Beauty and bravery at odds with vulgarity in Maxwell power house

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The Independent Online
FOR BETWEEN pounds 18,000 and pounds 25,000 it will soon be possible to bid for a rather beautiful oil painting owned by the late Robert Maxwell. The picture shows Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a dreamy and biblical evocation by an Israeli artist who captured the scene from almost the exact spot where Maxwell now lies.

There is expected to be strong competition for the Military Cross Maxwell won 'for gallant and distinguished service in North West Europe'. A photograph showing Field Marshal Montgomery pinning the medal on Maxwell's chest is expected to go for pounds 150-pounds 200.

Beauty and bravery - not words now associated with this man. Yesterday, the painting and the medal were seen in a more jaundiced light as journalists were given a preview of the contents of Headington Hill Hall, Maxwell's home on the outskirts of Oxford. Sotheby's are hoping to sell the contents for more than pounds 300,000 in London on 14 January.

Taken as separate entities, there are articles of usefulness: linen, tables and chairs, enormous television sets, fridges and trouser presses. There are also pieces of silver, and fine china. But yesterday, seeing the possessions in the context of a family home, it was difficult to see any beauty or worth in anything. All you could see was vulgarity and power: the sign 'Robert Maxwell, chairman' on his desk, the self-glorifying cartoons, and the telephone in his bedroom with all his editors' numbers lined up on a mini-switch board for late night harangues.

It was easy to feel angry at the contrast between the conspicuous wealth - the swimming pool, 15 bedrooms, a Regency mahogany dining table worth between pounds 10,000 and pounds 15,000 - and the financial plight of the pensioners and many others trampled on by Maxwell.

Take the painting. Now hanging on the drawing room wall, overlooking the best uninterrupted view of Oxford, the view of Jerusalem was given to Maxwell by Reuven Rubin, an Israeli artist who wanted to thank him for supplying him with canvasses when they were scarce after the Second World War.

People used to talk about Maxwell's generosity before he died. Here is a token of that generosity: yet all that comes across now when looking at the picture is a feeling of sacrilege. How could a man profess such religious belief - and persuade Israel to bury him amongst the chosen few - while behaving in such a cruel and heartless way?

And then there is the Military Cross. The citation is a glowing one: '. . . this officer, showing powers of leadership of the highest order, controlled his men with great skill and kept up the advance. . . showing no regard for his own safety, he led his sections in the difficult job of clearing the enemy out of the buildings, inflicting many casualties on them and causing the remainder to withdraw'.

Then you discover that Maxwell had a game plan. When he met his future wife, he told her, as he was about to return to the front, that he would come back with the Military Cross. Because the winning of the medal was so premeditated - as if Maxwell had glanced at his curriculum vitae - it was also diminished.

But so many people were caught out by him: an admirer with the initials DJ gave Maxwell a silver cigar and tobacco box for his 65th birthday, describing him as 'my mentor' with the 'Mind of Kruppstahl (and) Heart of Gold'.

DJ will not be the only person keeping a low profile as the contents are put out for public display. George Bush, the US president, will also regret signing a photograph showing him with Maxwell with the words: 'Sir Robert Maxwell, warm greetings from Washington.' Regret is not a word that ever sprang to Maxwell's lips.

His widow, Elisabeth, in a statement issued yesterday, spoke of the loss of her possessions: 'They've been with us for 33 years but material possessions don't mean much to me and nor did they to my husband, although it hurts me to see my own French family heirlooms go under the hammer. My husband was not a collector and the only things I collected were minerals, fossils, coral and seashells.'

(Photograph omitted)