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Cynics often bemoan the state of US democracy under capitalism, where it seems that politicians are essentially bought and sold. Never one to trail behind its erstwhile colony, British Parliament upped the ante with the announcement that literal pieces of the Houses of Parliament are available for sale.
Specifically on the auction block are examples of the historic Pugin tile floors, ordered from the Minton factory by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin in the 1840s for the Palace of Westminster, to compliment the Neo-Gothic style of the building’s 1834 rebuild. These tiles have begun to fade after nearly 200 years of political grandstanding and foot-dragging, and in 2010 it was decided to proceed with a full restoration of the Pugin tiles. Since the Minton factory in Stoke-upon-Trent was demolished in 2002, thus no longer in a capacity to produce thousands of replacements for the worn and damaged section of some 75,000 original tiles, the Encaustic Tile Conservation Project, being managed by the London-based DBR building company, sourced substitute tiles made to the original one-inch thickness by Craven Dunnill Jackfield of Ironbridge, Shropshire. Though Mintons is no longer in operation, examples of their tile and pottery works are in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and they provided tile to numerous buildings, including the United States Capitol.
The £8 million (~$10.4 million) project is underway and expected to conclude in 2019, but architecture buffs, ceramics enthusiasts, political historians, and people with a very specific fetish about objects that have been stepped on by generations of Prime Ministers, can snag themselves their own piece of Parliament. High-grade tiles are on sale for £200 (~$260) each, with mid-grade at £150 (~$195) and half-tiles at £95 (~$123.50). These are available online from the Houses of Parliament’s gift shop.
The project has been met with criticism from some quarters, as reported by The Art Newspaper, which quotes Dan Hicks, a professor of archaeology at the University of Oxford, as saying: “MPs are selling off chunks of the Parliamentary Estate — not quite brick by brick, but tile by tile,” he says. “What precedent does that set for other protected buildings?”
A parliamentary spokesman says: “It was agreed by both Houses that alternative uses would be found for tiles that are no longer deemed usable. Income from the Houses of Parliament gift shop helps to offset the costs of running Parliament. Some funds also go towards the Speaker’s Art Fund, a charitable trust that aims to inspire people to learn about the history, heritage, and work of Parliament.”
I, for one, applaud this canny entrepreneurial approach. For one thing, people might like a tangible souvenir of something that has been stepped on more frequently by politicians than our civil liberties. For another, this may touch off black market demand for pieces of political venues, to a degree that leads our nation of savvy grassroots businesspeople to literally dismantle our government bit by bit for sale to a secondary market. Viva la free market!