An Auctioneer's Lot
by Damien MatthewsEntries Posted Weekly on Fridays
Treasure on Demand
To be without electricity for almost a year has been, in a strange way, revitalising. Living by candlelight and fire, like everyone did before us up to about 1930, makes you appreciate their ways. But still, it’s beginning to tire. Night comes and the last thing you’d wish to do after a long day is strain your eyes under candlelight jotting things down. How quickly this year has passed. Shocking really, obviously some sort of dreadful link with aging – the more years on the clock, the faster it goes. But hot water on demand, instant effortless heat, an oven that heats itself, a hoover, overhead light, all are luxuries to be truly relished. My electrician swears that in three weeks he’ll have me on the grid. So, before the wonder of electrical current arrives, here’s a blog written under the light of a three sconce candelabra that, given the time, has as a sort of Valentine’s tint to it.
“How hard can it woman, fifty years around here and still you can’t wash a dish”
Words that echo from the back of the house. A grand fire in the hallway, heaped red with the heat, glows out as I wait. Flag-stoned, square-formed, the ceiling above stretching high the full three floors. It’s an impressive entrance hall, but nothing in it to excite; 1940s oak side table with handles replaced, large beaten up log basket, a few damp-stained prints, an old rug worn through. These things sort of represents what it is, a Georgian house sitting on a parcel of land that’s been trimmed, and trimmed again, over time. It rests now on just forty thin acres. Never easy getting the tail end of anything – every second length of wall belonging to the man poked through, fallen, more stone than wall.
Here he comes, losing no time bustling up the hallway; seventy, red-faced, round, fussing over the incidentals. Sharply rattles the fire, sparks fly upwards with the heat as he throws on another log.
“So now, what we can sell to get a few quid in”
My kind of man, direct, to the point.
“How much do we need?”
“Enough to get that lug in the kitchen a new hip”
Little rough, but I’m an auctioneer not a marriage councillor, we move on.
“Wasn’t this the place those Elk horns came out of in ‘86”
“Wouldn’t happen to be another pair hanging about?”
“All that trophy stuff’s gone, long gone with just about everything else. Had to”
“Don’t worry, hungry eyes see far, we’ll find something”
And there’s always something, if you’re poor enough.
Hunted with him once. Always hurrying over his ditches, double-quick time, getting nowhere, doing it fast. He didn’t stop once, not even for the views – sometimes the best part of a day’s hunting. But this day, this day was a hunting day of a different kind. Allowed for it too, took the day off.
“Let’s get a move on, might as well get a start in there,” he points, rushes me towards the drawing room. Always fun, trying to prise out the monetary from such rundown places – same family with a decent near three hundred year run of slipped fortune behind them. Has to be something left, apart from pulling up the floorboards. Those lovely wide planks under my feet. Treasures, jewels, lain side-by-side fast asleep in their little beds. Would they mind? Would they cry, those boards, if we woke them from their slumber. Nails slithering from their long bodies as we pull each upwards to the cold air. Perhaps to be loaded onto a lorry bound for Knightsbridge. Or westward, into a container for Manhattan – that Auschwitz of Irish architectural heritage. Mein gott, Herr Auckioneer only does as instructed. Nein it’s not my fault. Nein, not mine decision, I only follow the orders. Strip!!!
But I’m no architectural desecrateist. They stay, for now. No foul play here, no low blows. Attention turns to what lays on them. Donegal wool rug, large, in the wanted Adams style, 30ft x 25ft. But some heathen has cut out the fireplace end, 6ft x 2ft lobbed right off. No market for amputees. Did it scream? My Eyes lift, nose twitches. Sniff, sniff. Nothing. Look on. The skirting boards. Nein. We’ll not start ripping out the architrave either. Not just yet. Where could it be this new hip.
Nothing here. He pushes me onwards, towards the dining room. An Edwardian sideboard lurks behind the door. Now there’s one item of furniture that could definitely do with a train journey. Pure-bloods only please – those that actually came in the with the original occupants. Stalk the room. That late Victorian side table in the corner, too young to contribute. Parianware figure of a classical maiden clutching her robe – too damaged, unable to assist with ze grand financial experiment. Come now, where are you. It’s time, don’t be afraid. Gather children, the train is here. But they sense the danger, they hide from me. I know it, I can tell. They want to stay with their family. Nein. This we will not permit. Time to look a little closer for my little Anne Franks.
Run finger along the sideboard’s front. Hook a drawer handle, pull it outwards. Random choice but let it stay, open, in the silence. Listen. Nothing. Too quiet. Lean in. Peer to the very back. Definitely too quiet in there. Something. Rifle the contents with a slow touch. Lift some papers, an envelope, upwards. I spy with my little eye. You’re there, you’re there, I can see you. Come, come, ein bitte, come now my little one, show me here. Under the envelope. A spoon. Pull its length towards me. It tries to resist. Clutches the green baize lining of the drawer. But I’m stronger, bigger, part of the greater system. We own you. Pull it towards me, away from the darkness of the drawer. If a spoon could scream it’d scream now.
For too long you’ve lain there little one, come, time to work, arbeit macht frei. Held tight, it’s little heart beats silk against the inside of my fist. Don’t fuss, don’t’ fuss little one, this now must be done. Bring it towards the better light of the window, my fingers picking at it’s little body, dislodging centuries of dirt from the markings. It turns away in naked shame. No need, nein my little one, you’re just a thing to me.
Along it’s slender length I trace those markings, stamped when it left the master’s workshop. Hold it closer, huff my warm breath along it’s shivering body – makes it easier to read the markings. Not so good for the spoon. It faints in terror. Some more picking, harder now, scratch., schratch.., scraatch… it revives. Slow your heart little one. Slow, slow, that’s it. Good. The fiscal doctor Herr Auckioneer is here only to examine. And transfer. Faints again.
Come, settle, back to me now. That’s it. Better. Much better…. Hear the lovely music, das experiment is not yet over fräulein, open wide. Hum it a little tune as my other hand slips softly an eyeglass from inside jacket pocket. I peer deep into it’s little soul. No hiding from me now. Limerick 1743. Worth a few hundred perhaps, but no new hip. The next train for you. Throw it back in the drawer.
From over my shoulder, “Any Use?”
“Not unless she has a very small hip”
“Come on so”
Leads me through to the next room. We search, and all the other rooms on the ground floor. Same story. Lots of things, later things. And all damaged or defective in some way. Purchased cheap after the originals sold I suppose. Bought just for somewhere to sit, or rest the china. Practicality. Aesthetic sensibility sometimes leaves when the money departs. The Georgian pieces that did remain on the ground floor were mostly middle-of-the-road. A few ‘mights’ that could have passed muster in the old days. But not now. Legs replaced, veneers missing, drawers repaired, handles changed. These days there really isn’t a demand. Unless it’s top-notch untouched forget about it. Use value only. That’s the best description. I formulated it over the years – kindest way of describing it without causing offence. Better than saying ‘landfill’. But that’s what we had on the ground floor, landfill. If it had charm I’d say it, there’s a market for that. But this was all just functional, non-pleasing to the eye landfill.
Up we go the bedrooms.
Edwardian, Victorian. Again nothing original to the house. And again, all defective, sub-standard or unpleasing in some way. Belonged elsewhere, not here, in such finely proportioned Georgian rooms. We had the stage, but no stars. Disappointing. The few mirrors that adorned the walls were mean, thin and hard, like divorcees. Of the several engravings that adorned the walls a few had early promise. But these too were let down – they’d been hung by the windows in direct light. Slowly the sun doing its work. Day in, day out, until we had what we have now. Nothing. Some early Meissen lining the dust-laden mantelpiece of the master bedroom raised hopes, for a moment. But closer inspection proved these too to be defective. Cracked, cracked, repaired, and cracked. The fire surround itself? Marble – but a later insertion, a poor Edwardian example. To have a mid-Georgian house with so ugly and plain a replacement was certainly a sin. The incumbent’s father perhaps, a hard drinking man back in the time of high rates.
My own father had a general rule. Where possible, try only to do business with people you’d have round for dinner. This man’s father had people round that had him for dinner, their dinner – Mr. Lamp Chop. While it’s an honour to know just about every low-down, dirty trick in the handbook of antiques, and be able to use this knowledge in the service of my clients as their policeman, every now and then they come up with a new one to be pencilled in at the back. I could tell from the chasing left on the wall that fire surround was Chinese Chippendale, something truly special. And something gone. Regardless of how it left the house both seller and buyer had sinned in it’s going. The removal of it should never have been contemplated, no matter how hard the times. But, it’s the past, what can we do.
Slowly sniff around some more. Nothing. Then upwards to the servant’s floor. And finally, the attic. Same story. We seek in vain. Nothing. Quite incredible, picked clean of every single thing Georgian, original, or true. Even if I’d held an auction on the premises and sold the entire contents, it mightn’t even gather in the amount required. Looks like she’s going to have to limp on a little longer. Did my best, break the bad news. He took it like a winner. In that he instantly disregarded it.
“Perhaps we should have a look in the stables”
The hunting man doesn’t give up too easily.
“Lead the way”
Late afternoon cast no shadow as we strode across the back yard, our front man marching forward with great confidence. Me, my step was a little slower, life I guess. Anyhow, an hour cured it. Worthless leftovers. Some thrown-together estate pine sitting damp in a corner the highlight. Back in the day an American or two may have bitten his hand off for it. Not now. Tastes have changed. By the time we searched inside the last stable it was black as the crypt. But we searched it anyway. And sorry to report, still nothing. Quite remarkable, not a thing. Picked clean.
“Well that’s it, nothing I’m afraid”
“Would you mind waiting a moment”
Back he comes with a torch. What now. I mean, there’s nothing here. Don’t know what’s more than flogging a dead horse, but whatever it is, we’re definitely at it. I like optimism, don’t get me wrong. I love the search, thrive on it. In fact, in my own way, I’m an optimistic guy too, but we’re wasting time. Too many thirsty people have been through this place before us. I saw it, and I can smell it. Plus, it’s gotten cold, you know. He might have electricity, I don’t. No, no, no. I’ve to light a fire when I get home, and then a slow hour of wait for it to heat the place.
Little white lies have their purpose.
“It’s a lovely idea but sadly I’ve a wake to attend”
“That’s bad news”
“It is, totally unexpected”
“Whose is it?”
“A dear friend”
“Which friend, who?”
I’m thinking as he’s talking.
“Pimpleton, Charles J. Pimpleton”
“Don’t know him”
“Very few people did, a very private man”
“Where was he from”
“Where in Meath?”
What’s this, an inquisition. One honest little white lie to get away after six hours hard slog and now this.
“Where outside Slane?”
Ok you win, “I suppose I could just go to the funeral mass”
“No, no, don’t. Don’t stay on my account”
That reverse phycology stuff. You win ok, you got me, we both know what’s going on.
“We’ve come this far, we might as well see it out”
“There’s some other sheds down the way, they could possibly have something.”
Don Quixote begins his energetic march down the muddy lane, his torch held jauntily high lights the way.
“She mightn’t win a jumping competition but the wife can cook, told her to have something on the table when we get back”
Nothing would please me more to say that down the lane we found a jewel of the Georgian era. Something precious, life-changing. Anything. But no. We wasted a good hour in those sheds lifting and looking through agricultural detrus that was worse than worthless. The kind of stuff that actually costs money to be rid of; oil cans, spare tyres, tractor doors, so on. We had run out of places to look. There was nowhere else. My work here was done.
“I’m afraid it seems you’re going to have to trim off a few more of those acres”
“Come on, let’s go in and have our dinner”
Back up the muddy lane, his flashlight held not so high this time. Sure, I felt for the man, the truth of the situation had definitely hit. But what more could I do, it is what it is.
We turn into the yard, rectangle of warm kitchen light throws itself across the cobbles, we cross it. Yummm….. pleasant scent of a fine supper wafts. Up with the latch, boots off and straight in he goes, me I’m right there in his slipstream. No leaving now. No sir, not me. Gold has finally been struck, gold for me. Sorry about the hip and all that but it’s me time now. I like warmth. This is good, a good place. More please. An Old Aga, the big cream coloured kind, lazy dog lying in a basket, an old pine kitchen table laid out for three, some mis-matched kitchen chairs, worn flagstones. And the most important thing, a hearty supper warming on that Aga. No sign of the woman who cooked it though. Maybe she’s upstairs, can’t take the verbal bashing in company. Pity.
He sits. I sit. He waits. I wait. Slowly the man begins to calm. Softens, melds, rests into the chair with a serenity I haven’t seen all day. A different man now sits across from me. And there we continue to sit. Waiting. The fine food not four feet away, teasing. Not my house, nothing for it but to wait. And salivate. My eyes wander to an ancient pine dresser, crooked with age leaning against the far kitchen wall. Top shelf. Something. I point, look to him.
“Do you mind?”
“Not at all”
Crossing the kitchen I reach up. Dark with filth, a chalice. One that must have sat high on that shelf for a very, very long time – a century of tarnish darkens its lustre. Appears to be decorated with precious gem stones. Lift it. The moment it’s coldness touched my hand I knew. Straightaway I knew. It was worthless. Electro magnetic-plated nickel silver. The gemstones? Decorative paste. As this very moment of realisation, when the thought, ‘you really are one unlucky fellow’ was formulating in my mind, I hear a swishing sound. Turn. It’s the wife. She’s making a determined bee-line straight for hubby, something in her hand. Can’t quite make it out from behind, but either-way it’s too late, I’m on the the other side of the kitchen. She raises it, to his head, saying “you deserve this”.
So this is it, a domestic, to end a desperate day.
Vainly he reaches out.
“Now, now, no kisses in front of our guest, Mister Fusspot”
“How kind of you my sweet, a lovely thought” and takes the bottle.
Funny how things turn out, their love was the only genuine thing in the house. Oh, and the wine, 1989 Chateau Lynch-Bages, a very good year.