Obituaries United Kingdom

Art collector and political fundraiser extraordinaire, Alistair McAlpine has died, aged 71

Born in the Dorchester Hotel, which his father owned, Lord McAlpine knew how to enjoy the good things in life and he was a devoted supporter of Margaret Thatcher

Lord McAlpine

Robert Alistair McAlpine, Baron McAlpine of West Green, Hampshire, property developer, art collector and advisor to the late prime minister Margaret Thatcher, died aged 71 on 17 January at his home in Puglia, a converted convent that he ran as a very select and characteristically eccentric hotel. Most guests loved it, but some found the voodoo fetishes in the bedrooms disconcerting.

Lord McAlpine was Treasurer to the Conservative party and raised large sums for Thatcher’s electoral campaigns, for which he was made a life peer in 1984. He was a supporter of the Tate, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum. His grandfather founded the dynastic McAlpine construction firm, which built London’s 2012 Olympic stadium.

So far as art was concerned, Alistair McAlpine was a marchand-amateur in the sense that he loved the chase and acquisition, would put a whole collection together but then lose interest and be happy to sell, or in the case of his collection of 1960s British abstract sculpture, give it away to the Tate. He would then start on a new collection. He was one of the very few members of the British upper class of the 1970s to be interested in contemporary art. He went to collect antiquities, erotic pictures, ethnographica, textiles, police truncheons and more.

He was tubby, shrewd, intolerant of cant, somewhat ruthless, with superb taste, endless curiosity and a sense of humour. Anna Somers Cocks, founder editor of The Art Newspaper, had lunch with him in 1990 in his Cork Street antiques shop (by appointment only).

The food, sent over as usual from the Gavroche, was served on blue and white porcelain from a Chinese ship wrecked in the 18th century and recently discovered by Captain Hatcher. The cutlery was 17th-century, and the dish was lentils, not easy to eat with a fork that had only two, very long, sharp tines.

In the grounds of West Green, the house he employed Quinlan Terry to build, he recreated an 18th-century-style park with follies and a triumphal arch, and erected a 50-foot column with the inscription in Latin: “This monument was built with a great deal of money which otherwise someday would have been given into the hands of the public revenue”.

Lord McAlpine became embroiled in a controversy over the Salisbury Hoard, a cache of Iron Age artefacts that turned out to have been illicitly excavated from a farm by two metal detectorists.

He had amassed a collection of some of the best items from the hoard, including 22 miniature bronze shields that he sold to the British Museum in 1989 for £55,000.

After it emerged that the objects had been excavated without the landowner’s permission, the British Museum returned the items in 1998, but Lord McAlpine refused to reimburse the museum, “when there was no chance that I would get my money back from anyone else,” he told The Art Newspaper at the time (February 1998, pp1 and 3).

He pointed out, however, that he had paid for publication of a book on the museum’s founder Sir Hans Sloane, edited by Arthur MacGregor and published by the British Museum Press. “The sales are benefiting the museum, and it cost me more than the price of the shields,” he said. The museum eventually reacquired the shields and some lesser objects from the Salisbury Hoard in lieu of inheritance tax.

He invested $500m in restoring the handsome Western Australian town of Broome, which was neglected and moribund and where he both appreciated its Victorian architecture and tourism potential. This project was to greatly reduce his wealth in the 1990s and he was forced to abandon it and also sell West Green House. He lived the rest of his life in Italy, in Venice and then Puglia.

In November 2012, Lord McAlpine was wrongly accused of being involved in a child abuse scandal and won an apology from the BBC, with a £185,000 settlement, which he donated to charity. From ITV he won £125, 000, which he also gave to charity. He settled with the Twitter users who had libelled him on condition that they give £25 each to Children in Need.

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24 Jan 14
18:41 CET


I visited Broome after Lord McAlpine had gone. The very hot and tiny historical museum had no records of him ever having being there. He built a large resort close to the beach which was filled, characteristically, with good Australian art. He financed the Aboriginal musical Bran Nue Day and supported many Aboriginal musicians there. But he was never liked in the town and his services to the local indigenous community were never acknowledged. According to the museum records, his life there had never existed. It was all very odd and my enquiries were answered with a shrug. And yet being such a flamboyant figure, his resort was popular and well known but his contributions to the town have never and now never will be recorded.

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