The Fabulous Wardrobe of The Last Queen of Madagascar Goes Home
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Queen Ranavalona III in magnificent headdress, early 1900s. Part of the lot.

Words Joe Bromley

Following a star lot at Kerry Taylor Auctions, the President of Madagascar reveals a new scheme to claim back national history and cultural heritage. 

“Now we have Lot 51, the most anticipated lot of the sale. Probably of the year” says Kerry Taylor, of Kerry Taylor Auctions. On the lectern – gravel in hand – it’s the 8th December Antique and Vintage Fashion and Textiles sale; the last in a year that has seriously destabilised this market. “And we’ve not only had interest from here, but from Madagascar too.”

 

Selling is a resurrected box of over 200 photographs and postcards; documents and biscuit wrappers – and an opulently-embellished gown. Together they retell the dramatic, tragic tale of Queen Ranavalona III, Madagascar’s last sovereign, who was bound in exile for the majority of her life.

Ranavalona (1861-1917) ascended to the throne aged 22 in 1883; the year the French began bombarding the island to take as a colony. They’d gained complete control by 1895, and in 1897 the queen, her aunt, Princess Ramisindrazana – who’d fired up rebellions against French rule – and other family members were exiled to the nearby island of Réunion. After two years stuck in a wooden palace, they were sent to French Algeria where the queen (a patron of Parisian couture), could take infrequent trips to Paris. She stayed in Algeria until her death. Twenty-two years later, her body was exhumed and returned to Madagascar; despite constant petitioning, she was never to go back alive.

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A photograph of Princess Ramisindrazana wearing the gown, part of the lot

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Princess Ramisindrazana’s ‘theatrical’, embellished gown, 1896 - 1897

 This is not just a dress. It’s the history that really is the most interesting part

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A photograph of Queen Ranavalona III on holiday in France, 1903. Part of the lot

This has just been bought by the Government of Madagascar! 

“We have this incredible cyclamen pink and dark plum purple gown, covered in pearls, beaded embroidery, and a photograph of Princess Ramisindrazana wearing it” says Taylor. “It’s 1896, 1897, the sleeve is absolutely bang on for then. The fabric is cotton velvet, not silk velvet, so it’s a bit theatrical, and probably made in Madagascar. I can imagine the people of Madagascar seeing her in it and just saying: ‘Wow’.”

 

The collection was kept by Miss Clara Herbert, a paid companion to the queen. Since her death in the 1930s it was stored in an attic in Guildford, Surry, until Herbert’s Great Nephew moved house and stumbled across it. “It’s one of the few good things Covid has caused” said Taylor, before the sale. 

 

The estimate was a measly £1000-1500. It felt low, but no one watching expected bidding to open at £24,000. It began climbing £5,000 a time. “I’d love it to go back to Madagascar” said Taylor, “however I don’t think the museums there are terribly well funded.” When the gravel went down at £43,000, the likelihood of its return to the Malagasy people seemed slim.

 

“Can I say who it is?” an elated Taylor says to the buyer with the winning phone bidder in the sale room. “Can I say? I think I have to!” she continues. “This has just been bought by the Government of Madagascar!” 

Applause climbs. “I’m sorry, I’m having a wave of emotion. These strong women faced so much in their lives, I’m just so pleased it's all going to go home”, says Taylor. After months immersing herself in the story of a family whose liberation was stripped from them, there is a moment of genuine sentimentality. “This is not just a dress. It’s the history that really is the most interesting part”, Taylor said before. And that is what sold today. 

 

His Excellency Mr Andry Rajoelina, President of the Republic of Madagascar, echoed this in his statement: “Madagascar attaches great importance to the acquisition of these Royal items as part of the re-appropriation of Malagasy national history and cultural heritage.” It is part of a larger scheme that has seen the Royal Dais of Queen Ranavalona III also returned from France; everything will be exhibited together in the newly restored Queen’s Palace, Madagascar. Nothing can be done to retribute the queen’s captivity. Important now is that steps are being taken to maintain her legacy.

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A photograph of Queen Ranavalona III, on her throne before the French abolished the monarchy in 1895, the photograph itself part of the lot