Going, going, gone
I am 52 and among the list of things still to do before I die is going to an auction – and managing to buy something. Actually I do remember going to a cattle market when I was about five to see my uncle, an auctioneer, in action. But that doesn’t quite count.
This weekend the ambition was at least half realised with a trip to the monthly “antique, furniture, art-works and everything else you can think of” auction at the local village of Willingham. The ostensible reason was to find some kitchen chairs.
Viewing began on Thursday. It turned out that the chairs we had spotted on the web were no good, but the shed-loads (literally) of other stuff looking for a good home was extremely enticing. OK, you could keep the cigarette cards, old teddy bears, televisions, garden furniture, military uniforms, People’s Princess figurines, and the rest. But then there were the “five taxidermy exotic birds under glass domes” (export permit required; est. £150/200) and the pair of 1850s Parian busts of Victoria and Albert (the only trouble being that they came as a job lot with another lone Victoria and a very nasty Shakespeare for a total est. of £80/140). More than 1300 lots in all.
It was a bit like going to a supermarket when you’re hungry.
The Saturday of the auction was gently heaving with all conditions of humanity. There were sharp dealers in white linen jackets, fenland farmers, glaringly obvious US servicemen from the local air bases looking for a piece of English memorabilia to take home, and a few wandering academics from Cambridge (one of whom went away with a rather luscious black cape). Meanwhile village ladies cooked up the most deliciously smelling bacon butties to keep the punters going in the café all morning.
It seemed also that it was one of the few British institutions that still worked with a considerable degree of trust on all sides. People just put their hands up, bid and then went and paid their money (there was no leaving your credit card number first, or anything like that). When I naively suggested to the husband, having watched some friends of ours also eyeing up the stuffed birds, that we should do a deal in advance so that we didn’t bid against each other – he firmly pointed out that this was grossly illegal and the first step towards the kind of behaviour that gets BA fined 270 million pounds. And certainly the rhetoric after the sale was very much of the “was it you I was bidding against?” kind.
The upshot? Well, predictably enough, lots of the things we didn’t want went at their estimate or below. Most of what we did want was wanted by others too. “The mahogany attendance board” which I had rather set my heart on (it was obviously from a seminary or monastery and told you whether the monks were in or out) went for more than twice the estimate, and left us well behind. So did the birds (to our friends, in fact). The husband did however manage to acquire a lovely Victorian folding screen. Flushed with success, we left before they had got to Victoria and Albert.
So we’ve broken our duck – and are beginning to feel that it could become addictive. Next time, I’m going to make sure I get to put my hand up. Meanwhile, of course, our ever sharp cleaning lady, with whom we had discussed the urgent need for some chairs, left us a well targeted note, having spotted the new purchase: “Like the beautiful screen – but you can't sit on it!”