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Oscar Wilde’s cell key auctions tomorrow

A key that opened playwright Oscar Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol auctions tomorrow.

It has a £6,000 ($7,500) estimate ahead of its sale at Sotheby’s in London. That estimate looks low, considering the fascination surrounding Wilde and his time in prison, coupled with the rarity and value of his memorabilia.

The key opened all the cells in block C, including Wilde’s.

Wilde was incarcerated for two years for homosexuality in 1895.

It followed his affair with the son of homophobe Sir John Sholto Douglas.

When Douglas publically condemned Wilde’s behaviour, the writer took him to court for libel. There Douglas’ lawyer claimed Wilde had solicited 12 men between 1892 and 1894.

Faced with the evidence, Wilde withdrew the suit. But with the accusations now public knowledge, the Crown charged Wilde with gross indecency – which in practice was a charge of homosexuality.

With the jury finding Wilde guilty, the judge remarked: “It is the worst case I have ever tried. I shall pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate for such a case as this. The sentence of the Court is that you be imprisoned and kept to hard labor for two years.”

Wilde suffered in the primitive conditions of the gaol, although his time was made easier by the sympathetic governor, who furnished him with writing materials.

It was during this period that Wilde wrote his great letter De Profundis to lover Lord Alfred Douglas.

A copy of The Importance of Being Earnest, which Wilde signed to his prison governor, realised £55,000 ($93,266) in 2014.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967.

The sale will also feature a cup and ball played with by Jane Austen at Chawton – her family home. It has a £30,000 ($37,500) estimate. The Mansfield Park author was said to be especially good at the game.

Her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, once said: "Her performances with cup-and-ball were marvellous. The one used at Chawton was an easy one, and she has been known to catch it on the point above an hundred times in succession, till her hand was weary." 


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