The Subtle Theatrics Of Bidding at Auctions

IT was not so much the question itself, but what was taken for granted by the question. ``So what do you collect?'' The questioner was a dealer in Oriental antiques. What lay behind his assumption that everyone collects something? Experience? Hopefulness?

His question caught me off guard. When it comes to collecting I believe quite firmly in the left hand not knowing the right hand's doings. I've never admitted to being a collector, even to myself. Is this a sign of an uneasy conscience?

But I heard myself say, ``Well - bottles.''

``Ah,'' he said, ``18th-century bottles with seals?''

``More 19th without,'' I said. ``I'm not, you see, a wealthy man,'' I said. ``In fact, I'm a journalist, a feature writer.'' That revelation, I felt, ought to scotch any lurking optimism that I was about to buy one of his minuscule boxwood Japanese carvings with their majuscule price tags. He appeared to accept fate gracefully.

``Collecting is a terrible thing,'' I observed. ``Once it starts, it never stops. Buy one bottle, you've got to get another to go with it. Bottles are lonely alone. In fact bottles are happier in hundreds.''

He agreed. ``Terrible. Collectors are people out of all control, self-abandoned, inveterate, possessed, obsessed.... Should be nipped in the bud.''

***

Collecting is an investment, after all! A hedge against inflation. Pension-fund. One day there'll be a sale, assets realized, astonishing fortune made, astounding increase in values over years. That's it.

There is a little snag, of course. This: I'd sooner have leaky shoes and a tattered raincoat - I might even be willing to go without a boiled egg at breakfast - rather than part with my dearly loved, frequently pored-over, proudly shared collectors' items. The catch is: Collectors collect things they love to have. Things cost money to get, of course; but to part with them for something as crass, as meaningless, as disloyal, as mere money is disgrace writ large.

***

Talking of tattered raincoats, I saw a few this morning at the auction of watercolors and prints in Edinburgh.

I have attended auctions before - one of house contents held in a Yorkshire marketplace; a teddy-bear auction; an art-school auction. But I have never bid at an auction. I haven't dared. All these bidders, who are they? Japanese squillionaires. Yuppies. Oil magnates. Art dealers. Mums and Dads. Not feature writers.

But this morning I swept all self-depreciation aside. I knew exactly what I planned to do. I would bid for Lot 179.

I receive catalogs of upcoming auctions regularly from Phillips Scotland. I've scrupulously scanned every lot (the least I could do), and never once - among all the oils and clocks, mustard pots and rugs, printed books, boxes of tinted glassware, walnut tea trays, maps and dolls and postcards - have I found one single thing I wanted to own or keep. Until this sale. Until Lot 179.

I quote: ``179. BLAIR HUGHES STANTON. `The Hand,' Wood Cut, signed, inscribed, and numbered 2/20, Unframed, 24cm X 14cm and another Wood Cut by Agnes Miller Parker of a squirrel on pine tree. (2) 30-50.''

I'm aware that the appeal of this may not be immediately apparent to others. But Stanton and Parker are two of the most notable and admired wood-engravers (Phillips should know they didn't make ``Wood Cuts'') in 20th-century Britain. Stanton, whose work is somewhat fantastical or surreal, I can take or leave. But I wouldn't mind at all having an original impression of an Agnes Miller Parker wood-engraving.

***

The auction began at 11:00. Lining the walls were an array of what seemed to me minor watercolors in tawdry frames, some 157 of them. But the place was full. Bidding was energetic. Some items went rapidly, but others only after the auctioneer's head had almost wagged itself off his shoulders by toing and froing between head-nodding competitors.

No Tokyo tycoons here today, however. Instead, middle-aged men with bryl-creamed hair and loud, tweed jackets; county women with Queen Elizabethheadscarves; characters in tatty raincoats and leaky footwear bidding three figures for ``In an Arabian Doorway'' of 1889 or ``A Fairy by Moonlight.'' It seemed to take forever to plough through these washy old works.

When we'd arrived at the sale room, my wife had observed, ``I hope this isn't going to be boring.'' She soon found it was, and after admonishing me not to raise a finger by mistake, she absconded to buy some pillowcases.

The auctioneer seemed terribly sleepy, as uninterested in his minor triumphs as I was in the watercolors. But I studied form. These bidders were clearly habitu'es, and the minimal nonchalance with which they made their purchases was entirely admirable. A catalog would be momentarily lifted with absent-minded disinterest, and once the auctioneer on high had noticed this discreet sign, all that was needed to stay in the race was the merest twitter of an eyelid or inclination of the chin. If the price reached too high, the slightest sideways motion of the head indicated a bow-out.

Since I had never even thought of bidding at an auction before, I had had no practice in such subtle theatrics. Nor had I taken into account such things as commission bids and telephone bids.

Now I began to notice how the auctioneer announced he could start bidding at a certain figure, or a member of the staff would bid on behalf of some absent, but determined, person. Sometimes the estimate in the catalog for a given item would be about right. Once or twice it was slightly too low or high. Once it was hundreds of pounds off.

Almost two hours strolled by and then, at last we arrived at the final lot in the watercolor section. By now a brusque female auctioneer had taken over, and the pace had sharpened. This lot was obviously the star watercolor of the sale, the climax.

And then we were into the prints. Now I watched the figures carefully, noting how they varied from the estimates. Most of them were about right. But then an etching by the Swedish artist Anders Zorn climbed merrily to 850 over a top estimate of 300, and the experts got it even more wrong with a batch of large engravings after Nicolas Poussin. The estimate was 100 to 200. The final price was 1,300.

My lot was now, at last, rapidly approaching. I made two firm decisions. First, that I would on no account go over 80. I felt this was generous, given the top estimate of 50. Second, that I would bid with my left hand raised dramatically high to make very sure that swift lady yonder would see. Thereafter - as the bids would climb inexorably to my final, unchallengeable 80, and as the hall would fall silent in admiration at the boldness and unwavering determination of this newcomer who obviously knew a thing or two about these wood-engravings - I would bid by curt nods.

Lot 176... Lot 177... Lot 178! I admit it, a pounding of heart there was, and now ... the lady auctioneer: ``Lot 179.''

She looked down at her desk. ``Yes, I have a commission bid for this lot and can start the bidding at ... 150 ....''

***

So it was that I came away empty. I emerged into the sunlight of George Street to find my wife just arrived with pillowcases. To her questioning glance I replied by laughing. I went on laughing and chuckling for an hour or two at the final bathos that had crowned my lenghty but inexpensive morning.

I had been at a hunt but nowhere near at the kill. In a strange way I felt rather good about it. Disappointment can be oddly satisfactory. Perhaps, I concluded, bidding is more exciting the buying. Perhaps not bidding is more exciting than bidding. Perhaps the best thing about auctions is staying away from them.

In the car home, my wife, for no apparent reason, told me about a fellow teacher at her school who had one day seen a neighbor's droopy-eared pet rabbit. ``Oh I'd love to have a droopy-eared rabbit!'' she had exclaimed.

Some days later this woman discovered her husband constructing something with wood and nails. It was a rabbit hutch. She was horrified. ``I had to explain to him,'' she told my wife, ``that when I had said I'd love to have a rabbit, I didn't really mean I actually wanted to own one. I only meant - I'd `love to have one.' That's all.''

Now there's a fine distinction. And I wondered if collectors aren't sometimes like that. What we enjoy most is the feeling of wanting to collect some particular thing. The discovery, the research, the stalking, the competing, the capture - that's the best part.

But somehow, once the object is home and dry, factually in the hand, at last possessed, it unaccountably loses a certain ... luster.

The luster that imagination lent it.

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