A magnificent silver gilt salver emblazoned with the coat of arms for Archibald Primrose, 4th Earl of Rosebery (1783-1868) recalls one of the greatest house sale in art auction history. Over a week in May 1977, Sotheby’s dispersed the contents of Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, a seat of the Roseberry family through marriage with the fabulously wealthy de Rothschilds. Designed by Joseph Paxton, the architect of the Crystal Palace, in voguish Renaissance revival style, the mansion was built in the 1850′s for the banker and art collector Baron Mayer de Rothschild. Baron de Rothschild rapidly filled the house with an astonishing array of precious artworks,many of silver and gold and all of which, following his death, was inherited by his daughter Hannah.
Hannah marriage to Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Roseberry (who was Prime Minister in 1894-6) , merged the de Rothschild collection with treasures from the Roseberry family, which included the salver made in Dublin in 1819 for Archibald’s grandfather. He had pursued a successful political career, including a spell as a Member of Parliament for an Irish seat, alongside indulging his passion for racing. The coat of arms so beautifully engraved on the salver display the primroses which are heraldically associated with the family and which have given so many members of the family their name.
In 1973, crippling death duties forced the family to seek agreement with the then Labour government to accept Mentmore and its contents in lieu of tax. Alarmed by the valuation of £2,000, 000 , the government refused the offer, foregoing the opportunity to acquire an untouched collection of international importance in a perfect museum setting. The decision seemed even more short sighted and dull when the contents alone fetched over £6,000,000 at the Sotheby’s auction which followed.
Since the auction, emptied of its fabulous artworks, Mentmore has endured an uneasy time. A spell as the headquarters of the Transcendental Meditation movement, funded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, ended in 1997 when the house was purchased by a property company for conversion to a luxury hotel. To date, that plan has come to nothing leaving the house in a state of increasing decay and on the English Heritage “At Risk” register. Meantime, the salver offers a glittering echo of its former glory.