Something wasn’t quite right – the click of the latch came too soon. But there he was, stranded gentry. Wary, peering past, not saying a word as briskly he ushered me in. For all the use wariness would serve. We were alone at the back door to a plain Georgian farmhouse situated up a rolling mile-long drive that stretched yet further up from a wide bog. But, no matter, the customer’s never wrong. Doing as I was bid I further indulged the paranoia, “Yes, yes, we can never be too careful about strangers”. Widened eyes and the firm nod of a veined grey tufted head showed wholehearted agreement. Here was a man with a bad experience behind him.

Three days prior the phone rang as I slouched over the desk tackling paperwork, while at the same time smarting from a loss at Navan races the day before. Word to the wise, never trust in horseflesh the eye of a retired hunt master’s wife. Anyway, we march on. God sometimes allows good things to slip through the cracks, but sadly he never tells us from whom. Or when. Might this be one of those times? The cultured, gravelled accent coming towards me down the line straightened the curve of my back to the possibility. For a provincial auctioneer telephonic social divining can mean the difference between being given the silver, or the silver plate. Scenting silver, he had my full attention. And from the very first syllable; English public school, softened by a life-time in Ireland, a hint of financial hardship. This is what I heard. But he spoke words.

“Hello, I’m sorry to trouble you. Is that Matthews Auctioneers”
“It is”
“of Oldcastle?”
“That’s us”
“May I speak with the auctioneer”
“Speaking, Damien Matthews”
“Might I ask, when is your next auction, I possibly have some things”
“Would they be old or new?”
“Just some things I wish rid of”

Usually in a situation like this I’d ask for more information. Along with perhaps some photographs by e-mail or text. But here? I thought differently. There was no way that voice was going to waste my time with tittle tattle chattels. Arrangements were made for my visit. His name confirmed the right decision was made not to pry. Immediately I knew the back story. He was, in his day, a man of serious wealth. Born well to the gentry he had, most unusually, business acumen as well. The normal way of things with the gentry is they tend to fade back over a term of years. From field to house, and back again. Usually within five generations at the very most. The final line-up getting the last of the money to keep them privately educated, before being pushed back out into the big bad world. But for this fellow, no. He was the exception. He had actually managed to make himself a fortune from trade, almost nationwide.

The sixties and seventies his decades of accumulation. But, as can sometimes happen, he’d outlived himself. His was now a near-forgotten name, of the kind people assume had already died. But here he was, alive, in front of me, alone, isolated, in a rambling house built for his family and their servants over one hundred and fifty years before. Constantly I see it, these reverse role models, making one mindful not to follow their path of isolation. It can happen easily. And does, rich or poor. Suddenly whole years, decades, swallowed. Gone. Time, and opportunity, wait for no man.

He had, from that good start, built up his business. In the time before computerisation powering on with pencil and ledger. Those twenty years of expansion, peaked. Then followed by another twenty, of contraction. Unfortunately, with no board or shareholders to rubberstamp his ideas or demand modernization, it had all gently ebbed away again. Time and the modern age had passed him. A single man, no wife stood in the way of his whims – his hours at the counting table not allowing for such frivoleries. Even so, the formulae of the gentry would still be followed. His ownership, even now, of a fair portfolio of unmortgaged, unmodernised town centre premises would soon slip away too, gone, taken by the new.

What did he want with me? That he was a noted collector in his day was common knowledge. Surely he’d have Christies or Sothebys around before having me in. Besides, nobody I know had ever been allowed in his house. Like little gilded birds hidden in little gilded cages, few had seen his treasures. Some collectors are like that, the secrecy of their gatherings adding to their worth. He also had the further good fortune to collect in the decades when the great Irish house auction was still an occurrence. And with little competition. For those possessing real cash – of which he had, by the bucketful – the pick was his. Also, being from the gentry helped. It meant that he had the ‘in’ where many did not. In several cases approaching the owners pre-sale, family friends, and buying the best before any auction took place. Secret treasure was his pleasure.

Trembling like a new bride my mind boggled at these treasures about to be unveiled. Could this be my moment to skip the queue? You see, while we might seem to sell an awful lot, and we do, most of it is in the €100 to €1,000 bracket. Not that I’m complaining, but wouldn’t it be nice to land a multi-million euro auction. Show them what we can do. Why, let’s not be greedy, we’d be happy with a single million. But, you see, it’s a trade off. Trading constantly at the top end requires a certain hardness which I know we don’t have. And that’s no bad thing, I’m a country auctioneer by choice. Enjoying rural life in the quieter lower pastures possesses a different kind of richness. With a genuinely lovely team of easy-going people helping to put the auctions together it’s all at a more leisurely pace, allowing time to make friends with your customers as you go along. Better to sleep well than eat well – the motto of the old bosses of Marc Rich, an infamous oil trader who didn’t heed their words. And ended up stranded thirty years in Switzerland for his trouble.

Anyhow, again I digress, apologies. Back to my visit. An hour was all it took, between the travellers arriving and the Guards being called. But it was too late, and no crime had been committed. It was, the Guards said, “a civil matter, if that”. This is exactly what they said. How could it be. The haul of a life-time’s collection, the best of the best, gone within sixty minutes. And with no money changing hands. Surely there was legal guilt? No. None. And it happened as so.

Like the Gaelic banditos they were, they raided the palace. Not in the Mexican style, but more in the Rathkeale way of things. Appealing to the sin of greed, they got all that they wanted without breaking one law. Quite simply, they, like me (but uninvited), drove up his avenue, knocked on his door, and took it away.

It was just after 6pm on a Saturday as the lead man approached the front door and rang the bell. Tugging his jacket at the arms, he then spat in his fleshy palm and swept the spit across a liver spotted scalp, pawing down the greasy stands of yellowed grey hair. He was an old dog for the long road, he knew the way.
As the door opened our man of the road steadied himself.
“Good evening to you Sir, good evening”
Tug as he might he still looked like the road dog that he was.
“Nothing for you here, get off my property”
Well used to the stock rebuff he had the stock reply.
“Ah no Sir, ’tis not like that at all. No, no, not at tall”
“I’m sorry?” His mark had made his first two mistakes, engaging and not closing the door.
“I have something you might be interested in”
“You’ve called to the wrong house, there’s nothing for you here”
“No Sir, no, sure ’tis the other way”
Confusion.
“I’m sorry, but the other way?”
“I heard that you’re a fine collector, as fine as there is in Ireland and I might be havin’ some things, some things got out of a convent (always a convent) and they say you might be the man for them”
“Who is this ‘they’ you speak of”
Road man back pedals.
“Sure twasn’t it your people before you that was known far and wide as good people Sir. Me father, Lord rest him, dealt with yours, manys the day, manys”
Wholly untrue but neither were alive to disprove it – and only one would if he were.
“With horses perhaps my fellow, but I’ve no use of horses today, good luck to you”
“It’s not like that Sir”
“What’s not like that? You’ve just informed me you’ve got something to sell, and I’m not in need of it – whatever it is. Now go, be gone, before I get my gun”
“Not to sell Sir, no, not at all”.
The dog held firm at the door, not moving an inch. Staying silent, waiting for his quarry to speak, answer him, engage, thus lessen his authority. It’d soon be a one-sided victory, if he could keep him where he was. As they spoke his two companions were gaining access by the rear window.
“Then why in the good name of God are you here?”
“I’m here to be of help Sir, that’s what I am Sir”
“I’ve no need of help from a man I didn’t know two minutes before”
“Sir, let me explain and you’ll be the glad of it”

And so he did. A complete cock & bull story about how he’d come across untold treasures in a convent, and bought them. How, given their high value, there was only one man in the country who’d have the means of appreciation. And “that man’s you Sir”, so he said. Flattered, and perhaps lonely, our victim made his third mistake. He let him in the door.

As he entered, road man asked to make a call. He rang a mobile number informing his two colleagues, now inside the rear wing of the house, that their services would be not be required, words would suffice today. They, and their iron bar, exited as quietly as they had entered. Sulkily returning to the two parked vans, they waited just beyond the bend of the avenue.

Time usually passes one of two ways, fast or slow. For our elderly collector it raced towards it’s sorry conclusion. Walked down an aisle of lies, he opaquely took hold of the untruths being told him.
“Show it to me then, this treasure of yours”
“Of course Sir, of course, I’ll show it to you, sure why wouldn’t I, and you the only man in the country worthy of it. Sure isn’t it well known you’re the tops, the man in charge”.
He lathered it on to him, one compliment after the other. His quarry in the empty house felt, and knew, the hollow warmth of the words but at least they were warm. We have to be thankful of that, words breaking the silence and not that iron bar. Yes, we have to be thankful of that.

“I’m only a few miles away Sir, I’ll have my lads drive it over, we never took it off the vans so we didn’t Sir. And sure tisn’t it very hard Sir, very hard, to get men to work, they don’t make them like us anymore, now do they Sir”
Calling his henchmen, gruffly he told them to wait, fifteen minutes then drive up the rest of the avenue. Once on site he knew there’d be only a window of minutes. Each van, four men squeezed to a line in the front, window to window, at the ready. Once the nod was given they had to empty, then fill, the vans at speed – before minds could be changed. If this happened things would have to go the other way. That iron bar rested at a slant in the driver’s doorwell of the first van.

Fifteen minutes later both vans swayed around the bend. Getting out, the eight men went straight to the back of the vans. Each piece, finer than the next, poured forth. Lined up, like debutants at a ball, they faced the front of the house awaiting their invitation to dance.
“Now look at the treasures Sir, wasn’t it not one word of a lie I’d be telling you”
Impressed, our elderly suitor inspected the line. Each piece was indeed impeccable. His new friend, egging him on with virile words of encouragement, was certainly no liar.
“And this the house for them, they wouldn’t be anywhere else Sir. Here, here, this is the spot for them, not those holy nuns who didn’t know a damn what they had Sir. No, it’s you, you who’d appreciate them. You, or the national museum, that’d be it Sir, and I choose you Sir, by God I do Sir, our fathyer’s before us would be wantin’ it, so they would Sir, and you’d be the man in charge”

Smooth words indeed. Flattered now, like a young girl, he agreed a swop. Desiring these treasures before him in their petticoats, he salivated, oozed, at the thought of ownership. But for it he would have to lose some of his best things in the swop. Old wives out for the new, fresh blood for the old bull. But in his mind it was fair. His new friend was right, these pristine treasures before him actually belonged in the National Museum – but he’d have them instead. And nobody, nobody, would know , that was his added pleasure. Free from the threads of auction, no prying eyes nor sullied paws would defile his beauties. They lay before him now, shyly, in private congress.

As the battalion of thieves marched the line of mahogany into the house, in reverse order they loaded the outcoming swops onto the vans. Museum quality furniture, paintings and silver soon had the tyres weighted to the ground. Treasures that would make your eyes water if I were to list them here. All loaded, they shook the hand that fed them, one at a time, and with hearty laughs and banter. Some of it quite coarse he thought, but no matter, they knew no better. He waved them goodbye as those fat bulging tyres sped down the drive. The convoy took for England on the very first ferry, as precaution. Let the heat die down awhile, before selling their takings by any means they so wished – legally they owned it, they broke no law.

Now that there was peace, with no words to harry him, the pleasure of unhurried time alone with his new brides awaited. Visually he began to undress what he had coveted, the glistening polished surfaces beckoning him forward. Come, come to me, they purred sweetly. Tired elderly eyes, unseeing up to now, began to peer close-up, lustfully devouring the details of their figure. With attentive salaciousness he got to his knees and began to enquire some more. Climbing beneath the first, to admire it’s construction and get a feel for its past, he was shockingly rebuffed. Within moments he realised there was no past at all, it all was too fresh. And the next. And the next. Frantic now, he raced through his harem, devastated to discover that all his heavenly virgins were whores. Each one, too polished to be true, too sweet to be wholesome. Distraught he sunk to the ground in despair. What had he done?

He had done what the Red Indians of Manhattan had done before him – he had given his treasures for beads. For the price of two vans of reproduction furniture the finest collection to leave Ireland in a generation was gone. And yes, we sold those beads – no queue skipping for me this time, unfortunately. He, in turn, had a lot of bare patches of wall that would never be covered again.

Damien Matthews

 

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