Vintage View: History's most jaw-droppingly extravagant gifts

Kya deLongchamps looks at some of the most extravagant gifts in history.

Vintage View:  History's most jaw-droppingly extravagant gifts

Pleading for another hammer-drill for Christmas got me thinking about what I might gift or receive from my loved ones, if I was a demented tycoon relieved of all financial controls. Well, let me tell you, the stakes are high.

In 1534, Queen Anne Boleyn (1501-1536) gave a table fountain to King Henry VIII to celebrate New Year, a tradition more usual to the Tudors than gifts at Christmas.

Gifts of gold and silver ware were quite usual between the Royal couple, and this piece reflects the typical brattish expectation in their life of privilege and excess.

The fountain —in pure silver and gold, of course — was designed to pump rose water prettily into a dish where guests would rinse their fingers between courses of greasy game stuffed.

A drawing survives by court artist Hans Holbein described as: “garnished with rubies and pearls, wherein standeth a fountain, also having a rail of gold about it garnished with diamonds”.

The whereabouts of the fountain made by Cornelis Hayes, emblazoned with Anne’s heraldic falcon and gifted from the doomed Queen is not known — perhaps they took an axe to it?

Later Queens came to the throne of England heavy with dowries of trading rights, lands, and international political punch.

Catherine of Braganza, of Portugal (1636-1705) came to Charles II of England at the then ancient age of 23 in 1661 with the entire rule of Tangier and the seven islands of Bombay riding on her wedding train.

These were later let to the East India Company and by these terms, (and her own addiction), the Queen gifted us for all eternity, the enjoyment of tea. Thank you, Your Majesty.

Some women evoke such devotion, they don’t even have to be alive to be bestowed with iconic temples by their suitors.

The Mughal ruler Shah Jahan (1592-1666), ensured his love for one of his 10 known wives would never be forgotten.

The mausoleum and funerary gardens at Agra, the Taj Mahal c1632-1653, are the most impressive visible expression of passion, erected to the memory of Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631).

Created in pure marble set with semi precious stones and emphasised in the landscape with fountains and a stunning reflecting pool, the building was a distraction from the emperor’s otherwise inconsolable grief at his wife’s demise in child birth.

It cost at that time in the region of 32m rupees or just under €1bn in today’s money.

The Statue of Liberty (dedicated in 1886) was a violently expensive token from the French to the Americans to alloy the heart of the two infant republics, and has endured as their most treasured national symbol, steering emigrant hearts into harbour at Ellis Island for decades.

Designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, its proper name (if you want to be trés smarty-pants over the Christmas dinner) is Liberty Enlightening the World, and it stands on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbour.

A sister statue stands on Ile aux Cygnes in Paris, facing west. The statue may have been a gift, but the plinth on which it stands cost just under €5m — money raised by ordinary Americans through newspaper advertisements.

Rodrigo Davies, a researcher at the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has dubbed this the first instance of “crowd-funding.”

The face of Liberty is said to have been modelled on Bartholdi’s mother Augusta, but there has been a recent uproar (largely in Republican circles) when it was suggested by academics that Bartholdi used an ancient Egyptian face as his inspiration for Liberty.

In 1969, Aristotle Onassis, Harry Winston, Cartier, the Sultan of Brunei, and Richard Burton waged a furious bidding war for one of the most fabulous diamonds known to the world, dubbed the Cartier Diamond for the winner, Robert Kenmore, who was CEO at the jeweller.

Fearing a pout from his Cleopatra, Burton hurried to a phone box and after what he termed “24 hours of agony” he bought the stone for $1.1m (€1bn).

Elizabeth Taylor, not content with a ring, had Cartier make it up into a necklace (another €80k), to prettily distract attention from a tracheotomy scar.

The jewel later starred on The Ed Sullivan Show.

She sold the piece in 1978, and with her signature generosity, gifted the money to an African medical charity.

Actor Brad Pitt is devoted to the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) — rather unctuously claiming the master designer had “changed his life”.

In 2013 Angelina Jolie treated the granite-jawed hunk with the purchase of not one, but two Lloyd Wright designed-properties for his 50th birthday.

They came complete with their own heart-shaped island, a short 80km helicopter ride from New York City.

The price is thought to have been in excess of $24m (€21.8m), which I would say was a bit of bargain considering that good penthouses and condos in Manhattan are reaching the €15 to €20m mark.

Roman Abramovich, meanwhile, the billionaire owner of Chelsea and the man who loves his girlfriend — unconfirmed as his wife — Dasha Zhukova so much he has gifted the art collector a portfolio of works said to be worth around €180m.

These include L’Homme qui marche I (1961) by Alberto Giacometti, which in 2010 held the record as the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction, achieving over €98m.

It was overtaken by another Giacometti work, L’Homme au doigt (1947) this spring, which made €132m, doubtlessly increasing the value of Dasha’s lover’s investment.

Now where is that gift card?

Have a wonderful Christmas. It has been my absolute pleasure to write for you this year.

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up