John B Keane: Healthy competition makes for good auctions

THE FIRST auction in which I was personally involved took place many years ago.

THE FIRST auction in which I was personally involved took place many years ago.

Being auctioned were the effects of a deceased schoolmaster. He had been a man of some taste and consequently there was a good deal of speculation as to the number and quality of the items which would be arrayed before the public eye on the big day.

My interest lay in a bunch of National Geographic magazines and luckily for me the bidding did not commence for these ‘till well out in the day.

If it had taken place earlier my personal interest in the proceedings would have been finished and I might have missed much that would turn out to be of some value in my later years.

The auctioneer was elderly, energetic and dispassionate. The first item for auction was an enamel ewer and basin. Not to this day have I seen such an unprepossessing brace of bedroom accessories. Both were heavily chipped and battered but this did not prevent a stout, red-faced woman from bidding half a crown for them.

No sooner had she opened her mouth then another woman, cadaverous and crotchety in appearance, bid three shillings.

The red-faced woman upped her by a tanner and back and forth flew the bids until the item was sold for the princely sum of seven and sixpence. The stout woman was the buyer.

She could have bought a perfectly new ewer and basin of pure enamel for less, but that is not the point. The point is that she outbid a rival and the victory, though Pyrrhic, was sweet.

Larger, more valuable items came and went. There was no personal rivalry for these and consequently I lost interest.

However when certain well-nigh useless articles came under the hammer there was a countryman wearing a large black hat always willing to have a go.

In fact, the same gentleman began most of the bidding but opted out when the going got tough.

For a while I thought he might be a crony of the auctioneer but he was anything but. This was how he got his kicks. He opened the bidding for a double bed with an offer of ten shillings knowing full well that it would go to several pounds before the bidding ended.

He was quite safe in bidding for those larger items, for he always pulled out in plenty of time. On two occasions, unfortunately for him, he was caught.

The first time was when a chamber pot made of china and having a large crack down its entire side, was put up for auction. He bid one shilling and a few moments passed without another bid. The pot was his.

The second time was when he bid for an old piano and when I say old, I mean it. Now this man and any sort of piano did not belong together. With a gay laugh he bid ten shillings.

His mouth opened with astonishment when nobody else bid higher. Nor was there a reserve on the instrument. The piano was his.

This piano was what those in the trade call a glugger. In short, it was stuck in by somebody else in the hope that it might be mistaken for the teacher’s piano.

The teacher, in fact, was an indifferent fiddle-player but this was known to very few. So our friend was left with a chamber pot and a useless piano.

Nobody would have blamed him if he vamoosed and did not meet his obligations when the time came came to pay up. Instead he waited to the end and forked up willingly.

Then the National Geographic magazines came under the hammer.

“What am I bid for this fine collection?” the auctioneer asked.

The countryman with the hat raised a finger and bid a shilling. I raised the bidding by sixpence and the magazines were knocked down to me.

I believe I could have got them for a threepenny bit if the man with the black hat, who had no notion of buying them, had kept his mouth shut. I could have kicked him.

The auction wore on and there was an obvious needle between the cadaverous and the red-faced woman whenever articles worth five or six shillings were held up.

One of these was a broken bellows. The man with the hat opened with a shilling. The two women took over. Nobody else was interested. It went to nine shillings before either drew breath.

They were by this time in real trouble because this was more than either could afford. The last bid was made by the red-faced woman. There was a lull.

“Going,” said the auctioneer.

“A pound,” the cadaverous woman shrieked hysterically. There was all-round amazement. The bellows was knocked down to her. For years afterwards I saw the same bellows used as a glugger at several auctions. It was bought only a short few years ago by an antique dealer.