 2018. If a party shows serious intent and ability to raise the necessary funds to reimburse the purchase price, that deadline could be extended to January 26th, 2019.