An Auctioneer's Lot
by Damien MatthewsEntries Posted Weekly on Fridays
To Reach the Sandy Shore (Part I)
Needless to say, all names, locations, etc. have been changed to entirely protect the innocents in this true story – one of whom has sadly since passed away.
The door opens and he’s there. Hands clasped high, held tight to the chest, as fingers twiddle. Deep in muttered conversation with himself his head slants downwards and to the right. Having spent some time in a ward with brain injury I can see he’s either suffered a knock from the outside in or the inside out. Either-way, they’re chatting away, getting on famously. One thing about schizophrenics, they’ll never want for company. So why telephone me, three is a crowd after all. That is, if he is one.
I’m just looking, sizing it up, being passive, present, saying nothing other than the usual hello how are you Damien Matthews the auctioneer you called. My voice breaks the pattern of his thought. There’s change, an argument. Can’t quite make out the words but think it’s about who called me. And it’s in earnest. Once in New York saw a guy getting out of a cab having a fight with himself. Actually beating himself up while at the same time bravely fending off the attack. Wanted to step in and help, but… you know… crazy world.
Muttering stops. Straightening up he looks me in the eye, “Thank you for coming”
“Great to be here, lovely drive”
“Perhaps you’d like a drink?”
It’s 10:30am but give the man what he wants, “My very thought exactly”.
He doesn’t know it but we met years before, when I was a teenager working summers as a porter for Hamilton Osborne King – in the days when they had a fine art department. We conducted an on the premises auction of the contents of his house. In fact, he gave me a disastrous tip on a horse, dreadful, wounds even now to think about it. He was so confident about the win; a friend owned the nag, couldn’t lose, pulled it back for the race, a sure thing. If wishing were kissing, but I was a kid and he was a man. I had to believe. And, after all, he did let me drink from his cellar while putting lot numbers on what remained.
The moment of realisation, that I had allowed the external gilding of another to cloud my own judgement, was an exquisite life lesson never forgotten. It’s true what they say, everyone’s beautiful at the ballet. The words that came into my mind as the distance opened up between winner and loser I still remember, ‘My God what have I done to myself’. The price of truth was high, but it was pure. Divine. It caused a light to shine into my very soul that afternoon. Then, of course, came the exhilaration of despair. He had a drink, he was used to losing big. For me, it was my first time. I drank.
The twenty five years since, for him, had been rough. He’d slid a long way down the totem pole. The windfall of that auction spent rashly on the wooing of an actress towards whom he’d shoved his unloved heart. She in turn scored it like glass. The two bad marriages later didn’t do him any good either. Neither was the sixty fags a day and the cheaper wine. He was broken, a wreak of a man. The plane had crashed into the mountain. And it seemed the old brain was going too. But, you never know, he was still a minor member of the useless aristocracy, that’s a life-membership card no matter where you end up. And, since that long ago afternoon’s beating had held me in such good stead, I actually felt that I owed the man. I was here to help – if there was anything left.
At worst there was going to be nothing. At best? Well, in my mind there’s always an upside. An actuary once told me over a drink that statistically most men make their greatest financial mistakes between the ages of 48 and 52. As my clock is tick tocking right in this general vicinity I’m all ears. And eyes. Here was my perfect reverse role model.
And where were we? Sandymount, Dublin 4 by the coast. Up two flights of stairs in a dated but solid 1970s square redbrick apartment block. While not exactly the projects, it wasn’t quite the elegantly money-worn Georgian mansion that I had youthfully helped lot up as it nestled by a river’s bend. That was long gone, much water had flowed down that river since, he was on the goodwill of friends now. So I followed him down the hall as a rather light door with pitted chrome fittings clapped shut behind me.
Even in these lessened circumstances his plumed voice carried him. That, and a certain gait. His was a command you’d follow, if you didn’t know him too well. He had that draw, even still. The air of entitlement, I suppose. There’s a certain sphere that lineage and private education gives a man, especially to those not tutored in their ways. For most of the past three hundred years it’d carry you, not now. We were on even ground, there’d be no plámásing me this time round.
“Sit, sit, over there by the window”, a raised hand waves without a wand. It gestures me towards an over-stuffed Edwardian armchair. The room, well lit with morning sunshine streaming through a plain metal framed rectangular window, overlooked a church. It, in turn, was stoically stranded, lonesome within a triangle of road. Dark brown wool carpet, worn but not cheap when bought, floored a room of plain proportions, much like the building itself. The interior, well scattered with minor antiques, was manly in appearance although it had the look of an older woman’s touch. Perhaps a maiden aunt now in a nursing home? Something like that, had to be knowing the man.
Standing by the drinks cabinet he poured with delicate attention, and shaky hand, two over-generous whiskeys into deeply cut crystal tumblers. Mine chipped.
“No, just a splash”.
He hands it over and rests into his own armchair, the pair to mine. Languidly crossing his legs we both take a morning sip. Rule number one, never drink before six. But it takes what it takes.
The sustained pressure of a financially stressed life, and who could blame him, somehow perhaps now gained relief by his holding a split character. By being two; one to vent and another to reason, he could try to hold things together. From being landed, titled and wealthy to this, it was rather a long fall. His nursery education and entitled upbringing which lead him to believe that all the world was apple pie was an invalidated ticket to a destination that did’t exist anymore. Quite literally, he was a dying remnant of the eighteenth century stranded at the beginning of the twenty first.
“She was the light of my life”
Oh Lord, here we go, not having it.
“Perhaps get a different light”
Is he thinking I’m just hired company. While I’m happy to bide time I’m unwilling to waste it, literally a thousand lots sit back in the auction room waiting to be catalogued. Just letting him know.
“You called me to look at a few things”
“No, no, she’s a keeper, you fool, that’s what you get”
That’s the two of them, at it again. This isn’t making sense. I interject.
‘Listen you need to…”
“I need to what, you, you”
“Just relax, you know, it’s easier that way”
“I’ll do as I damn well please”
“Of course. But you called me”
“Yes, yes, I did”
At least he’s not saying We.
An alcoholic stench comes up from my glass as I raise it to my lips. It really was way too early for spirits. Champagne I could understand, but whiskey? I take another sip as that sunlight glints against the crystal.
“Perhaps it’s a little late in the game for keeping”
“I suppose, ha ha”
He’s nearing seventy, sees the humour.
“Have we met before?”
“Yes, you once gave me a tip on a horse”
“Never was too good at that sort of thing”
“I know”. Third sip of the morning.
“Oh well, couldn’t be helped”
Casually so thrown away, but that’s what rank is.
“That’s exactly how I felt”. A lie of course, the pain remained long after the offence was forgotten.
“Yes, we must move on”
Easy to say when you’ve unearned assets to auction, my unkind thought. But I do like him for his uncaring attitude, something of the House of Bourbon about it. Actually, looked at from the side he does have the profile. Wouldn’t surprise me, a leak in the bloodline.
“And so, here we are. How can I help?”
“They want me out, my aunt’s trustees (got that right). They wish me gone. Two weeks and I’ve nowhere to go with nothing to bring me there”.
“I’m sorry to hear”
“Yes, a difficulty”
“Don’t know if you can help but you might know a way”
“I’ll do what I can”
He shuffled in his chair for a bit, had a few more sips to settle himself. Then said nothing. And then said nothing some more. Then.
“Mother came down through the Kelfords, the South African side, brought some things with her to the marriage”
“Some valuable, and some rather small. One in particular, small and valuable, as it happens”
“A pink diamond”
“A Diamond, a worthwhile diamond?”
“Yes. Never valued, and, more importantly, never appearing on our family’s inventory. It was always hers, kept it hidden. Said it was to be held for a rainy day. And sadly, there’s none more rainy than this dear boy, I’ve come to the end of my line”
While luck sometimes does run out, even for the minor-As, there can still be a spare life within the nine. And, I can tell there’s still another piece of luck in him yet, he’s that type. Maybe I could help after all.
“Where is it now?”
Well, that’s that then, I was wrong.
“Well, not quite dunno, but close”
“It’s hidden in my old ancestral seat”
“Ok, I know it”
“Long story, you really don’t want to know”
“Honestly, you don’t, lets move on”
“It’s hidden in mummy’s bedroom”
“Yes, hidden, she hid it. Don’t quite know where exactly, but I do know it’s in that room, and somewhere to the left of her bed”
“To the left?”
“She told me, wasn’t quite listening, she was slightly batty towards the end. But I know it exists, she wore it once you see, in Lavery’s portrait, commissioned when she married my father”
“That’s a rather big bedroom”
His eyes widen, “Now how exactly do you know…that…?”
“Hamilton Osborne King, the auctioneers, worked for them when they cleared the contents”
“Yes. Why to the left?”
“You’re that greedy fellow who drunk some of my best claret”
“With your permission”
“Wasn’t paying attention”
“Paid for in other ways believe me”
“Jolly good juice that, eh”
“Spoiled, never a better bottle since”
“The Seventh Earl brought it over himself, and the port”
“Those were special hangovers”
“They were, weren’t they”
“Saved for the best occasions”
“If you can possibly manage to find that stone you can have all the port and wine you wish”
“I’ll settle for 15%”
“I’m not an unreasonable man. Now why to the left”
“She gestured that way to me when she was on her deathbed”
“Old Aubershed has it now”
“What, the stone?”
“No, your family seat”
“Oh, I know, dreadful greedy man. Met him once or twice, never got on. Thankfully he doesn’t know he has the stone too. Saw one the other day like it, the pink something. In The Telegraph, Sotheby’s I think. Fetched quite a bit”
“Yes, the Pink Star, an incredible price, seventy million dollars”
“Never thought it could possibly be worth that much”
“Very doubtful that yours is, the Pink Star is an exceptional stone, a once-off masterpiece of nature. Internally flawless, just off sixty carats and very vividly pink. Even still, if it’s clear, yours might be worth a bit, certainly more than back then when your mother had it”
“Pinks have come into their own lately, all that new Russian and Chinese money, they just like the colour”
“Really, just the colour. That’s a lot of money for a colour”
“Kingdoms have been fought over for less. The cut played a big factor too. New money likes flash and none was more flash than that stone. Actually, it was laser-cut from the rough not too long ago just for that very market”
“Yes, to maximise scintillation. Every angle of possible advantage calculated by internal scanning and computer analysis. Then, and only then, was it laser cut. The only hand it saw was for minor polishing after the cutting. The end result, a very calculated stone, literally blazing with reflected light to attract the market it was created for”
“There were no computers in mother’s day”
“That may be so, but that’s no bad thing either. Well, it is. Financially it’s not going to scream Buy Me to the big modern money of today, but it would still have it’s charm, and it’s admirers. If it exists”
“It exists, trust me on that”
“Well if it does, and given when it was mined out from the earth, it’s probably what’s called ‘old European cut’. These older stones, cut by a steam-driven bruting machine, are less faceted and possess a more mellow presence. Back then diamond cutting was more of an art than a science.
“It’s the money I’d prefer Damien, not the art”
“I know, I know, but there’s a good market for these stones too don’t worry. Just less stratospheric, but it’s still strong”
“Strong enough to make it worthwhile to try and get it back for you. Those newly monied buyers, while they do give unheard of prices across the range for disco stones, are matched by a parallel, albeit slightly less monied, collector for the older stones. You see, if these older stones catch the light just right, they too are just as desirable. In fact they’re rarer, created in a time when the financial elite were closer knit. And when it was candle or gaslight that lit the ballroom, not the harsh glare of electricity that we have now. While they do scintillate less, mostly it’s just the one flash at a time, they are just as beautiful. Isn’t that one flash coming from a hand-cut diamond more meaningful than a disco ball?”
“I suppose so”
“And so do the real collectors”
As I’m talking, I’m thinking. Ireland really is a small country, it so happens not only do I know this Aubershed (from an old brewing family, and he is truly a dreadful man), but I also know, and really this is how small Ireland is, that he’s running low. Last year – again, I repeat, small country – he asked a friend of mine, a wealthy elderly friend, for a loan, just to tide him over between ventures. Brought it up in their club after trying to pad him out with a few drinks. Complete No No, but Aubershed’s the type who considers himself apart from convention; an international businessman, ahead of his time, ahead of the graph. Nothing’s ever worked though. The deals always terribly complicated, forward thinking, ground breaking, etc., lots of technical lingo. But none, None, have ever succeed. Oddly enough, he always gets the ‘funding’. Mostly from those less financially ‘sophisticated’ – easier to blind with science when the deal go wallop. His accent, the hand made shoes – what we now know to call ‘the gilding’ – tends to do the job. And always, always, he flies first or business class between these arduous rounds of constant fund raising. Right now, for the first time, he was down to his last, turning right as he entered the plane. And this turning right wasn’t sitting with him at all.
So here we were. A man who, if he knew he had the Kelford Diamond, wouldn’t be in the least mind for sharing it. That was a problem. That, and the fact that I had visited that same house again not long after our new client sold it and Aubershed bought it. On the occasion of a pre-hunt ball dinner party. Basically, and still to this day I can’t quite fathom why, drink possibly, I sat on a George II Irish silver table. Maybe I just thought it looked sturdier than it was, or perhaps I just thought it a rather flat topped chair. Those silver tables are flat, and the perfect height for sitting on. Who knows. But anyhow, one whoosh and four clean breaks later there it was, matchstick on the carpet. Not the end of the world. Clean breaks. But still, not the done thing. I was young, happy. Aubershed wasn’t. And who could blame him. Didn’t quite look at it the way I did. But that was years ago, perhaps he’d forgotten.
So, back to the news. We had information, we had the house, and we had the room. All we needed now was the access. Or to be precise, the permission to access. Then, hopefully, with a little knocking on walls or whatever, our Damien would be 15% the richer and a down-at-heel aristocrat saved from the poorhouse. But how to broach it without raising Aubershed’s rasping financial alarm bells. Kept with just the one wife though, got to give him that. Tremendous cost saving. When you looked at it, there really wasn’t a need for his financially dubious state. What got him there? Women, horses, drink, he’d avoided all three, and yet there he still was. On his uppers. Greed. Ego? Perhaps. Wouldn’t let him live like the rest of us. That, and the entitlement bug. That didn’t help. Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to make my job any easier.
Now it goes without saying, I’m registered, licensed and bonded by the Irish Government, I can’t just go round storming into people’s houses playing underhand tricks. One has to, and I do, play by the rules of the Marquise of Queensbury. This was my problem. I couldn’t, even if I was acting on behalf of the morally rightful owner, take something from another man’s property that I had no legal right to take. So, stretching out my legs, I leaned back and gave it some thought over a second glass. Three minutes passed, the length of a boxing round as it happened. And bingo, there it was. Only one thing for it, dangle my rich elderly friend in front of him again.
My old friend, who considers himself a little bit of a Gielgud, has led an interesting life, but one it could be said in diametric opposite to my new client. Responsible, hard working – when the occasion merited it – his life was financially rewarded, greatly. He had his fun, but not before work and his investments were caressed. Although his love-life was complex too, the glistening lure of marriage was never bitten. Enthusiastically he chased, but none of his chasings ever amounted to the toil of marriage. Nothing too awful, just a boys way of looking at women, playthings rather than people sort of thing. His dalliances rarely straying beyond the first bloom of courtship. One actually did last a decade, in the 1970s I believe (interspersed with others), and well before I knew him. Did ask him once why they didn’t marry, he replied, “Oh, she already was, wonderful woman”.
As he aged the field lengthened, which led to my witnessing some interesting courtships. How much further he could stretch that field it was hard to know, but his long life of complex courtship, and marriage avoidance, was matched by a fiscal responsibility. He had become instead an accumulator of things; property, shares, cars, art, money. His was a mind at ease contained within a life without pain. I’ve observed his routine. No extra weight, up early to walk the dogs he rescues, no menial tasks – farm it out, light breakfasts, serious serious lunches with good wine, wide circle of friends joined by new ones old & young each year to replace any die offs, an inquisitive mind with an open character. Reads lots, never look to the past as better or dwells upon it, light supper if at all. Travel by the bucketful – none of that go to a sun hotel stuff, adventurous travel, travel to learn & explore. He worries not at all, and, of course, chasing women as pastime, but never letting it get heavy. That’s it. That’s what He did. Told me once that time resolves everything, if you live long enough it all goes away! I’ll miss him when he’s gone, but it seems he’s not leaving anytime soon. Thankfully.
Not to bore, but one amusing thing. After a landmark birthday he bought another home in Dublin. One very much like the one he already had; an early Victorian redbrick, single storey with low limestone front steps. He completely remodelled it, gutting it entirely while at the same time keeping and living in the original one. Even after this second home was finished he lived in the same house he already had. Asked him why. Why keep two homes in the same city? “New neighbours, new area, time will slow and I might get another good decade”. He was right. Given his open nature, soon there were new parties to attend and a new circle of friends. All to add to the old ones. Wiser still, that second home, where he now spends most of his time, runs in a direct straight line to the Blackrock Clinic. The merest cough and he’s in like a shot, top suite overlooking Dublin Bay, and for the week. Better than the Four Seasons. There’s more than luck at play with him.
Fortuitously, this house was reasonably near to where I now sat sipping early morning whiskey with my newly acquired stressed aristocrat. One phone call later, right there in the man’s apartment, and fifteen minutes later I’m outside a gaily yellow painted front door. Pull back the lion’s head brass knocker, one comfortable monied thud later, and a Filipino cleaner tentatively opens it. Dogs scrabble on the parquet behind. This story can’t go on forever so I’ll just give a quick summation. By 1pm we’ve nestled down for a long lunch in his club, a rare untouched gem overlooking St. Stephen’s Green. Certainly fast moving I know, but 15% of an awful lot is still an awful lot. And one does have to strike in the moment of opportunity, especially so in a case like this. A plan of action was discussed, finessed, over pheasant and claret.
His opinion? Either appeal to our adversary’s base greed – come at it like a sin is being committed – or don’t tell him at all. Our decision. Not to tell at all. Equally we felt that he wouldn’t allow us the windfall. Or if he did, it wouldn’t be done fairly – his nature wouldn’t allow it. Legally, and this is an interesting point which my older friend knew. If you sell a house and leave, even unacknowledged, personal property behind, it’s not gone – title still stands with the previous owner. In fact, the new buyer has a legal obligation to bring the existence of this left property to the attention of the previous house owner. However, as there was no record of ownership as regards the stone, only heresay, it might be a legal problem Aubershed could use to his advantage. If, on the other hand, the owner, or his legal representative (me!), was invited back onto said property, and an opportunity existed to legally retrieve it – with or without the owners knowledge of it being there – Bingo. Now just how we were going to get permission to enter the master bedroom of an egomaniac’s house, that was another matter. But I trusted my elderly consiglieri to come up with the solution. And he did.
That evening his telephone call to our adversary went something like this. I could only hear my friend’s side of the conversation.
“Aubershed old boy how are you”
“Yes, yes, it’s me”
“Been meaning to you know”
“Can’t, they took my driving licence away, too many scrapes, getting on and all that”
“That fellow Matthews might, if I asked”
“No, the auctioneer”
“He’s not he worst, obviously some sort of accident”
“Yes, yes, no intellectual, but he did pay for the restoration, or did he. I was never told”
“I know, but sort of have to, he’s the only one I could ask at this short notice”
“Yes, yes, I’ll try, but if not it’ll have to be him”
“Very good. Good. See you then old boy, Friday it is, goodbye”
One click later and I’m back in the game.
Between then and the day Bonnie & Clyde hit the road I did my research. James Gorry of The Gorry Gallery, a good friend and a walking brain, enlightened me about the portrait. What that man doesn’t know about Irish Art, of all the centuries, isn’t worth knowing. Had to keep it all low key but with his astonishing visual memory, and discretion, he described the portrait. He’d seen it at the auction of the contents all those many years ago. Unfortunately he had no image on file, and neither did the reference library in the National Gallery. Quick hop over the Irish Sea to the Witt Library. Had a long search through their incomparable, but sometimes date-muddled, files. But they too, surprisingly, didn’t have an image. Christies King Street to the rescue, they scored it. Hidden away in their basement, far from prying eyes, and solely for the use of their own experts, is a filing area with every catalogue they’ve published since their inception, over two hundred and fifty year’s worth. And in sequence. A quick word with an old drinking associate, actually it was the bribe of dinner that night at Boisdale, and there I was, under the road rummaging away.
That house contents auction was conducted in association with Christies so it really was just a matter of minutes before there it was, reproduced on the inside back cover of the catalogue. In full colour, a three-quarter length Lavery at his portraiture best, lot 264. Good looking woman too, and on her chest what I seek. Looked for all the world like a very plainly mounted ruby. Possibly 15 Carats, hard to tell, Lavery had given it just a single flick of pinkish impasto. But, if you knew what you were looking for, one could see that it was a diamond. He’d lifted it with that bravo paintwork, the master’s hand capturing it’s nature so beautifully – a sunlit seam of heaven. Why bother if it were just a ruby. A secret between artist and sitter? Possibly.
Those indeed were the days, t’was the rich what got the pleasure, and t’was the poor what got the pain. Which would I get? That weekend I was to find out.