In 1895, Irish-born author Oscar Wilde ended up behind bars following a criminal libel he lost to the Marquess of Queensberry.
The reason why the two of them ended up in court was Wilde’s alleged passionate love affair with Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, the marquess’ very own son.
The marquess, having denounced Wilde’s homosexuality, triggered the famed writer to file a court suit for libel. Wilde would lose the case and end up serving two years of hard labor for ‘sodomy’. Homosexuality was criminalized in England in those days, and the evidence that supported the Wilde-Bosie affair was abundant.
After Wilde’s sentence was over in 1897, he received a very special gift from his male lover–a silver cigarette case. The rare piece of memorabilia which recalls this infamous scandal from Victorian England is now set to fetch $39,000 at auction, and perhaps even more than that.
By the time Wilde served his sentence, his entire reputation, as well as financial stability, was in ruins. He opted to remain in exile in France. For the remainder of his days, he would live in Paris. One of the items he carried with him during this time was the cigarette case given to him by Alfred.
The item measures three and a half by three inches. It has a push-button lock, is hallmarked ‘Birmingham 1897’, and contains engraved verses from the celebrated 17th-century metaphysical poet John Donne. The mark of the case maker is also visible, revealing the initials ‘J.M.M.’
The verses inscribed in question are from Donne’s poem Canonization, and read as follows:
The Phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us, we two being one are it
So to one neutral thing both sexes fit
We die and rise the same and prove
Mysterious by this love.
According to Wiltshire auctioneer Andrew Aldridge, “the cigarette case was an expression of how deep their love was.” The John Donne poem is also said to have been one of Oscar Wilde’s favorites.
“The poet John Donne was around a couple of hundred years before Oscar Wilde but was a great inspiration for him,” said Andrew Aldridge according to the Mail Online.
The rare item was first picked up by a French hotel owner where Oscar Wilde was staying in Paris until 1900, the year he passed away at the premature age of 46.
Since then the cigarette case had remained in private, family ownership until it was purchased in 1997 by David Gainsborough Roberts, a collector from Britain, the Mail Online reports.
Over 20 years later, the cigarette case has now been consigned for auction. On the day of the sale, it is expected to hit a sum between $32,500 and $39,000. There is always the possibility it can hammer much more than that, however.
Mr. Aldridge has described the item as “a fabulously rare piece of memorabilia belonging to one of the most famous people in 19th century Great Britain.” It’s even a more iconic item when you think of the fact that the case was given to Wilde by the one person who became the reason for his sad public demise.
Oscar Wilde met the man of his life in the summer of 1891 when he was aged 37, already married and father of two. His young lover was only 21, a fresh undergraduate who just came out from Oxford where Wilde himself obtained part of his education. Before coming to England Wilde studied classic literature at Trinity College in Dublin and showed exceptional interest in Greek literature.
In Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas the famous Dorian Gray writer quickly found a muse of his own. Some of the famous works he penned within the duration of their love affair include the tragedy Salomé from 1893 which premiered at Paris’s Théâtre de l’Athénée.
Read another story from us: Oscar Wilde imprisoned for two years with hard labor for sodomy & “gross indecency”
When apart from each other, the two lovers corresponded with letters, which are–besides the cigarette case–another set of memorabilia destined to bring remembrance to this 19th-century romance. In one of those letters, Wilde refers to Alfred as “the divine thing I want” and “the thing of grace and genius.”
The silver cigarette case is set to find its new owner on November 10. The auction will take place in Wiltshire, England.