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The story of the real Q

Occasionally you come across a story that goes to absolute heart of what it means to be a collector. One such is that of the late Arthur Muggeridge, a Royal Artillery veteran who accumulated a fascinating a collection of items linked to spying, counter-espionage and daring POW escapes during the Second World War.

Packed with the sort of items that would have inspired Ian Fleming as he wrote about the ingenious Q, the collection includes concealed weapons, map fragments hidden in dominoes, a string vest that could be unravelled to reveal a single piece of string to be made into an escape rope and even exploding coal.

These all sprang from the imaginations of the boffins of MI9, the British Directorate of Military Intelligence, a department of the War Office between 1939 and 1945 charged with supporting European Resistance networks.

MI9’s Q was Christopher Hutton, who built himself a secret underground bunker in a field so that he could work undisturbed. One of my favourite of his inventions were maps printed on silk (so they wouldn’t rustle) that could be disguised as handkerchiefs. Famously Hutton developed uniforms that could be adapted quickly to look like civilian clothing, and he even supplied a floorplan of Colditz Castle to the officers held there.

Muggeridge’s collection is a real rarity, and although worth close to £20,000, it is the history, brilliance and sheer audacity of those who dreamed all of this up, together with the dramatic wartime stories in which they featured, that make it a dream for any auctioneer.

Bringing everyone together with a quiz

One of the signatures of the pandemic has been the quiz. Sometimes these have been online, and I have noticed a number of my peers among the auctioneering and dealing fraternity – and it does always seem to be the male variety – posting pictures of objects on Facebook and Twitter, challenging their friends and followers to guess what it is or who made it.

The other type of quiz growing in popularity has been the weekly video conferencing type, with various households from the same family or friendship group coming together over a few drinks and nibbles to compete over rounds of questions on film, geography, current affairs and so forth.

In both cases, while it is pleasant to learn some esoteric facts as the answers are revealed, the real value of these events is that they act as a focus for maintaining communication when all other means of getting together are denied us.

Being the quizmaster on a video conference quiz is a bit like being on the rostrum; somehow one finds oneself surrounded by the same set of characters: the one who doesn’t understand what’s going on at all; another who keeps interrupting at the wrong moment; a third who makes regular challenges to the process…

It can be a bit stressful dealing with all of this, but the fun and camaraderie that goes alongside it means you wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Why the country estate is making a comeback

Over the past few years the wealthy appear to have been moving away from buying large country estates and mansions in favour of turnkey luxury properties that are low on maintenance. I assume that they simply don’t want the bother and expense of keeping such large establishments going, and I have noticed many a dream property stalling on the market in search of a buyer. If people don’t want these places, who is going to want the substantial collections of art and antiques that have traditionally filled them? And if they don’t, does that mean prices will fall along with demand? That sort of thing can be a bit of a worry if you’re in a business like mine.

Now, however, the pandemic has clearly led to a rethink and only this week I have been reading about how rich city dwellers are all set to find themselves a comfortable country retreat, with all the amenities that go with it, as a sanctuary against a repeat performance of these unprecedented times. It’s an irony that as the rest of the property market is expecting to see falls of up to twenty per cent in value, the very top end may well enjoy an increase in demand.

It’s a shame that tragedy is the cause of this about face in attitudes, but if it means the preservation and revitalisation of a major part of our cultural tradition, then I, for one, will be focusing on the silver lining rather than the cloud.

We’re back and looking to the future

So after the best part of two months, we are firing on all cylinders again and it’s wonderful to be back in the driving seat, albeit in a very different world.

As with every other walk of life now, day-to-day activity at auctions has changed dramatically, and I suspect that many of these changes will remain for the long term.

The good side is that the rate at which buyers are prepared to migrate to bid online has accelerated to the point that in terms of progress we have leapt forward around five years.

This will keep people safe, reduce the carbon footprint of saleroom visits and bring auction houses and those consigning goods to them a far wider audience than ever before.

The not-so-good side is that fewer people are likely to come and inspect goods in person, or enjoy the live drama of an auction in progress as they sit before the rostrum. It has to be safety first, of course, and that will dictate the access and movement of visitors and staff around the premises.

As history has shown us, auction rooms are extremely adept at adapting to survive and thrive. We’re back and we will be looking to bring our clients a better service than ever. I only hope businesses in other sectors have the same will and ability to make a strong comeback too.