Going, going – are auctions under the hammer or the cosh?

I really love going to auctions. Not the fancy ones with ‘priceless’ artworks. It is the downbeat drama of the provincial saleroom, its cast of dubious characters and ramshackle artefacts that excites me. But has the pandemic finally put the traditional auction house not just under the hammer but under the cosh?

“Unwanted items, like orphans or stray dogs, looking longingly for a new home…” 

The pandemic has kept me well away from even the sterilised cleanliness of the supermarket. So the idea of venturing into the fetid miasma of a local auction house saleroom with its cast of misfits and grifters and a pervading scent of decay is not something on which I would take a punt right now.

But I do miss its low-key, downbeat excitement, that sense of unlikely potential and the wonderfully entertaining theatre of it all.

Furtive glances

The morning of the sale – ‘antiques and collectables’ or just the ‘general household’ – always has a buzz about it. That hour or so before the auction starts sees a last-minute frantic flurry of scrabbling in boxes under makeshift trestle tables in the unlikely hope of spotting something everyone else has missed. The  suspicious glances at potential rival bidders as I try desperately not to look too interested in the clock I am inspecting. What is it that makes trailing between aisles of discarded and meritless furniture an interesting way to spend a Saturday morning? Why do battered Dinky Toys have such allure?

I bypass the corner packed with lawnmowers and garden tools, the old bikes and occasional Motability scooter and the exercise equipment still in its box. Instead, I take my seat towards the back of the room on one of a row of random chairs that will, once the old carpets and rugs have gone under the hammer, be the last lots on the day’s list. The auctioneer calls the bidders to order. His moment of theatre, his improvised fortnightly performance, begins.

Chilled out entertainers?

A good auctioneer makes all the difference. Like stand-ups, a great one engages his audience, controls the room, builds atmosphere, moves things at pace, injects some humour, never misses a bid, keeps the discontented dealers under control.

You can tell the dealers from the casual punter. The amateur bargain hunters smile, look excited, engaged. Often in couples, for them it is a treat of a day out with perhaps lunch and all the promise of bidding success. In contrast, many of the dealers huddle in disgruntled groups, look unhappy, mutter at prices, talk intrusively while the auctioneer sells lots in which they have no interest. Instead of waving their bidding numbers, they make ludicrous furtive nodding or eye-glancing gestures as if somehow believing that secrecy gives them a bidding edge. Occasionally, one will wander to the front of the room to pick up and ostentatiously inspect an up-coming lot before contemptuously, disdainfully discarding it then moving to the side of the room where they stand self-consciously – a bizarrely incongruous act of attention-seeking.

But I love the dustiness of it all. The saleroom has its own patina. And its own aroma too, the scent of so many unwanted items, like orphans or stray dogs, looking longingly for a new home – to be loved again and cherished.

I have my limits. I could not think to buy jewellery second hand. Could you? There is something too personal about a ring, bought specifically by one person for another, worn so intimately for perhaps a lifetime. Of course, dealers buy rings based not on style or sentiment but on carat and weight, a once personal treasure ruthlessly destined to be melted down for cash.

Who will start me?

My heart begins racing five lots before the one I’ve earmarked is due. Sensibly I have set an upper limit on my bidding, factoring in the addition of commission. Lot 271 – and the auctioneer describes it in brief while his colleague, brown overalled as if in a time warp, holds it aloft and its image shows on the TV screen to his left.

Who’ll start me at £100?  Tension.  Silence.

£50? He pauses again. £20 surely, to get me started? His tone is one of incredulity verging on admonishment. He is playing the crowd.

It works, and we’re off, bidding in fives initially, rapidly reaching the 50 everyone had shunned just seconds ago. At 80 I bid, my self-imposed ceiling. Someone bids 90. Do I go 100? My heart says yes. My head says no. The hammer goes down. It has taken less than thirty seconds for my hopes to be lifted and dashed. And I am left with the anguish of ‘what if?’

I console myself. If I had bid 100 the other guy would have bid 110 so I have lost nothing, I insist. But what if…?

What the Dickens!

Charles Dickens - The Complete Works
A set of Dickens’ work came with six additional surprises.

I’ve had triumphs. I have had disasters. I have bought a complete set of The Works of Dickens for a bargain price, only to discover that the box of Dickens’ was actually one of seven boxes of books I hadn’t spotted.  The remaining six were piled high with obsolete nurse training manuals.  Even the local charity shop declined to take them off me.

An auction success. Bought at a sale in Bury St Edmunds, a fabulous longcase clock by one of the famous Mawkes clockmakers from Derby. Not for sale, it was a housewarming gift for one of my daughters.

And many of the items for sale on this site have been sourced through salerooms across the country. Take a look here.

Quiet resentment

But auctions were changing even before the pandemic, and not for the better. The advent of the internet, and live online bidding, slowed the pace of auctions dramatically. It caused them to lose much of their intensity and drama.

The quiet resentment of a roomful of people, reduced to mere onlookers, forced to watch while two on-line bidders fight for an item on screen, is tangible. Being there, while those who aren’t outbid you, creates a sense of exclusion. What is the point of being in the room if faceless internet bidders are going to dominate proceedings? Online bidding is not a great spectator sport. You might as well stay at home.

And with the pandemic, that shift has accelerated, understandably.

So when do we reach the point where the internet bidder, from anywhere in the world, takes over? When do auction houses realise that they don’t need salerooms at all – that those hopeful, and the hopeless, punters who wander round salerooms are actually surplus to the process of making money from selling other people’s rejects?  How soon does the final curtain fall?

Ups and downs

Of course, there are upsides to online buying. You don’t have to travel or feel the pressure to buy just because you have gone to the time and trouble of being there and it would be a waste to come away empty-handed. Instead you can sit in the warmth of your lounge, tuning in to the auction only as the lots you are interested in approach.

And there are downsides too. The worst purchases I have made have been in absentia – commission or internet bids based on flattering pictures and scanty descriptions, even when I have asked for a condition report. And buying online attracts a bigger commission charge and sometimes disproportionately high shipping costs, especially on low priced lots.

But mostly what is lost, forever I fear, is the atmosphere, the theatre, the sheer live drama and the sense of being a part of it, even as the scenery is dismantled and the room empties as the sale draws to a weary close. You may have been only a momentary bit-part player but your name is there somewhere in the credits at the end of the show.

Auctioneers report a massive increase in interest with the pandemic leading to a surge in sales online. Read more about it here:

a great auction find - and this one is for sale
A great auction find – and this one is for sale. Make contact for more details. Email info@theclock-shop.co.uk 

One thought on “Going, going – are auctions under the hammer or the cosh?

  1. Great article, captures the mood of the auction hall. I love the vibe of the auction hall and have snagged a few good clocks over the years. Yes, online bidding takes some of the fun out of it but it is a compromise and allows the auction house to survive.

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