The allure of the auction struck me for the first time earlier this year when faced with furnishing a newly acquired house I was planning to turn into an AirBnB. The house was Regency, over two hundred years old, so my inclination was toward antiques, which I'd always inclined to anyway.
The nearest auction house is regarded as being at the top of its game in the UK. Hundreds of lots are sold there every week and there's something for everyone, from the sublime to the ridiculous...a taxidermised owl to a pair of opera glasses, a stack of vintage leather luggage to a life-size fibreglass fire fighter. This particular auction house started out as a cattle market over a century ago. A descendant of the founder is the collectibles auctioneer who, at mind boggling speed and volume, rattles off bids on bags of costume jewelry, porcelain teacups and stamp albums as if they are heads of cattle surrounded by spirited farmers.
The Antique and Vintage Furniture section is known to antique dealers nationwide as a source for MCM, or mid-century modern. Teak is ‘on trend' and prioritised to take up at least the first hour of the sale, lest the dealers get tired of waiting. I always found this part of the auction quite hard to sit through because the hideous sideboards, bureaus, and chests of drawers from G-Plan, McIntosh and Younger– which inevitably command the highest prices at the sale– are the furnishings of my 1970's British childhood and made me recoil even then. Most of it is resold at three, four and five times the already shocking prices it’s bought for to furnish sleek apartments belonging to wealthy millennials in London, New York, or Sydney, among whom vintage designer minimalism is apparently de rigueur. An Afromosia sideboard, an orange cylindrical rocket floor lamp, an Ercol day bed and a gold sunburst wall clock are all that’s needed to complete a stylishly sparse living room. Possibly there might be a stylized monochrome print of the original Guggenheim Museum in New York– like the one I was stunned to watch go for hundreds of Pounds– permitted on one wall to give that solitary pop of colour.
The auctioneers share a glossary of phrases, Make no mistake, this will be sold today!" being a favourite. Beyond their professional phraseology in common, the two auctioneers in the antique and vintage furniture saleroom are otherwise opposites in style. One is a jolly Eastern European fellow who draws out the bidding with plenty of pauses to do the best he can for sellers. The other is the buyer's friend, a surly British chap, who races through the lots with the aim of knocking off by noon. The only time I ever saw him smile was at his oft-repeated joke: Next up, ladies and gentlemen, is this revolting bookcase, I beg your pardon, revolving bookcase followed by the smug aside, That one never fails. I have accordingly nicknamed them Cheery Cat and Grumpy Cat.
After a couple of weeks, Cheery Cat had got the measure of me. He seemed to know I was there to push my luck for extreme bargains. Whenever he couldn't get anyone to bid on something, he'd fix his eyes, magnified through square lenses, on me and ask, "Twenty pounds anybody?...Ten?...Shirley, this has got to be worth just ten pounds!" I was always Shirley to him at times like these. Grumpy Cat, on the other hand, learned soon enough to ignore me as a hesitant cheapskate, unless my lone "maiden bid" sold the item. He was a great one for overusing the phrase, That's my book out!, meaning he'd met the reserve, which was more than enough in his book, and his hammer was coming down without further ado.
The auctioneers certainly know how to use their fast-paced persuasive patter to get under the skin of the punters. With the current trend for lighter coloured woods, Ercol Blonde is stressed to pique the interest of bidders. Almost anything modern and made of teak, the brand of which is not actually known tends to be labelled Danish, whilst anything older with gold leaf and twirly details is usually described as French. The two auctioneers' international outlook is further emphasised by comments on where the bidding is coming from...I've got five hundred pounds in from Japan on Easy Life! Or, This one will be going off to New Zealand! The current trend for up-cycled industrial furnishings is another mine of fool's gold: What seems to me to be a beat-up pine kitchen cupboard suddenly becomes: "an early twentieth century shop counter”. An old lady’s china cabinet might be described instead as a nineteenth century haberdashery display case and its price will suddenly quadruple. When an anonymous artist who painted childish looking chickens is touted as Naive English School, bidders suddenly feel presented with the opportunity to own an unacknowledged minor masterpiece and bid up accordingly.
In the Modern Interiors room, by contrast, colours get given a run for their money. Forget grey, anything in that range of hues is a cement, or a charcoal, or a fossil three piece suite. After attending only a couple of auctions I came to understand that the terms 'antique' and 'upholstered' were incompatible with soft furnishings and generally implied woodworm, mildew stains and musty odours. This led me to seek my sofas in the Modern Interiors auction, full of ex-display, seconds or the whole stock of shops gone bust. Forgetting all about practicalities of measurement in the heat of the moment, I bought up a job lot of half a dozen brand new, sleek Catalan designer couches and armchairs for under 500 Pounds, after having looked them up on my phone while waiting around the saleroom to find that together they retailed for over five-thousand. When the puzzled removal man I'd hired packed the four sofas and two armchairs into the compact living room, leaving standing room only between the seating, he asked me whether I was "planning on having a lot of people round?".
Impulse buys accounted for approximately half of what I spent at maybe a dozen Saturday auctions. Two gorgeous Georgian mahogany chests of drawers wouldn't fit up the narrow stairwell. They were duly returned to the auctioneers and resold at a loss, even before taking the respective 25% buyer's and seller's commissions into account. A woodworm-riddled Victorian occasional table fell to bits. I thought forty pounds was an absolute steal for a genuine 'Regency chestnut sofa table'...until I spotted the very same thing on Ebay for the same price. I did, however, find a few marvellous pieces I envisage owning for the remainder of my days: a carved oak Rupert Griffith dining table and chairs in an Arts and Crafts style bought for eighty pounds, an imposing Regency rosewood breakfront for ninety, and an Ercol Golden Dawn elm bureau with its Grecian column details and the smoothest of polishes highlighting the wood grain for a mere fifty quid. Ercol, a company founded in High Wycombe in 1920 by the Italian designer Lucian R Ercolani is still going strong today. Their pieces from the 1960s and ’70s sell well but the very pale Ercol Blonde range outdoes the honey-coloured Golden Dawn range in current market value, to my gain as I prefer it by far.
Gradually though, the allure of the auction house has worn thin. Queuing at the cashiers' windows, I overheard a conversation in which one woman of around my age was telling another about her auction addiction. "Sometimes I don't even really want something, but when someone else starts bidding against me, I get so cross and feel I must have it just to show them." The idea of auctions bewitching me in this way spooked me. Moreover, my Airbnb house is now full; there isn't a smidgen of space to put another stick of furniture, if I'm to leave adequate space for guests to enjoy it. The thought of acquiring another antique, no matter how much of a bargain, fills me with claustrophobic apprehension. Nevertheless, I can't resist having a sneaky peak at the auction results online. To my great relief, I've noticed that 1970s teak is not selling as fervidly as it did either in Spring or in the bloom of my youth. It must be slipping "off trend" and remaining in the charity shops and garden sheds where it belongs. Thank goodness.
Auriel dabbles in art, writing and property development in approximately equal measure. She is the author of several works including the humorous Amazon #1 bestseller Blindefellows.