January 17 2010
A rusty cream enamel Rayburn cooker and a hideous pre-war distressed-oak dresser best suited to a cheesy B&B on the Kingston bypass were the only objects still in Cherry Tree House when Alex and Eleanor Lowe-Roberts crossed the threshold of their newly acquired second home. The young couple had bought the rambling Cotswold cottage as a retreat from their pressurised jobs in the City. It was in reasonable nick and only needed a lick of paint, a new cooker and some decent sticks of furniture, the latter to be acquired from the auction house Davis, Davis & Hughes.
Immediately after moving in, Alex and Eleanor had sold the dreadful dresser through the auctioneer, receiving the sum of £120 – minus commission – and now the couple intended to buy the basic kit for their house at the sale rather than at, say, Ikea (Alex’s record on flat-pack assembly was not good).
The local auction house, commonly under the wing of an estate agent, is a rural institution where the curious contents of gentlemen’s residences, artisan dwellings and agricultural outhouses go under the hammer at regular sales, with many pieces sold several times over as death, divorce and debt circulate the bits and bobs throughout the district.
Davis, Davis & Hughes’ “antiques and general” sale was just such an auction. Its activities might not have troubled Sotheby’s or Christie’s but it was a considerable cut above the average car-boot sale. It was a trove of brown furniture, pedestrian paintings, chipped china and bizarre tat. Metal tractor seats, tapered “pig-killing” benches and stuffed squirrels were the norm. Where else, for example, could one purchase Lot 72, a Dansette gramophone, sitting on Lot 90, an Ekco hostess trolley, next to Lot 117, a fibreglass Samsonite suitcase containing a Victorian coal shovel, a pair of mounted eagle claws, a horse-hoof ashtray and a chipped Royal Doulton figure of a spaniel?
The twice-monthly sale was held on a Thursday in a modern steel barn at the end of Farm Lane. Inside it looked like the prop room from the television series Heartbeat, peopled with dealers from Lovejoy, most of whom were wider than the Dartford Tunnel.
Alex and Eleanor were given a number scribbled on a large piece of white card. They squeezed past the sharp traders and bottle blondes wearing Butler & Wilson bling and sandwiched themselves between a Victorian washstand and an ungainly Lloyd Loom commode. Their intention was to bid for a scrubbed-pine kitchen table with a mahogany base with a catalogue estimate of between £150 and £180. When the lot arrived Alex held up his card. The bidding was slow. “Going for the second time,” said the bespectacled auctioneer to Alex’s offer of £40. The hammer was about to fall a third time when somebody coughed and the bidding began to hiccup, rising quickly at a tenner a time. Alex dropped out at £180, the table sold for £190.
“The Ring,” said a matronly figure sitting on a worm-eaten 19th-century rosewood piano stool on the couple’s right. She was referring to the ring of dealers who pushed up the price of an object until it was no longer profitable for one of them to buy, which meant that the public rarely got a bargain. (They also occasionally held down prices artificially by not bidding against one another.) The result of this practice was that by the end of the day’s trading, when over 1,000 pieces of bric-a-brac – from a cast-iron mangle (£80) to a moth-eaten mink coat (£35) – had gone under the hammer, the Lowe-Roberts had acquired only a pair of brass fire dogs (£120), a set of four kitchen chairs (£80) and a framed 1949 film poster for I Married A Communist (starring Robert Ryan) for 60 quid that Eleanor thought would look good in the downstairs loo.
However, a witty poster was no substitute for eating at one’s own kitchen table and so the couple leapt at the invitation to Sunday lunch from neighbours Jeremy and Fiona who had bought a barn conversion in the village two years earlier. Over Bloody Marys in the capacious living room the conversation turned to Davis, Davis & Hughes. Fiona interrupted with a squeal. “You must see our latest buy from them,” she said. And there, taking pride of place in the recently revamped Shaker-style farmhouse kitchen, was the ghastly “Kingston bypass” dresser.