Crowning glories may go abroad

For sale: three British Crown frames dating from the coronation of King George I in 1715. Coronation bible of "Mad" King George III also available. Total asking price pounds 1.7m. Might suit avid Royalist or lottery winner with delusions of grandeur

It is the kind of list that might be issued by auction houses such as Christie's or Sotheby's. In fact, it comes from Asprey, the troubled Royal jeweller which lost pounds 10m last year. In an attempt to create a Dutch auction for the treasures and also keep the crowns in Britain, it has sought an export licence that would lead to an overseas sale.

Though Asprey denies it is a distress sale, there is no doubt the group needs the money. Asprey has fallen on hard times and in June announced losses of pounds 10m. Though its subsidiaries include the flagship Bond Street store affectionately known as "the Queen's gift shop" and Garrard, the royal jewellers, it has found victim to a decline in lavish spending by the rich and famous and mounting stock problems. Flogging the crown jewels might be the answer.

Asprey has owned the crowns since 1987 after buying them from a private dealer. The group has been trying to sell them since but has struggled to find a UK buyer.

In what could be seen as an attempt to bid up the price, it has applied to the Department of National Heritage for an export licence.

The heritage ministry has deferred the export decision until January to give UK buyers one last chance to own a little section of the Crown jewels.

Charles Truman, head of antiques at Asprey, said: "We have offered the crowns to English institutions but so far no buyer has been found. There has been considerable interest from the US."

A spokesman for the Heritage Ministry said: "If nobody here matches the asking price, off they go."

It is an impressive list, although the crowns include no diamonds as jewels for coronations were then hired.

The list includes the frame of the Imperial state crown of George I (pounds 576,000), the frame of coronation crown of King George IV (pounds 376,000) and a First Century strap-union from chariot harness (pounds 2,940.63).

As the crowns are considered a tangible heritage asset, lottery money might be available from the Millennium fund, but only if a non-profit organisation comes forward and chips in a few pounds of its own.

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