I went to one of the main auction houses in London this week, to bid on an item for a client of mine, as I have done several times in the past. It can be quite nerve-wracking when you first commit yourself to parting with £100,000 that you do not have, especially if that amount is subject to a 20% commission plus VAT, and the incremental amount that the bids rise by is governed by the pitch that the bidding has reached - £200 up to a certain figure, £500 beyond that, £1000 beyond that, £2000 again, and £3000 beyond even that. You have to have your wits about you, unless you want to overshoot the budget by quite a substantial amount, and - in the heat of the moment - this can easily happen, especially if you acquired zero points for your maths 'O'-level as I did. It's a myth about committing yourself just by scratching your nose though, you have to wave your arm around (preferably holding a paddle) before you establish meaningful eye-contact with the man on the rostrum. After that, you can just nod - albeit emphatically.
Luckily, this was a lazy affair, with a few lack-lustre bids coming direct from the floor, but the majority coming from pre-placed offers (on the book), or telephone, or - disconcertingly - via the internet.
The auctioneer would look to a large monitor bolted to the ceiling, through which he would plead or cajole someone 'in the South of France' or 'Grimesthorpe' into committing themselves to the tune of an extra grand or so. So far so good, as I recognised the auctioneer in residence when I walked into the room having registered in the late morning. He is a solid sort of chap, and the only thing about him that really gets on my tits is his tendency to pronounce the number '50' as 'fifteyay' - some sort of affectation which goes with the job, I daresay.
My lot was numbered in the 500's so I knew I would have quite a time to wait, so, having registered and got my number, I spent the late morning going in and out of the building, having breakfast and fags, etc. I struck up a conversation with a rich mother who had misplaced her son in a local fee-paying school. It turned out his phone was stolen from a shared locker, so they cannot have been that rich in that school. I always feel so bloody POOR in London. Everywhere you look, there are ridiculously wealthy people shepherding their ridiculously wealthy kids to and fro from extremely expensive schools in luxury super-cars - not that I am resentful, mind. I would hate you to get the wrong impression, almost as much as I would hate them to misjudge me - or at least my potential. I have to admit that - at my age - any potential not yet attained will be hard to achieve within a time-scale realistic enough to allow me to enjoy the benefits whilst still being able to walk - or speak. A Lady Mayfair (I think) said in the 19th century, "Any man seen riding on public transport after the age of thirty may be considered a failure in life." Well fuck her.
The sale had a lunch break at 2.00 pm, so I took a walk down the Brompton Road to pass the time, studiously avoiding the pubs until my mission was completed. About 300 yards down the road, I came across a large showroom full of gleaming Maseratis, and this was situated right next to a large showroom full of gleaming Ferraris, making the choice that much more difficult. With my nose pressed up against the window, I decided that - although the Ferrari has a certain racy charm, the Maserati is a little more under-stated, and as such is more suited to a man of my disposition. I've never been one to make a fuss.
I don't know what the petrol consumption is for the new, huge Maseratis, but low down to the road below their bonnets, there are massive air-scoops to help push the fuel down their insatiable, gruff throats. Not only do they want to drink us out of petrol, they want to breathe all our oxygen as well.
Back at the auction house, the sale re-started at lot number 200, and old 'Fifteyay' was back in action. I continued to wander in and out until about 100 lots from my desired item when - to my horror - Fifteyay stepped down from the rostrum to hand over to his colleague for the rest of the afternoon. His colleague had a shock of mad professor-like, shiny black hair, and a row of impossibly large, white teeth framed by a permanent 5 o'clock shadow. His eyes were so dark that at times they were black slits when he screwed them up (which he did constantly) or orbs of malevolent evil when he stared into the void of the room (which he also did constantly, when not screwing them up.)
To make matters worse, it became apparent after he had wired himself up to the Tannoy, that he was born in France. His English was near perfect, but there were times when one wondered how much of a grasp on the situation he really had, as when he referred to a collection of prints that had once adorned the walls of Ian Fleming's house, 'Golden Eye', and pronounced 'Ian' as 'Eye-an', causing all the girls on the telephones to stifle their sniggers.
He also modulated his voice between almost audible and a theatrical whisper - "£2000... £2,200... it's with me at £2,400............ I'm out and it's with Sasha on the telephone at £2,600....." Then he would stop saying 'two thousand four hundred pounds' and start calling it 'twenty-four hundred', which is bloody confusing if - as I have already mentioned - numeracy isn't your strong point.
He would embellish the dramatic effect by clasping his cupped hands towards the ceiling monitor, and virtually beg the online bidder to up it one more time, like an El Greco painting of a saint appealing to God. At the conclusion of every sale, he would appeal to the entire world with out-stretched arms, for just one, last, little bid - any bid - he would be prepared to accept another 200 pounds on an object which had already reached £15,000.... so the last 3oo lots took about twice as long to clear as old 'Fifteyay' would have taken.
Even then, he managed to cock it up on several occasions by failing to spot a bidder, either in his book, or madly waving a paddle at him from about 15 feet away, and the hammer would come down prematurely so that he would have to start the bidding again from where he had terminated it in error. An elderly couple were forced to pay an extra £500 on a small chandelier because of this incompetence, and when you consider that there is another 28% to pay on the hammer price, this is not peanuts.
When it - at last - came to my item, I fixed him with a hard stare as the bidding went up to a thousand pounds (ten hundred?) above the lowest estimate, nodding like I meant business, then it petered out and the sale had obviously peaked, stopping with me. He was having none of it, and began imploring the rest of the room for an extra few hundred quid, but I just held up my paddle number, patiently waiting for him to get to grips with reality, right the bloody number down in the book, then move on so I could get back on the train and go home, although not before spending about half an hour with the cashiers, trying to convince them that I was not an international money-launderer. But that's another story. Life in the fast-lane, eh?