Any auctioneer will tell you that what they really dream about is the classic country house sale. These used to be an occasional but regular staple of the calendar, both in the early 20th century and in the decades after the Second World War, when families whose estates has been requisitioned for the war effort found that they no longer had the resources for their upkeep.
These days, such sales are few and far between; many of the great estates have now passed into the hands of wealthy entrepreneurs and foreigners who have the wherewithal to shape them in their own image, while other stately homes have now become the property of the National Trust or other bodies who have found commercial options for keeping them going.
Occasionally a gem of a country house sale does turn up, though, the latest being the contents of Athelhampton House in Dorset, a Tudor manor house whose contents have just sold for £1.5m.
From a £75,000 George II side table to a Charles I oak stool at nearly £34,000, the furniture was a delight, but equally enticing were the books, glassware and ornaments.
If you ever want to know why art and antiques have such an enduring appeal, just glance through the catalogue; it’s food for the soul.
It’s amazing how sometimes it is the relatively uninitiated who have the clearest vision when it comes to auctions. At the weekend, I found myself reading a remarkable newspaper column that reminded me why nothing can replace the thrill of attending a view and then an auction in person. “eBay has been my main shopping mall since 2007,” wrote Eva Wiseman in The Observer, “because I both love old clothes and enjoy the chase. But the differences between a website and a real auction are vast and grounded largely in touch and smell, and the sense that a real person has curated this weekly museum of loss and memory.”
For all today’s technical necessities, compliance, logistics and so on, it is nice to be reminded why we have followed this calling – and being an auctioneer remains a vocation rather than a career.
Eva’s wise words continued to resonate throughout the article: “The stage on which we can see the evolution of taste play put is the auction house,” she notes as she is struck by “fresh pangs” at the lack of interest “in anything large, or ornate, or mahogany”. Whatever opinion formers in the media may claim, it is the test of the falling hammer at auction that separates the ‘in’ from the ‘out’ these days.
Most of all, though, Wiseman reveals what attracts her to auctions: “…I am chasing a moment. When the hammer goes down at the auction, I truly know what it feels like to win.”
Following on from last week’s story about Edward VIII’s wisdom tooth (which failed to sell despite hopes of £10,000), I am reminded of some of the more talismanic items that have either appeared at auction or sold as collectables, but whose associations are so grim that they overcome any appeal.
It’s a bit like visiting the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s – always the most popular section of this rather overpriced London landmark: people love being thrilled by the chill of close contact with evil for a moment or two, but in the end they don’t want to take it home with them.
Talking to a well-known collector recently, I asked him if there was anything that he regretted acquiring over his 50-year career. Most chillingly, he replied, the doorknocker from 10 Rillington Place, home of the serial killer Christie, and where he concealed the bodies of his victims. A snip at a tenner, it spooked him so much that he had to keep it in the shed and soon got rid of it.
Another was Stalin’s death mask and cast of his hands, which he sent to a foundry for casting in bronze. The foundry workers found the items so creepy that they refused to keep them in the building.
The macabre is not many people’s cup of tea when it comes to collecting, but there will always be someone out there willing to take a punt on it.
It’s not that long ago that I wrote about some of the stranger items that come up for auction. They tend to be treated like religious relics, things that are not necessarily attractive or valuable in themselves, but take on huge significance because of whom they once belonged to.
Another of the more bizarre examples has just surfaced: Edward VIII’s wisdom tooth. Described as “stained” – presumably as result of his smoking habit – the tooth was removed in 1940, four years after the king abdicated and went into exile as the Duke of Windsor. Kept by the dentist’s family, it is now expected to fetch £10,000 at auction.
Who would want such a thing? You’d be surprised; wealthy and ultra-keen royal watchers, for instance, are just the sort to have something like this mounted and put in a glass paperweight.
Never underestimate the attraction of items that many of us would find bizarre and off-putting as collectables: anything Elvis, for instance, from his hair to his nail clippings, can find an audience. Unlike other collectables, the only thing that makes them valuable and desirable is their association with an historic figure. On every other count, from condition to aesthetic appeal, they score zero on the appeal scale, but that doesn’t matter to the aficionado of such things.