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Martin Pawley: the Great Millennium Sale


Was the plan to cover London's roads and pavements with reflective paint, to reduce the need for air-conditioning, the greatest Millennium idea of all? Sadly, no. It was pipped at the post by the National Asset Register, the 550-page inventory of national treasures commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and published by the Treasury last month - as a prelude to selling the treasures off for an estimated £300 billion. There were two reasons why this idea was better. First, because most of the nation's portable assets had already been replaced by replicas, so that people did not even notice that the originals had gone. The Foreign Office, for example, has an exact reproduction of a Vermeer; it is indistinguishable from the original that used to hang there except for the presence of the words 'Elvis lives' (invisible except by X-ray) hidden under the lute.

The second reason why the register was clever was because it plugged into the idea - promoted over a long period by the Antiques Roadshow - that everything is always for sale. As a result, people saw nothing strange in artworks, buildings, monuments, squares, streets, parks and even publicly- owned television channels being flogged off to the highest bidder, instead of having to be 'saved for the nation' all the time, as in the old days. Besides, they thought, authorising the auction of a large stone government building in Whitehall, without a reserve, will show the world that Tony Blair really can make hard choices.

Sure enough, all these sales are applauded as joined-up Millennial thinking. Economists liken them to one of those thousand-year waves that build up when national over-valuation reaches such a point (as in South Korea last week) that the ship of state becomes unmanageable because everyone has been driven crazy by the astronomical value of everything they see, touch, or think about buying. Suddenly everything goes overboard: old masters, grand pianos, the family silver, stately homes, Janet Street-Porter's wardrobe . . . Asset-disposal fever builds up, prices plummet, auctioneers become utterly reckless and salerooms run out of control. Thousands steal paper-clips from government and employers. Answerphones are knocked down for a penny each. Paper shredders are used as doorsteps, priceless Turkish carpets as zebra-crossings.

Far from being pedestrianised, Trafalgar Square is sold for housing (with double garages). Apsley House is de-furbished and turned into a police station. Old army tanks are openly bought and sold in Spitalfields by people dressed as comic-opera soldiers. There are George III armchairs in skips in Hatton Garden. A comic adaptation of Our Past Before Us plays to capacity audiences in the West End, while the art world throngs to great exhibitions of famous fakes.

Anything in the line of infrastructure goes for a song: the London Underground is sold for a guinea to a man who wants to use it for cable tv. By Millennium Day, the past is all gone; 'Sorry mate, none left!' People stare at one another, and wonder what they will do next. It is a new sensation, one they haven't experienced since they were children.

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