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From: The Sunday Times Sunday 18th October 1998
For sale: Diana's funeral chairs at £3,000 apiece
WESTMINSTER ABBEY has sanctioned the sale of hundreds of chairs used at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. The chairs are being marketed for £3,000 apiece to Americans, writes Christopher Morgan . Friends of the princess are appalled by the decision of Wesley Carr, dean of Westminster, and his fellow canons.
The abbey is said to have received a "substantial" sum for the 800 chairs and has replaced them with cheap, stackable seats. A church furniture company in Guildford, Surrey, advertised the sale in the United States and stands to collect Pounds 2.4m. Every chair bears a certificate of authenticity signed by Carr. "I feel aggrieved and outraged by this," said Tony Lloyd, executive director of the Leprosy Mission, one of the princess's favourite charities. "It is not right to capitalise on the death of the princess."
Yesterday a worshipper said: "Normally a second-hand church chair - which these are - would sell for about Pounds 70. The price of Pounds 3,000 comes only from Diana's funeral. Is this any way for our national church to behave?" Full report, below:
THEY have been witness to some of the most historic royal events this century. For the past 70 years they have provided a resting place for dignitaries at weddings, coronations and most recently the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. This weekend, however, the beech and elm chairs in Westminster Abbey are being offered for sale in the United States for Pounds 3,000 each in a move that critics say is further exploitation of Diana's name. Every one of the 800 chairs bears a certificate of authenticity signed by Wesley Carr, the dean of Westminster, stating they were in use up to March this year with the accompanying promotional literature emphasising their role at Diana's funeral.
An advertisement published in the United States last week declares: "From the coronations of kings and queens of England to the recent funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, the chairs of Westminster Abbey have borne silent witness to the majestic unfolding of English royal history...This is a genuinely unique and by its very nature strictly limited offer that can simply never be repeated." The chairs were bought by the abbey at intervals since the 1920s for between Pounds 5 and Pounds 10 each. A new chair of similar design would cost between Pounds 100 and Pounds 150 today.
Pew Corner, a furniture company based near Guildford, Surrey, bought the chairs from the abbey in an open competitive tender. Westminster Abbey has said the sale was given approval to "defray" the cost of buying new chairs. Every chair carries a gold-plated plaque bearing the words: "This bespoke congregation chair was used in Westminster Abbey, England". The statement of authenticity signed by Carr declares: "This is one of around 800 chairs bought in the 1920s for use in Westminster Abbey. They provided congregational seating in the nave, transepts and chapels of the abbey at the regular daily services and at the many memorials and other special services held there each year."
In the advertisement in the American magazine Architectural Digest, Pew Corner describes the chairs as "lovingly crafted from the finest beech" and urges customers to "act now or forever miss owning a real seat of power". The company has sent out further publicity material to potential buyers. The funeral is mentioned in the opening paragraph and occurs again in a list of important abbey events during the 20th century. These include the Queen Mother's wedding in 1923, the Queen's wedding in 1947 and her coronation in 1953, and the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of York in 1986.
The sale of the chairs was not publicised and regular worshippers have been puzzled for months about their disappearance. They have been substituted with a small quantity of wooden chairs, although an insider at the abbey said most of the replacement seats were "cheap grey metal stackable chairs". Friends of Diana have been shocked by the disclosure. One who did not wish to be named said: "I am utterly appalled. It is the most extraordinary thing to be making commercial gain from chairs which were used at Diana's funeral."
At the abbey, members of the congregation were startled by the news. "It is quite unbelievable," said one. "They advertise the abbey chairs in America as having been sat upon during Diana's funeral. If that is not exploitation of Diana's funeral, what is? "The dean and chapter have colluded with the company by authenticating each chair. They should be deeply ashamed of their actions." John Birch, who has been a member of the abbey congregation for 25 years, said: "The dean and chapter are on public record as not wishing to be seen to profit from the funeral of Princess Diana. These chairs would sell for a small amount, not the staggering Pounds 3,000 in the United States, if it were not for their use at her funeral. "This is the height of hypocrisy. Are they so desperate for money?"
Yesterday Pew Corner defended the sale of the chairs, for which it said it had paid the abbey a "substantial" sum. "It is very difficult to think how you could purchase something of such historical value for whatever money anywhere in the world," said Mark Groes, a director of the company. "We are not capitalising on the funeral."
The revelation of the sell-off comes during a troubled period for the abbey. A judicial hearing is under way into the case of Martin Neary, the former organist who was dismissed by the dean and chapter of Westminster last April. He has asked the Queen, as the abbey's ultimate authority, to reinstate him. Yesterday Westminster Abbey would not comment on the new row over the sale of the chairs. Additional reporting: Sarah Toyne
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