Raffles Hotel

I have always been fascinated by the growth of the tourism industry since the late 60s when I worked as a travel consultant in London for Global Tours, then the third largest tour operator in the U.K. I was familiar with the names of the famous grand hotels from the Golden Age of Travel dating back to days of the 1880 with Thomas Cook tours for the British upper classes.

When I began my life as a Book and Ephemera dealer between London and Paris in the late 70s, I came across the book dealer Francis Teboul in Marche Paul Bert. We became colleagues and friends over a period of time when one fine morning he showed me a medium sized brown suitcase stuffed full of mint vintage paper hotel labels in duplicate. There were thousands in the case and neither of us had time to count them. Had this stock come from a travel agency? He had bought the suitcase at Drouot and so did not know the provenance. I suppose E40 or E50 in 1979 was a lot of money but i took a risk that would educate me and eventually took it to London where I had a stand in the Portobello Road flea market. Little did I know where this would lead me!

Eventually I found the time to put some out as 'samples' hoping to entice a collector. Each little treasure went in a cellophane envelope marked at the flat rate of £5, a price I plucked from the sky. I looked at the colourful graphics and if it was a posh hotel or not, it was the same price. After all I could always come down on the price! Europe visually passed before my eyes, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland et al and I dreamed that one day I would travel and see these some of these fascinating 5 star hotels at least for afternoon tea!

One Saturday a young man of about 30 came by and leapt on my ephemera box. He got excited when he saw the hotel labels but appalled by my £5 price. He only spoke French and explained that in Paris, each label cost a Euro or two at the most. I smiled and explained I wasn't selling in Paris but in London! He collapsed when I told him I had a vast stock and asked if that very afternoon after the market he could come and view the collection.

Marc sat in my Kensington lounge trembling, making piles of the labels he desperately wanted. Finally he explained that he collected with a friend and wanted to come back to London with him the following weekend. Could I find them a bed, and could he reserve the pile and leave me a deposit as he had not come to London with so much cash?

My relationship with 'the boys' lasted many years and through Marc, I became experienced in luggage labels and learned which were the historic 5 star hotels. But one day I read a letter addressed to the editor of the American collectors magazine called PAC which I subscribed to. The writer wrote he had inherited his mother's collection of hotel labels from her early travel days from the Edwardian era of 1910 to the 1930s and had no idea of the value of the collection. My dear magical husband being in the magic mail order business and using his Sherlockian skills tracked down the man only having his name and the city in America. Then he rang long distance which was unheard of in 1984. He negotiated the price in dollars as in those days Martin had a dollar account for Martin Breese International his company.

When the fascinating collection arrived, I shifted from being a dealer into a collector. My mentality changed and like Marc, I was hooked.  These were works of art from 1910-1930 of the great luxury hotels, many designed and printed in Naples by Richter in vivid colourful chromolithography and the graphics were out of this world.  I didn't want to sell these treasures to Marc and Jean Jacques and there were no duplicates.  This was not stock but a unique collection of social history and the history of tourism. Amongst this wonderful collection were 2 from the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

Time passed. By this time I had put the £5 labels into a small album at Portobello. One morning a chic blond America woman came by asking for hotel labels. She sat down on my tiny stand and carefully went through the album. At the end of her search she asked if I had anything on Raffles Hotel. 'Yes,'  I said proudly, 'but only in my archive to licence reproduction rights.' She was interested, opened her bag and brought out her notebook asking if I was by chance Jilliana, the owner of Retrograph Archive. Astonished I replied I was. She then made an appointment to view my 2 labels at my office.

Gretchen Liu was the Raffles archivist and was setting up a small Raffles museum for when the hotel would reopen after refurbishment in September 1991. She had married a Chinese Malay hence her name. She viewed my rare labels and said she wanted to buy them. I repeated I only sold reproduction rights for one time use. She left disappointed returning to Singapore.

Some weeks later I received my first long distance call from far away Singapore.

'You have what we want, we have the money, name your price.' She said.

I plucked a figure out of the sky for both labels knowing that we could, in any case photograph the originals. To my surprise, I received a letter offering, instead of the £700 asked, when the maximum for a label was about £15 in the late 80s, a free week for two at the opening on 16/9/1991. No mention of breakfast or the expensive airfare. I declined their offer so they had to pay up. I had what they wanted at any price!

Then Gretchen asked me for the Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap, Le Royal in Phnon Penh and Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg which the Raffles group had acquired and the hotels along The Silk Route giving me a  long educational list of the destinations. I came up with a later turquoise 1950s Raffles label making 3 in total. We worked together for about a year, until her installation was completed. I already had the Hotel Danieli in Venice, the Eden Hotel in Rome, the Pera Palas in Constantinople and the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria amongst others on the fascinating historic trade and spice route.

Martin, my husband, did not enjoy travelling anymore. He wanted nothing less than he had at home. He had always loved big liners having travelled by P and O to South Africa as a boy of 11 when his parents emigrated for health reasons. He only wanted to see the world cruising to exotic far away destinations.

One of the Asian cruises began in Singapore where Martin had conjuring connections. The Orient Line offered a pre-cruise complimentary deal for 2 nights, not unfortunately at the Raffles Hotel but at the Ritz-Carlton. I contacted Gretchen and we were warmly invited for coffee and cake in the the Raffles Hotel so I got to see the famous Long Bar where Somerset Maugham had had his 'Singapore Sling'.

The museum shop sold my old hotel label reproductions on tea towels, note books and other social stationary. They had recouped their outlay. There was a map in the museum of the Silk Route which involved Singapore and the hotels along the route in addition to a magnificent heavy coffee table book of the hotel with my 3 hotel labels illustrated along with the history of the hotel and information about the British occupation and Sir Stamford Raffles.

Gretchen had done a good job and used my originals well. No credit line for Jilliana or Retrograph Archive of course but I was proud that my images had found a good home. However the museum closed in 2012 so where did all the memorabilia go?

Written in the Shakespeare Hotel, Vilnius, Lithuania and on the train to Kaunas, Lithuania. 18/6/17.


Singapore and the Silk Road of the sea by John Miksic
Wikipedia - Singapore Sling
Wikipedia - Raffles Hotel
Famoushotels.org - famous guests - Somerset Maugham