Has the Grosvenor Estate Lost its Way?

It isn’t very often that I agree with the French.

The majority of the working population are an unruly lot who by and large are hard to govern.

The street is notorious for dictating government policy, and the French Revolution is a glaring testament to this inherent characteristic which seems embedded in their culture.

But having read over the weekend a headline in my Daily Telegraph which states ‘French traders celebrate sending duke away with a flea in his ear’, it brought a smile to my face absent for so long as a result of a combination of unexpected personal events that marred my normal state of joie de vivre.

The story responsible for my smile, which some would term wickedly satisfying, concerned Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, the sixth Duke of Westminster and Britain’s eighth richest man, who has just bailed out of a nine-year battle against French dealers from two of the most celebrated antique sections of the one-hundred-and-thirty-year-old market, the world’s largest, with five million visitors a year.

In 2005, the duke paid €50 million for its high-end Serpette and Paul-Bert sections. Last week, it emerged that he had sold the lot at a reported €20 million loss, sparking a jubilation of victory cries over ‘Perfidious Albion’ from a band of Gallic dealers who accused him of ‘reigning over his subjects like a feudal lord’. Since then, ‘an air of Astérix-style triumph was palpable among the covered stalls, selling a dizzyingly eclectic array of objects from bric-à-brac paintings and period furniture to stone lions and a stuffed Bengal tiger’.

‘As a member of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, supposed to promote the spirit of chivalry, re-establish justice and protect the weak, Monsieur le Duc treated his subjects very badly,’ said Bruno Malet, the chairman of the association of dealers in the Paul Bert and Serpette markets.

Sitting under an 1880 bronze and crystal chandelier in his Serpette stall full of old books and twentieth-century paintings, Mr Malet smiled triumphantly. On his left hung a 1920 oil painting of the Avignon bridge by Eastern European painter Hans Wagner; to his right a 1948 nude by French cubist Louis Latapie.

‘He treated us like la merde, so we returned the compliment by treating him like the badly brought-up aristocrat that he is,’ he sniffed. ‘Good riddance.’

Dealers said they had high hopes when they learnt that a cash-rich English aristocrat with a supposed love of antiques was taking over.

But the entente cordiale proved short lived. The duke was accused of unfair rent hikes and lease changes and of failing to grasp the market’s cherished eccentricities.

And the accusations go on and on – and one can smell bitterness in the air as a result of a rancorous experience most stall holders have had with the duke.

I am not in the least surprised. The Grosvenor Estate is not highly prized for the treatment they dish out to their tenants. They are run shabbily by staff who should be tutored in the art of public relations as a first step before their graduation to higher and most responsible posts.

The duke should be more hands-on to ensure that his public image does not suffer such a calamity as his latest venture in France. He can ill afford to be tarred with the same brush as his minions.

But who knows? Could it be that with such wealth he has become immune to such minor irrelevancies?

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