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The Queen's True Worth – 2014
"To Have and To Hold"
The motto for the Queen suggested by her biographer
Over the past century British monarchs have divided into either spenders or savers. The epicurean Edward VII devoted his life to conspicuous consumption spending a small fortune on women, horses and gambling while his abstemious son George V preferred to save for a rainy day limiting his expenditure to shooting grouse and collecting stamps. Edward VIII loved to shower luxury jewellery on his women friends, his brother George VI was content to stay at home with the family and watch the pennies. Elizabeth II has taken after her father and grandfather. For all the rich pomp and pageantry of her sixty plus years on the throne, the Queen belongs to that breed of monarch who would rather check that the palace lights are switched off at night than burn the midnight oil herself. Famously, she marks the level of bowls of nuts in Buckingham Palace to discourage security police from eating all the nibbles. Her regality is one crowned by frugality.
Although certainly not mean, the Queen is without doubt thrifty - a royal trait inherited from her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria who wallowed in a reputation for parsimony as alone on her bleak Balmoral estate she mourned the death of Prince Albert. Distaste for waste was nurtured in Elizabeth as a girl by her canny Scottish nursery-maid Bobo MacDonald who encouraged her to save and recycle wrapping paper from her Christmas and birthday presents. When it came to toys, she much preferred inexpensive things they got for themselves, according to her governess Marion Crawford who recalls buying her a set of farmyard animals from Woolworth's. If the young Elizabeth was raised with less than regal tastes, it is hardly surprising since at the time no one expected her to be queen. Up until the age of ten, her uncle David (the future Edward VIII) was heir to the throne and once he had children the line of succession would pass away from father's side of the family. Before the abdication she had as much prospect of being crowned as Princess Beatrice, another daughter of the sovereign's second son, does today. So, it should come as no surprise that the young Lilibet told her governess that when she grew up she would marry a farmer so that there would be no shortage of horses and dogs.
As a teenager growing up in wartime Britain, she learned that a princess had to accept privations like the rest of the nation and she regularly wore hand-me-down versions of her mother's dresses before passing them on to her younger sister. As queen she showed an equal distaste for throwing out clothes or paying too much for anything - on several occasions chastising her dress-maker Sir Hardy Amies over the cost of his designer-ware.
In this respect, she resembles her grandmother Queen Mary who was notorious for dropping strong hints to any purveyor of royal goods of her expectation of a discount. But in sharp contrast to the jewellery-obsessed Mary, Elizabeth has never displayed a passion to add to her fabulous collection of gems and unlike her mother she has shown no penchant to collect paintings or other fine art. While her sister Princess Margaret had a keen eye for fashionable clothes and the smart West End set associated with the performing arts, the Queen's tastes are less metropolitan and more tweedy. Apart from an occasional Launer handbag, her wardrobe is functional rather than flamboyant and she feels most at home not with dancers and directors at Covent Garden or Saddler's Wells but with her dogs and horses at Sandringham and Balmoral. She has been photographed stomping the fields round Sandringham in a simple headscarf and Wellington boots like any farmer's wife. When as a child Prince Charles lost a dog lead in the grounds, she acted in much the same manner as any cost conscious mother would and sent him out the following morning to hunt it down. At heart she is a country person who finds in rural pursuits an escape from the gilded cage existence of being the sovereign.
Yet this frugal, penny-pinching woman of the shires is reputed to be worth over one billion pounds. In truth, no one can agree on the precise contents of her portfolio of assets and as a consequence valuations of her wealth vary enormously. On one end of the spectrum, in 2001 The Mail on Sunday's Royal Rich Report valued her personal fortune of shares, property, jewellery, art and other general assets at £1.15 billion, while in 1989 Fortune magazine estimated her worth at a staggering £7 billion. Both these valuations include some of her inalienable assets - in the case of Fortune the royal palaces (Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace), the Crown Jewels, the Royal Collection of paintings and art and the Royal Archive, and in the case of The Mail on Sunday, the hereditary revenues from the Duchy of Lancaster. But being inalienable assets, the Queen can never sell them. As palace spokesmen are quick to point out, they are held in trust for the nation by the sovereign and must be passed on to her successor. For all intents and purposes, they are public assets and should not be included in any calculation of her private wealth. But the fact that they are often lumped together leads to confusion and perversely an underestimation of her worth as the palace can use this common error to discredit other higher estimates of her private riches.
On the other end of the spectrum, Elizabeth's former private secretary, Sir John Colville, put her wealth in a letter to The Times in 1971 at no more than £2m. He went on to inform The Daily Telegraph: "it particularly upsets her when she is described as being worth £50-100m ... If she has got more than £2m today I will eat my hat." This all took place at the time of intense debate over a pay rise for the Queen in the new Civil List and when the palace was keen to play down any elevated valuations of her personal fortune. Lord Cobbold, the Lord Chancellor and head of the Royal Household, gave assurances to a parliamentary select committee that any suggestions that the Queen's private funds were of the order of £50m-£100m were "widely exaggerated." This was repeated in 1993 by his successor, Lord Airlie, who said that claims that her private investments were worth £100m were "grossly overestimated". So, from the viewpoint of the palace at least, her private riches stood at anywhere between £2m and £50m.
The truth probably lies closer to the middle of the spectrum of valuations. In 2013 the US magazine Forbes estimated her fortune at £330m ($500), which with the exclusion of her inalienable property made her the 40th most powerful woman in the world. In 2014 The Sunday Times Rich List ranked her 285th in Britain as a whole and put her income at £330m. It was estimated that her landed property was worth £140m and her share portfolio £105m but apart from the £2m art collection it gave no detailed breakdown of her personal possessions.
Some of her more valuable assets come from less obvious sources. She inherited from her father George VI a set of stamp albums that today is acknowledged as the world's most comprehensive collection of postage stamps of Britain and the Commonwealth. It was started by Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, in the mid 19th century after Sir Rowland Hill introduced the uniform Penny Post throughout the country. But when his personal finances took a nosedive, Alfred was later obliged to sell the collection to his brother, the future Edward VII who in turn passed it on to his son, George V. He soon became as obsessed with stamps as his wife was with jewels, telling one fellow philatelist that he wished to have the best collection in England, and true to his word he went on to collect almost every issue of stamps of Great Britain, the Dominions and the colonial territories in his reign up to 1936. In 1904 he bought the first stamp produced for a colony - the Two Pence Post Office Mauritius - for £1,450, the highest price ever paid for a single stamp. Even at the height of the First World War he was with the aid of Foreign Office staff scouring the globe for new colonial stamps, on one occasion dragooning the diplomat Harold Nicolson into hunting down a rare batch of British military stamps with the word "Levant" misprinted on the face (later as a diarist he got his own back by writing of George V - "for 17 years he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps"). On his death the king left all his stamps to George VI who added more albums to the collection before passing it on to the present queen.
Today the Royal Philatelic Collection, as it is now known, runs to around 400 albums and some 200 boxes which are all housed in the strong room of St James's Palace. The bulk of the collection is George V's 328 albums of about 17,500 pages bound in colour-coded red leather volumes. Next biggest is George VI's "Blue Collection" of 78 boxes and 10 albums bound in dark blue and then comes the Queen's own "Green Collection" stored in distinctive green boxes. It is impossible to say how many stamps there are in the Collection, which also includes drawings and proofs, as no comprehensive inventory has so far been made.
Originally some of Elizabeth's biographers presumed the stamps were part of the Royal Collection and as such inalienable state property but recently the official royal website has confirmed that they are in fact the Queen's private property. Charles Goodwyn, the Keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection between 1995 and 2003, has declined to put a value on the collection saying only that it is "priceless" and claiming that they did not know the full extent of the collection. According to the current official website, "it is impossible to say how many stamps there are in the Collection, or to put a value on it. The Royal Philatelic Collection has never been counted in terms of total stamp numbers."
This reluctance to undertake a detailed, transparent inventory - which also extends to parts of the Royal Collection and the Queen's personal collection of jewellery - conveniently prevents any independent valuer from placing a precise price tag on their worth. In fairness, stamps of this scarcity are rarely put up for auction and their real commercial value is determined not by any intrinsic worth but by the volume of stamps that are released into the market place. Nevertheless, a few shafts of light have recently fallen on the albums that allows one a clearer idea of their worth. Just before the Millennium the Queen agreed to pay £250,000 for a unique first day cover of ten penny blacks posted on 6 May 1840 – known as the Kirkcudbright Cover. Since she did not have sufficient cash from the Privy Purse or her personal savings to fund the purchase, it was decided to self-finance the deal by selling off some less important stamps, many of which were duplicates or surplus to requirements in the collection. The auction at Spink's in May 2001 of this batch of 200 stamps brought in £645,000 - more than double the estimated price – and offered a glimpse of the market value of the wider collection. One stamp that was not put up for sale, however, was the jewel in the collection - the two pence "Mauritius Blue" whose 1904 record price proved a good investment since it is now valued at £2m. Another Mauritian stamp is thought to be worth £1.5m. With the Kirkcudbright Cover having already doubled in value and other stamps now commanding six and seven figures, the Queen's total collection must be worth well over £10m and some estimates put the figure as high as £100m.
Another surprise windfall to the Queen's wealth was also housed in St James's Palace but this time it came through marriage rather than inheritance. When she wed Prince Philip in November 1947 in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey attended by kings, queens and other heads of state from round the world, she received an exotic waterfall of wedding presents. The volume was so great that a souvenir book had to be published listing all 2,428 items and the gifts put on display at St James's Palace. They ranged from the perverse (Mahatma Gandhi sent a lace tray cover made from a spinning wheel which a horrified Queen Mary mistook for the Indian leader's loin cloth) to the practical (many subjects sent in nylon stockings and knitted sweater, while her government gave her the standard extra 200 clothing coupons allowed to all brides). But others gifts - especially those involving jewellery - were exceedingly valuable. The emperor of Ethiopia sent a gold tiara, the Nizam of Hyderabad a floral diamond tiara, the Maharajah of Bundi a headdress of pearls and rubies and the Dominion of India a diamond necklace fashioned from jewelled anklets. In addition to the other fabulous jewellery she received from her grandmother and her parents (which we explore in later chapters), the French government gave a Sevres dinner service, to complement the 175 piece porcelain dinner service from Taiwan's leader Chiang Kai Shek, and the Kenyan nation a hunting lodge in the Aberdares. Normally, gifts given during an official engagement - typically, from one head of state to another – are not regarded as private property, but more personal wedding gifts may be accepted as private property - as was shown after the death of Princess Margaret when her heirs auctioned her wedding gifts for five figure sums. Some of the family jewellery – particularly the many items given by the dowager Queen Mary - may have been a mixture of both inalienable and private property. Again it is difficult to put a precise price figure on the wedding gifts, but in 1947 their total worth was estimated at £2 million - close to £50 million at today's prices.
One wedding gift from the Aga Khan was of special value to Princess Elizabeth - a chestnut filly called Astrakhan which went on to win a number of prestigious races. She inherited a passion for the sport of kings from her mother with whom she bought in 1947 her first race horse, a bay gelding called Monaveen. Within months, its purchase price had been recouped many times over in prize money and with the bit now firmly between the teeth, the Queen felt emboldened to build up a significant racing enterprise and develop a specialist knowledge of breeding and bloodstock. For the first ten years of her reign, she was one of the largest owners in the country, becoming champion owner in 1953 with winnings of more than £40,000 (the equivalent of more than £750,000 today), although later she scaled down her activity as it became impossible to continue to train her horses in Ireland due to the Troubles and she found she could not compete with the new breed of mega-rich Arab owners - or as some more cynical voices have suggested - be seen to compete in such multi-million purchases when claiming to the government to be financially stretched.
In 2001 her 30 race horses and 26 broodmares were valued at £3.6m with an annual maintenance outlay of about £500,000 although by 2011 she had reduced her stable to about 25 horses in training. Around this time she reportedly paid £500,000 for a three-year-old filly called Memory which was used only for breeding at the royal stud since it failed to perform on the racetrack. The Queen's distinctive colours of purple, scarlet and gold had not graced a Classic winner since Dunfermline won the St Leger in 1977 when in 2013 Estimate ran off with the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot. But despite many near misses including the favourite Carlton House coming third in 2011, the big prize of winning the Derby has eluded her, with her great grandfather Edward VII remaining the only British sovereign to hold that honour.
Whether or not the stable of horses ever really made a profit or even broke even is debatable but what is certain is that the physical stables in terms of bricks and mortar have proved a good long-term investment. In 1952 she inherited from her father the royal studs at Sandringham and nearby Wolverton in Norfolk and in the sixties she began leasing the Polhampton Lodge Stud in Hampshire which she bought in 1971. A decade later in 1982 she completed her property portfolio by purchasing the West Isley Stable in Berkshire for around £750,000. These acquisitions would have boosted the value of her overall horse racing venture to well over £30m.
Another valuable possession often forgotten when assessing her wealth is her wine cellar. Again the waters are muddied by the fact that public assets such as wine and spirits bought for official receptions like a state dinner for a visiting dignitary are hard for an outsider to separate from alcoholic wares bought for private use. In his memoirs Tony Blair remarked on the availability of alcohol at Balmoral during an early visit there as Prime Minister noting that some of the hard stuff kicked as much a punch as rocket fuel. Her Majesty's favourite tipple has long been gin and Dubonnet, although she is not averse to sharing a whisky with the prime minister of the day after their weekly royal audience.