Sunday, 30 January 2011

"Sold to you Sir - you idiot"

Early last year, I was sent up to London to place a bid on these four 'term' figures at a big big auction house. They weren't these very ones, but they had come from the same mold.

They were described as 'Composite Stone', which actually means 'concrete', but they looked good in the catalogue, because they had been stored outside and had a nice amount of weathering on them as lichen. They were also very large - about 8 or 9 feet high. The estimate on them was £7000 - £10,000, which would have been a good enough price for a set of concrete figures made in Northern Italy around 3 years ago.

My client wanted them for an on-going project, and had sent me off with a budget of £40,000 for them, so I felt pretty confident I would get them, but I would have been a bit embarrassed to spend that sort of money on them, but if that's what he wanted, so be it.

I spoke to a dealer before the sale, and he asked me what I was going for, and feigned anger and disappointment when I told him about these, as if he was going to buy them, but knew he couldn't match my budget.

The sale started and I waited until bidding slowed down at around £20,000 before I chipped in. Bidding against someone in the room, I brought them up and up, until the room-bidder fell out, and I found myself bidding against someone in America on the telephone. Up and up went the price until it hit £40,000 with me, then - at £45,000 - I dropped out, and the bidding continued.

The price was going up so fast and so steeply, that everyone in the auction house came out of the offices to see what was going on on the floor. The hammer came down at £98,000, meaning that the final sales price was around £130,000....

I looked around at the dealer who I had spoken to at the beginning, but by this time he was running around in small circles on the street outside, phoning his friends on his mobile. They had been his all along.

I had to wait for the end of the sale, because I was going to bid on 4 full-sized, 19th century white, hand-carved marble figures which were the last lot of the day. At 6.30 pm, I was the ONLY human being in the sale room, apart from the auctioneers and other employees, who were all staring at me intently as I bid. I was bidding straight into the eyes of the auctioneer, who was communicating with someone in Paris at the same time. I got all 4 figures for £7,500.

So it just goes to show - it's all down to presentation and hype. And, rule number one: NEVER have your item listed as the last one in the catalogue at the end of a long day's sale!

(Here's an old post about auctions which some 'newcomers' may not have seen - it gives a good idea about life in the saleroom - click here to read it.)


  1. Never thought about being the last item. But then I've never stayed at an auction til the end.

    What a fascinating life you lead.

  2. I've never had any luck at London salerooms. However, I've always been lucky in the provinces.

  3. I've noticed in the little auctions we've been to around here that they do tend to keep the best until last. The dealers hang on until the end of the sale if it's something they're interested in. Good if there's only one dealer. You had a bargain and a half with those marble figures, Tom.

  4. I sent my husband to an auction to bid on a dolls house. He came home with the dolls house AND a church organ! (It was one of those old pedal 'fold up into a chest' things). He defended himself by saying it was a genuine antique and only cost a fiver.

    My daughters had more fun thumping away on that old organ than they ever did with the dolls house.

  5. I've known some girls who have had a lot of fun thumping away on my old organ too, Sue. Some things never change, eh? Unlucky in the city, lucky in the provinces, that's what I say.

  6. I almost groaned when I read this - shades of my childhood and what seemed like long hours spent at auctions where my father would be doing his nerves of steel routine.

  7. Jeez Tom; you've just made me spill my coffee! (laughing)

  8. Auctions are a bit like war, Cher - loads of inactivity and boredom occasionally punctuated with short, frantic bouts of action. I stood next to a dealer once who I had been chatting to and bid on an item which I eventually won for about £35,000. He didn't realise I was bidding until the end, when I had to hold up my paddle to show the number. The whole thing was over in about 30 seconds, and he hadn't noticed the beads of perspiration on my nodding head!

    How could I resist such a gift, Cro?!

  9. P.S. I have added a link to an old post in the above, which is an account of one day I spent in a London auction house.

  10. bloody hell
    and I once "wet" myself bidding 430 quid for a grandfather clock!

  11. Is that the clock in your house now, John?

  12. yes! I was so nervous buying it, I never slept the night before!

  13. Ah, but it was your money - I was using someone else's. That didn't stop them from sending me a bill for £33,000 once, and refusing payment from anyone else but me. That caused a bit of an upset. I sent them a cheque for £33,000 (because they wouldn't accept a card payment over the phone for more than £10,000) having had the money put into my poor little account, then they lost the cheque and started sending me bills for £700 per week storage. I got onto the phone to the lad in accounts and started shouting at him, saying things like, "DO YOU REALISE THAT I HAVE SPENT OVER A QUARTER OF A MILLION POUNDS WITH YOU OVER THE LAST YEAR?!", but of course, that was peanuts to him, since he regularly dealt with customers who spent £10,000,000 at one sale. I am still waiting to be sent a bill for unpaid tax on the 30 thousand that spent a couple of weeks sweating in my little bank account. It must have set off a few alarm bells...

    And I thought your grandfather clock was an heir-loom, John. Tut tut.