Buried treasure and a mystery

A MICHELANGELO drawing, being auctioned by Christie's in London today, has been locked away in Great Tew, a semi-derelict Oxfordshire manor house, for a century and a half.

Christie's expects the drawing to go for between pounds 2.5m and pounds 3.5m. It has always refused to identify its owner, but the owner of the house is James Johnston. Johnston inherited it in 1985 on the death of his partner Major Eustace Robb, as part of a pounds 4.7m estate which also included 14 farms and most of the picturesque village which shares its name with the house. Relatives of the major were scandalised.

Two years after the major's death, Mr Johnston raised more than pounds 2.5m in a three-day Christie's sale of furniture, paintings, china, boxes and silver, to pay off pounds 1m in death duties. The Michelangelo will raise considerably more than that, and will cause much sadness among those who feel the drawing should remain in this country. It is expected to be bought by the world's richest museum, the Getty Museum of Malibu, California.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a 1ETHER write error532/33 study of Christ suckling the Virgin Mary, is the most important drawing to appear at auction since a Raphael study from Chatsworth broke the world record for a drawing, selling for pounds 3.5m in 1984.

Yesterday Christie's would not comment when I asked whether Mr Johnston was the current owner of the Michelangelo. Mr Johnston's son Nicholas said he 'knew nothing about' the drawing and that his father was away for two days visiting the Royal Show.

TIME WILL tell whether the pulling power of the new Tate Gallery in St Ives will match the hype, but people do seem pleased with the building's clarity of vision and oneness with its surroundings. Until now, that is. I have to inform you that the slates used for the roof come not from the slate quarries nearby, but from the very much cheaper quarries of Brazil.

Tutu distressing THE ROYAL Ballet is 'graciously distancing' itself from remarks made by the widow of its former principal choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan, who has criticised the British Embassy in Paris for 'snubbing' the company's dancers and singers at a recent reception.

In a letter to the Times, Lady MacMillan claimed that members of the company arrived at the reception after a gruelling day, only to find that there was no hot food and nowhere to sit. While three members of the company's management, an ex-member of the board of directors and his wife, sat down to dinner, dancers, musicians, crew and back-stage staff were ushered into the buffet but ignored by embassy staff.

'In 1993 nobody deserves to be snubbed in this patronising 'end of Empire' fashion and certainly not by official British representatives, some of whose job it is to promote British culture abroad,' she said.

The Royal Ballet seems rather embarrassed. A spokesman said: 'The Royal Ballet does not feel snubbed. She felt strongly about it, but the letter had a few inaccuracies.'

SOME shop assistants are so eager to please that they occasionally leave their faculties behind them. A reader writes with the following anecdote from a shop in Dublin. Trying out a new pen, a customer wrote: 'Tempus fugit.' Seeing the man's dissatisfaction, the assistant offered another, with the words: 'Perhaps this one will be more suited to your hand, Mr Fugit.'

A touch of the sun IT'S incredible, but a large number of people are protesting against the dropping (not before time) of Eldorado. According to Gwen Lamb, the driving force behind the campaign, the BBC is not paying sufficient attention to her angry band of licence payers, who are demanding the return of their thrice-weekly dose of sun, sea and sangria.

She is particularly angry because she thought she had won the right to confront Mervyn Watson, joint acting head of BBC drama series (the previous head of series, Peter Cregeen, resigned over Eldorado) on Punters, the Radio 4 programme. But Mr Watson has pulled out of appearing on the show.

'His office explained it was due to priority commitments,' said Jenny Walmsley, of Punters.' Normally we have no trouble finding BBC executives to defend their decisions. None at all.'


6 JULY 1942 Joan Wyndham writes in her diary: 'Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire was the start of it all. Starved of culture I suddenly decided to go up to London and attend the most incomprehensive and esoteric concert I could find. Pierrot Lunaire seemed to fit the bill. The Aeolian Hall was sold out. Wandering disconsolately down Bond Street, I turned to look into a shop window and saw the reflection of a little, ugly man . . . 15 minutes later we were approaching Soho and the little man was saying, 'What about a bite to eat at that famous haunt of the intelligentsia, the Shanghai Chinese Restaurant?' I said it suited me fine and soon found myself sitting in my spotless officer's uniform between a huge negro in a bowler hat and my little man, who was now feverishly writing poetry . . . The restaurant and the tablecloths were filthy, the food delicious - seaweed soup and tea with flowers in it.'