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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

Crowns And Glory

Updated: Aug 28, 2022

A plastic crown worn by the Notorious B.I.G for a photoshoot just days before his murder, has sold at Sotheby’s in New York at their first hip hop memorabilia sale for $594,750, more than double the estimate.

Whilst the crown is mass produced and on the face of it worthless, you can still buy one on eBay for £4.99, it is the connection to the rapper which has made it so valuable. The portrait of the Notorious B.I.G, taken by the photographer Barron Claiborne has been described as ‘one of the most recognisable images in hip-hop culture.’

It is an intriguing image, which captures the paradoxes of Biggie’s life: the hardship and criminality, the glamour and excess. As portraiture goes, this is a King who is weary of life, though he is not ready to give up his crown just yet.

A crown is an archetypal image. It can represent authority, responsibility and 'adult'. The shadow of this is grandiosity, malignant narcissicism, and brute force, though let's not forget, 'the hand that wields the sword shall never wear the crown.' Of course, at some point, a crown needs to be passed down. Letting go of ego and narcissistic wounds - and a crown - is not easy, as Richard III and the Notorious B.I.G found out to their cost.

Crowns are full of symbolism too. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh’s diadem contained golden images of a vulture and a cobra, protecting the pharaoh and therefore Egypt. Precious stones are often inlayed into the base of a crown; though this is not just for decoration. Many ancient cultures believed these stones had magical powers, which somehow magnified the fertility of the monarch, the source of which was believed to come from inside the head.

A plastic crown may seem a little prosaic but in fact most crowns were patched together using whatever materials were to hand at the time. The Imperial State Crown, as worn by the Queen in her Coronation photo, is a hotchpotch of different jewels, even a pair of Queen Elizabeth I’s pearl earrings. Once a crown had served its purpose, it was often scrapped, the stones reset. After her coronation, Marie Antoinette had her crown dismantled, so she could wear 'the Regent’, a 140 carat diamond, in her hair.

A few years ago, I ran an art therapy workshop where we made crowns. As well as it being great fun, it was fascinating to see how people responded to their crown. Some people wore it at a jaunty angle, whilst others seemed to grow three inches taller. Maybe we all need a crown in our lives?

Whilst researching my art workshop I spoke to Brian North, a costume designer who had made Freddie Mercury’s imperial crown for Queen’s 1986 Kind of Magic Tour. This must be one of the most iconic crowns ever created. Brian told me, he stayed up all night to make it without even knowing if it would fit Freddie's head. Fortunately it did and Freddie loved it. If it came up for sale, it would likely add another zero to the $200k estimate of the Notorious B.I.G’s. So where is the crown today? Brian and I did a bit of investigation and we suspect it may be in Mary Austin’s attic. Maybe one day it will see the light of day again.

Crowns have certainly had a resurgence in modern times, whether it is on the head of a rapper, catwalk model, or as a logo on a t-shirt or tea-towel. What you may not know is that every British monarch since Queen Victoria has commissioned a new crown. Visiting the Jewel House at the Tower of London, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’re gazing upon ancient treasures. In fact most of these crowns were created post 1900, including the Imperial State Crown, which was made for George V1 in 1937 and the Imperial Crown of India which was made in 1911.

The one crown that really intrigues me though, is the most recent to be commissioned by the House of Windsor - Prince Charles’s investiture coronet.

This curious crown was created by the renowned silver and goldsmith, Louis Osman. It is based on a traditional design, but is futuristic too, this was 1969 after all, the space age.

With our contemporary eye, it would not look out of place in Game of Thrones but what is extraordinary about it, is that the diamonds set around the orb represent the Prince’s birth sign of Scorpio, whilst the diamonds set horizontally represent the seven deadly sins and the seven gifts of the holy spirit. These esoteric touches had never appeared in a crown before and must have raised a few eyebrows at the time.

The crowns construction is an odd one too. Initially, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths were commissioned to make an epoxy resin mould of the base. This was then electroplated. Nothing of this size had been attempted before and just two weeks before the Investiture, the crown disintegrated when a hallmark was stamped on the inside, a fatal finishing touch. A second coronet had to be hastily made, this time in pure gold. The orb atop the coronet is a plastic ping pong ball, again gold-plated. Did Prince Charles enjoy wearing this crown? All we know is that he has never worn it since and it is currently in storage, hidden away in St James's Palace.

Picture credit: Sotheby's. Hip Hop: 15 September 6pm EDT Sotheby's New York

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