Lucky Blanche d’Alpuget. For most people, losing a partner involves dealing with all of their stuff, deciding what to discard. But when you’ve been married to Australia’s most popular prime minister, there’s another option. You can sell everything you don’t want at auction.

Bob Hawke’s items were on display at his former matrimonial home in Northbridge over the weekend, where Blanche, making tea in the kitchen, was happy to tell visitors that she was “glad to get rid” of the stuff.

And so it was that one of Australia’s biggest garage sales took place in the Paddington RSL in Sydney’s east last night. Hundreds of people turned up to bid on almost 250 items of “mementos, curiousities, art and design”, most of which went wildly over estimate. The lots included several hideous objects given to Hawke by overseas governments, bits of furniture from the house (since sold for $15 million), many truly terrible Icelandic paintings and things closely associated with the popular politician, such as cigars.

Blanche even put a few artworks made by her son, Louis Pratt, into the auction. Aren’t mothers contractually obliged to keep everything actually hand-made by their children?

Many of those at the auction were “true believers”, there to buy something linked to a man who had changed their lives. It must have been one of them who paid $6000 (including 20% buyer’s premium) for Hawkie’s old esky, complete with six cans of “Hawke’s Lager”. Earlier, a silver bowl inscribed “presented by Dick Cheney, secretary of defence, USA” fetched $9000 — hopefully to be used for Balmain key parties.

It’s not clear where all the proceeds will end up however, as the youngest Hawke child, Rosslyn Dillon, is reported to have engaged lawyers to challenge the will. With many millions of dollars at stake, the asset distribution could take a while.

This didn’t bother the punters, however, who seemed to have succumbed to the madness of the celebrity chattels auction. Bidders have to believe that these often mundane objects have been sprinkled with stardust and are now imbued with the essence of their former owner.

Last night’s total was greatly increased by the number of Chinese artefacts, reflecting Hawke’s close ties with that country. About one quarter of the people in the room were Asian-Australians, one of whom paid $24,000 for a 35cm bookcase containing miniature Yingxian teapots; a gift from a Chinese leader.

It was all a huge success, of course, raising more than $800,000, which is good news for the beneficiaries once they’ve put down their arms.

I tried to cross-check the Hawke gift-givers with the current NSW ICAC witness list — is the businessman who put $100,000 cash in an Aldi bag for NSW Labor connected to the person who gave Hawkie that Ming vase? There’s no crossover, apart from the love they all bear for the Labor Party, and isn’t it fun to remember a time when someone thought Labor was actually worth bribing? As opposed to just trying to remember what it stands for?

On one level, it must be terrible being a famous and popular prime minister. Everyone from the Indonesian trade minister to Dick Cheney gives you hideous knick-knacks, which then outlive you because you’re not allowed to throw them out. But then your surviving spouse flogs them off and the framed photograph of Don Bradman ($8400), cigar humidor from Fidel Ramos ($6600), and carved gourd from a Korean businessman ($3000) actually sell for real money. Which — good news! — can now be spent on lawyers.

But why would Frank Lowy have given Hawkie a silver-plated cutlery set ($7200)? Couldn’t the billionaire have afforded sterling silver? I messaged a leading antique dealer to ask if any of the antique lots were worth buying. When it comes to art, he replied, Hawke is “no Keating”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey