25 January 2009

A little light shopping

It was off to Christie’s at South Kensington for a bit last week (viewing on Monday and bidding on Tuesday and Wednesday). I’ve been bidding at sales for about thirty years, but this was a bit out of the ordinary, especially for one person’s collection: there was an overwhelming amount of stuff there, with everything from a stately Elizabethan court portrait, seventeenth century beds and medieval stained glass panels to pincushions, irons and kitchen ladles. Roger Warner (1913-2008) was a well-known and highly respected antiques dealer, this was all from his house in Oxfordshire, and my first reaction was “Was there anything (in the fine and decorative arts) that this man didn’t collect?” Not really…fortunately my colleagues and I had combed through the lusciously illustrated catalogue well in advance, and honed it down to just four lots out of six hundred and odd. Yes, that’s hard – but having limited (and public) money to spend concentrates the mind wonderfully…

Come Tuesday morning and I decided to be there early as usual for the 10.30 start: even after all these years, bidding on behalf of the museum is still a bit nerve-wracking (will I miss the right thing, bid for the wrong thing, overbid, or even just fail?) and I don’t need any extra pressure from being late. And that was just as well – these days prior registration is compulsory, and as I was bidding on behalf of a third party there were extra arrangements to put in place. By 10.30 the queue at the registration desk was still so long as to need a delay in the start of the sale so that everybody could be dealt with. I was also glad that I’d asked about the lunch break beforehand, as I was warned that there probably wouldn’t be one. Cue extra supplies, and gratefulness that there are loos on the premises!

We got the flavour of the day right at the start when Lot 1, an oak chest of ca 1540, went for a hammer price of the top of its estimate (£6000). I usually feel a bit sorry for the vendors of the first few lots, as bidding often takes a while to get going, but not on this occasion. It got absolutely lunatic in places – as the day progressed, things routinely went for double (and in some cases ten times) the top of their estimates. Naturally, all this extra interest slowed things up a bit, especially with telephone and online bidding included. Online bidding has speeded up considerably since it was introduced, but two telephone bidders against each other is the pits – so painfully slow and long drawn-out that I’ve known the auctioneer to recommend “Talk among yourselves” to those present. Telephone bidders always seem to have bottomless pockets, too, and I’m sure some of it is not so much “I really want that” as “I really don’t want X to have it”. I left at about five o’clock and they were still hard at it (I had visions of it going on all evening, which it may well have done).

I’d achieved the first of our items, a deportment board, fairly early on, and for just over half of what we’d allowed – oh good. I’d missed acquiring the second (a Victorian painting of a girl with a doll) by a country mile, as it went for three times its upper estimate – oh bad. Never mind, I consoled myself, it would have needed some conservation, and the money will give me a bit more leeway (with my boss’s agreement) for the following day's bids of 18th century layette pincushions (above) and a lavishly equipped 19th century educational specimen box – and although things had calmed down considerably by then, and I was successful with both bids, I needed it. I mean, I know early 18th century furniture is much rarer than most people realise, but I still have no idea why somebody paid £3000 (nearly £4000 when you add the buyer’s premium and VAT) for a single 1720 chair, and I was not alone in this. The bidding on the first day apparently amounted to £1.6 million pounds, and I really don’t want to hear the words ‘credit crunch’ again any time soon…

11 January 2009

Short memories?

It isn't just that so many people are carrying on something chronic about the cold weather - look, it's winter, OK? I am beginning to think that ninety-five percent of the populace has no long-term memory left, or at least nothing that will take them back beyond, say, two years without some form of assistance. Even the elder brethren can't seem to remember that we had snow in South-east England only a few years ago (here's Sally investigating in the garden in 2004) , leave alone anything further back, like the hard winter of 1962-63, or as Simon Barnes pointed out the other day in the Times, 1947.

But it's not just the weather. All sorts of things have dropped outside the radar, from mortgages not being easy to get (even from your own bank or building society) to the idea that a long-established business might fail or that all foods are not always available all the year round at a price to suit every customer's budget. The media have always been keen to talk about "Thatcher's children" - I wonder has the time come to talk of "Blair's children" - those who instinctively dislike the past and its lessons, and think only of tomorrow and the new credit card?

05 January 2009

Autumn Colour II

...and one of the most colourful of the acers. This one was an end of season bargain which we thought might not even survive when we unwrapped it!

04 January 2009

Autumn Colour

For a bit of winter cheer - the crab apple in the garden during autumn.