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  • Anthony Lipmann

Sunflowers and Cuspidors

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

When Alfred Chester Beatty opened his office and formed Selection Trust at London Wall Buildings in 1919, each director was permitted an office of his own and a cuspidor. Members of the London Metal Exchange will be familiar with the object – even if they no longer use it – the spittoon which (at least in my time) resided within spitting distance of the traders in the ring. Charles Dickens, writing in American Notes, could not abide the practice and was revolted by the Americans’ liberal use of the spittoon while debating law in the Houses of Congress. He called Washington ‘the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva’. Mercifully, spitting gradually went out of fashion in Europe after the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 when the spread of the disease was linked to the habit. But even in the late 1980s, I recall the visit of Chinese delegations to London was feared, more for the potential effect on the carpet than their trading skills. 

Perhaps we have come a long way? Or, have we? The subject that links one of the world’s greatest mining engineers, copper, and the spittoon of the London Metal Exchange, is the continuing nightmare of the Congo. Courtesy of Joseph Conrad the phrase ‘heart of darkness’ stretches like a hand from the past to judge us in the mining and metal trade today. From 1885 to 1908 ‘the territory, made up of the basin of Africa’s second longest river and the vast areas of Equatorial forest…was subject to the authority…of one man’ – King Leopold II of Belgium. Only when The Times and other newspapers exposed the terms under which rubber was being collected from the forests, which included the amputation of limbs if quotas were not filled, was the King forced to relinquish his fiefdom in favour the Belgian Government – the same government in whose defence the British Expeditionary Force entered the Great War in 1914.

In this Christmas Eve’s edition of The Times, events in the Congo were worth no more than a short headline imported from AFP (Agence France Presse) – ‘Kabila clings on as deaths mount’, and 61 words. Yet again, a leader from an African mineral-rich state refuses to step down after his allotted term. Where’s the news in that? And yet, nowhere on earth is the wider struggle over natural resources more evident than in this benighted land. 

In Chester Beatty’s day the great nations of Europe battled it out between each other to carve up Africa. Belgium, previously without a colony, had now acquired one, beating Cecil Rhodes to Katanga, and requested the Americans, with their great experience in mining, to come in and develop it. Beatty was one of the mining engineers, appointed by the Guggenheims, to carry out mineral exploration and identification of promising orebodies in return for 7000 square miles of mining rights of their choice and the first four mines to be discovered. 

It is worth pondering these matters in a year in which Global Witness exposed the fact that state-owned Gecamines, instead of maximising royalties due from Glencore, worth a possible US$880 mln, for the common good, had assigned them to an entity in the Cayman Islands. Ordinary Congolese might well ask, (99 years after King Leopold relinquished control) when will the resources below their feet benefit the Congo? 

If mobile phones (which use artisanally exhumed tantalum atoms from the forests of North Western Congo as capacitors) have brought a scintilla of improvement to the lives of ordinary Congolese, the political system has yet to reflect it. Congo remains a kleptocratic state that makes Russia look like Utopia. Into this vacuum come the Western mining houses, the direct descendants of the Guggenheims, Beatty and Rhodes, still carving, still rapaciously plundering the earth and removing concentrates to smelters which they control, and where profit is captured. 

Here at home we wring our hands at another African dictator who has let down his people; and shrug at a new set of lives lost in fruitless demonstration. As we enter 2017, one of Congo’s prime mineral exports, Cobalt, at $15per lb, is benefitting from the derivative effect of those, like me, who, unable to buy any meaningful form of Lithium, buy Cobalt instead. Used in the cathode materials of Li-Ion batteries, how else to have a stake in the Electric Vehicle boom?

In 1987, the untold wealth of the estate of Helen Chester Beatty, built on the proceeds of mining, put up for sale one of Van Gogh’s seven versions of Sunflowers. At the time, I had taken a year out from the metal trade to write a book about an Austrian graphic designer whose works I had found in my great aunt’s attic and was much miffed to discover that Christie’s had used a picture of a Bugatti by my artist on a catalogue without asking permission. Less pecunious than I am today, I employed the then family lawyers, Penningtons, to sue Christie’s for the breach and was surprised when, instead of fighting, Penningtons communicated that Christie’s was ready to settle at any reasonable price of my choosing. Deciding on £3000, I felt I had done a good day’s business. What I did not know was that Christie’s was as that very moment angling for the commission to sell Sunflowers via the representatives of the Chester Beatty Estate – Penningtons. A few weeks later, Sunflowers was auctioned and sold to the Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company for US$39.9 mln which, at the time, was three times higher than the sales price of any previous painting sold at auction.

A cleverer man than me might have been suspicious at the alacrity with which Christie’s settled. I was thirty years old, the age at which Beatty had already approved the development of Bingham Canyon. As for Van Gogh, of course he only sold one painting during his life time. As for the Guggenheims, they are today remembered mainly because of a museum on 5th Avenue and not as lace trading Jews who moved into mining, and whose wealth started to grow then they revived the abandoned Leadville Mine in Colorado – relying on the advice of Chester Beatty. As for the Congolese, we appear to respect them more as footballers than as partners in the supply of much needed metals for industry.

As with Van Gogh, so with Congolese – both outputs valued at great prices to mankind but with no benefit at all to their originators.

Further Reading:

The Life and Times of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, by A.J. Wilson, Published in 1985 by Cadogan Publications Ltd.

American Notes by Charles Dickens, First Published by Chapman and Hall in 1842, see Volume 1, Chapter 8

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Published by Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899

Congo signs over potential $880mln of royalties, Published by Global Witness Nov 15th 2016

This article was written by Anthony Lipmann; all views and opinions are strictly his own.




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