It was when living in the country in 1988 that my first marriage came to an end. I decided to move back to London in 1989, buy a small house, and rid myself of all the impedimenta that had accumulated over years of life in larger establishments. So a selling-up of objects was planned.
In a division of things marital I had already parted with a valuable painting from my collection and, for its security and cost of insurance, was glad to be no longer responsible for it. I was getting a taste for what I think is now called “downsizing”. The prospect of ridding myself of items for cash became quite a seductive one.
So, when waiting for an expert valuer to appear at the desk of a London saleroom to look at some pieces that I thought might fetch something, I glanced at the catalogue for a forthcoming sale of oriental porcelain and objects d’art. And there, illustrated in colour, was a jar, not unlike the one in which I had kept my paint brushes for the past forty years or more. Should it be of worth, I resolved to sell it, and use an old honey pot instead.
So the next time I was in town, I visited Christie’s saleroom with my jar – having extracted the brushes, scraped off the incrustations of decades of paint, and given it a good scrub in soapy water. I had never seen it looking so glowingly well as I eased it from the wine box used for its transportation to London.
The authority for this kind of thing arrived from behind the scenes, gave it a quick glance and, in lofty tones, pronounced it to have been crudely decorated. My high hopes for making a fortune were cruelly dashed.
“Late Ming, of course,” she continued.
What would come next? If she said five to fifty pounds I would take it home and continue to use it as a brush pot – or even for flowers. Now that I knew more about my pot, I was becoming even fonder of it – for its bulbous shape, and even the “crudity” of its decoration.
“I think we should put a low reserve on it”, she said. I nodded.
“Let’s say £180 and hope for more”.
I made out that I, too, had hoped for more. But as there was a wine tasting I was about to attend, and was reluctant to leave a late Ming pot, however crudely decorated, among the wet raincoats of fellow wine writers, I agreed to the sale. It disappeared into the depths of their storage rooms.
A month or two later the sale catalogue came through my letterbox. They had thought my crudely painted pot to be worthy of a black-and-white photograph. Paintings that I have had to sell in the past, and which warranted a photograph in the catalogue, had the extra cost of photography deducted from the proceeds, but only after my consent. On this occasion there had been no request.
From the expert’s estimate of £180, the “suggested” settling price in the catalogue had been placed at £200-£300.
The day of the sale came and went. I was unable to attend.
Just after the sale date, and too late to have any influence, an article in the Times announced that high prices were being taken for Mings in Hong Kong. I waited for my cheque.
When the statement came it read: Lot 207 sold £580; Commission £58 (VAT at 15%); Charges: Insurance £5.80 (VAT at 15%); Illustration charges £35 (VAT at 15%); VAT at 15% on £98.80 - £14.82; Net proceeds £466.38.
We were all happy. The buyer had the Ming pot. I had more money out of it than expected. Christie’s had done pretty well. An insurance company had gained on the transaction. Even the uninvited photographer, who probably contributed to its higher-than-expected price, got in on the act for just clicking the shutter.
And all this was for an old paint brush jar.
A more spectacular auction was to come many years later, in 2006, when one of my paintings (a 1954, 2’x 4’, scene that included The Shed at Chelsea Football Ground) came up for sale.
The Christie’s recommended guidelines were for a price of £1,000 to £1,500 – which seemed to me to be more than satisfactory should I obtain it.
So along I went, with several of my family and friends, to see the fun.
I had had some previous information that it would sell when someone telephoned me from out of the blue (traced through the net) to say that he wanted to buy the picture at auction, would go to £2,000, and that he would like to reproduce it and sell the prints, possibly with my signature attached. So it looked as if it would be sold. Moreover, my hopes rose even higher when I heard that there would be telephone bidders. In the small print in Christie’s catalogue it stated that bidders by telephone would only be accepted if they were willing to pay the minimum price of £2,000. So these pre-auction omens were good ones. And my family would not be witnessing my disappointment - and almost disgrace - should it fail to reach the reserve, meaning that I would have to take it back.
The saleroom at the auction house was surprisingly small, but well attended.
After what seemed to be an over-long wait for the action to begin, the lady auctioneer came to the rostrum. But her microphone was not working. “We can’t hear you,” shouted a customer from the rear. The fault was rectified, and the sale began
During the sale of early lots there was a constant stream of porters passing through the room with furniture.
Lots came and went as porters held up the paintings and drawings for them to be bought with the clout of a gavel and stacked against a wall. Two paintings fell from these stacks, making a considerable noise. Thankfully, mine was in a stout frame and unglazed.
It seemed to take an age to reach my lot, number 122.
The lady auctioneer started by saying that there was a lot of interest in my lot and that she would start the bidding at £1,600. I had sold it. What a relief.
With five telephone bidders and bids coming from various quarters of the crowd, my brain became a little numb. And being somewhat enumerate I became a bit lost by the speed of it all.
Bidding went up by £50 a time until it reached £2,000 – then by 100s until £5,000. After that landmark they rose by 500 a go until the bidding reached £10,000. From that figure they gathered speed at 1,000 a go until reaching £20,000. Now the bids were raised by £2,000 a time until the under bidder gave up at £28,000. Down came the gavel.
Our happy band congregated at the rear of the saleroom, hardly believing what had just happened.
The press statement I was given afterwards stated that my painting was the “top lot” (which seemed to have some importance), and that the successful bidder was a private bidder who would have to pay £33,600 – being the hammer price plus buyer’s premium. I was led to believe that the under bidder was a dealer.
It was a quite astounding result. What with that Ming vase, and now this, I do seem to have some luck in the auction room.