My great grandfather bought a live seal in a tank at auction. It happened entirely by accident. He went to the auction with no intention of buying a seal, but the polite man on the podium kept waving at him and my great grandfather waved back. When the hammer fell, the seal was his. I’m not sure how much of this story is true (or what happened to the seal). As a child, though, I believed every word of it. That’s why I’ve always been terrified of buying things at auction.
Last week, I decided to face my fears and travelled down to Sheppard’s Décor Decoded auction in Durrow, Co Laois. My plan was to bid on a Persian carpet.
Persian carpets can be terrific value at auction. They’re beautifully designed and skilfully made but, with strong colours and intense patterns, they’re a bit more rug than most people can handle. My family is no exception. The week before the auction we perused the catalogue online and anything with red as a dominant colour was vetoed. That ruled out most of what was on offer.
Others were too small or too expensive. All the received wisdom about buying at auction is to decide what you want to bid for, in advance, and set yourself a price limit. Mine was €300. Lot 268, a truly beautiful Indo-Persian silk rug (est. €400 to €600) decorated with plants and birds against a background of blue, was beyond our budget. Or so we thought. I missed the bidding and the lovely thing sold for €340. Damn!
Eventually, we decided on Lot 660, a Persian carpet with “leaf and floral polychrome decoration on a cream ground”. I headed off down to Durrow having promised myself that I would bid on that rug, and that rug alone, up to a limit of €300. None of this worked out.
Décor Decoded was what’s known as an attic sale. Most of the big auction houses have one and their purpose is the clear the decks of things that haven’t sold in previous auctions. There are many bargains. When I arrived the auction was in full swing. First, I had to register to bid. I was given a number on a sheet of paper that I was to show to the auctioneer if I made a bid (in the heat of the moment I forgot about the number entirely).
Then I asked for a sneak preview of the auction fare – you’re meant to attend the viewings but I hadn’t made it down. I found the rug that I intended to bid on. I didn’t like it all! Then, something else caught my eye: Lot 528, a “large Persian tribal rug”, with gloriously bold geometric patterns (est. €300 to €500). The reckless joy of auction fever took over.
I walked into the auction room itself and within minutes I realised that the auctioneer, Michael Sheppard, had it all in hand. He knew I was a newbie and there was no way he was going to sell me a live seal in a tank. He did make a creditable effort, though, to sell me a moth-eaten taxidermy fox. “Don’t make faces,” he told the auction room. “It’s a beautiful fox.”
In the half hour before my rug came up, I thought that I was going to die of excitement. When it did, I was in there like a pro. I placed an opening bid of €200, the hammer fell at €260. and the rug was mine. Gradually, I became aware that my nearest neighbours, clearly friends, were bidding against each other for a large 19th-century Japanese Imari charger (Lot 469: est. €80 to €120). “You’d better not meet me in the hunting field,” muttered the nearer of the pair. “I’ll see you in the ditch.” His friend shrugged and placed the winning bid of €100. Later, I met the plate’s new owner in the lobby where he was introduced to me as a collector of note. “I shouldn’t be let into auctions,” he said. “I don’t get what I want and I always come back with what I don’t want.” At that moment, a porter brought my rug out to the car. Including taxes and fees, I had paid €330 for a large carpet with a lot of personality. It occurred to me, as I drove home, that going to an auction is like going to the races. You just have to go for it.
In the Salerooms
The world of auctioneering is full of impenetrable terms. A “white glove sale” for example, means an auction where everything is sold. It probably refers to the gloves used to handle precious objects. It’s a rare occurrence but that’s what happened at Whyte’s on January 26. It was an auction entirely devoted to postcards — 100,000 of them in total — and all of them sold. The love of postcards — known as deltiology — is stronger and longer lasting than even the auctioneers anticipated.
The collection was amassed by Seamus Kearns (1929-2014) and ranged from Irish topographical views and historic events, to advertising and bawdy comedy. The top lots were an album of mixed postcards from the early 20th century (Lot 397: est. €1,000 to €1,500) which sold for €2,100; and a collection of ‘Gruss Aus’ cards from outside Ireland (Lot 404: est. €400 to €600) which fetched €1,500 (“Gruss Aus” means “greetings from”). Irish topographical cards also did particularly well. A collection of cards from Co Cork sold for €850; while a collection from Offaly got €750 and one from Leitrim went for €700. Full results at whytes.ie.
Bargains and white elephants abound as the season of attic sales continues. Think of it as spring cleaning for auctioneers. This week, de Vere’s are doing it in style with a major clearance sale of 20th-century design, antique furniture, and Irish art all displayed to best advantage in 65 Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin 2. The selection includes dining tables, chairs, sideboards, easy chairs, lighting, mirrors; and paintings by the likes of Michael Farrell, Patrick O’Reilly, John Noel Smith, Stephen McKenna; and prints by John Graham and Barbara Rae. Reserves are minimal and estimates are low or, at least, lower than they have been in previous sales. Viewing today and tomorrow, from 10am to 5pm both days and on Sunday morning from 10am to 1pm. The auction begins at 2pm at the Dodder/Dargle Suite of the Conrad Hotel, Earlsford Terrace, Dublin 2. See deveres.ie.
A watches and wristwatches valuation day, conducted by Bonhams, will take place at The Merchant Hotel, Belfast, on Wednesday. Specialist Charles Dower will look at anything, watch-wise, but expect an interest in military Rolexes, Patek Philippes and independent watchmakers such as George Daniels and Kari Voutilainen. Other popular brands include Vacheron Constantin, Cartier, Audemars Piguet, Heuer, IWC, and Omega. Valuation is free, with no obligation to sell, but you have to book. Contact: [email protected], +353 1 602 0990.Meanwhile, the tour of experts from Adam’s continues in Belfast on Monday 11 February; Derry on 12 February; Galway on 13 February; Limerick on 14 February; Killarney on 15 February; Cork on 16 February; and Kilkenny on 17 February. These valuations too are by appointment. Contact Katie McGale on +353 1 6760 261 or [email protected]
Antiques & Vintage fairs
The South Dublin Antiques & Vintage Fair is on Sunday at the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire, from 11am to 6pm. Expect around 40 traders, including some travelling from the UK, and Items ranging from rare books, coins and collectables to antique and vintage jewellery and silver. There will also be a selection of items for the home with antique and vintage furniture in many shapes and sizes. Admission €3.50. See vintageireland.eu.
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