Do you see this book that I’m holding? It’s Oliver Twist. Umpteenth edition and heavily foxed throughout. See those brown spots? That’s what we in the trade call foxing. I won’t bore you with the chemical process which causes it. Suffice to say, a collector wouldn’t touch it. Totally worthless!
I’d originally only popped over to view a set of Thackeray bound in fine Moroccan, but, before I can sally forth from the old two up, two down, the memsahib starts harping on about a chest of drawers for the spare room and orders me to keep an eye peeled.
There’s a couple of volumes missing from the Thackeray’s. Typical!
Anyway, it’s a bit thin on the ground in my line, so I saunter over to where the larger pieces of the auction are on display and I spot the chest immediately. I’m no expert on Edwardian furniture, but it certainly looked pukka enough to keep the old dragon off my back for the time being.
I casually pull the top drawer open and there staring up at me is this book, bound in white vellum. I flip the cover and the old ticker misses a beat. Alice in Wonderland. But no ordinary copy, oh no, this one is dated 1865, a full year before the official first edition.
You see, Lewis Carroll published the book privately in 1865, but the pedantic old sod didn’t like the illustrations, so he recalled them all. However, eight copies had already been sold, making this one as rare as hen’s teeth.
What’s it worth? I hear you ask. Three, four million, maybe more.
I'd already taken in the lie of the land. Luckily, the viewing had hardly begun, there being only a couple of old dears ransacking the china, so I lock the top drawer and slip the key into my pocket.
Then I notice Molly Hargreaves, a dealer from Bull Lane. She wanders over. Quick as a flash, I give her one of my toothiest smiles and try to steer her clear of the chest with general chit chat. But she’s already noticed me inspecting the piece and it doesn’t take her long to work out I’m interested. Eventually, I reluctantly admit that I’m thinking of having a shot at it.
It’s at this point she suggests I join the Ring.
Let me explain.
All auction prices depend on competition. Remove the competitive element and the price falls dramatically.
A group of bidders, usually dealers who would normally be bidding against one another and driving the price of the item up, join together and elect one person from the group to bid on all the Lots they are collectively interested in. In this manner no-one is in competition and the prices stay low.
Now here’s the clever part. Once the items have been purchased, the group buzz off to a different location; someone’s house or perhaps the back room of a pub where another auction takes place, only this time between them.
This is how it works.
If Lot 1, for instance, was bought for a hundred quid at the original auction, then that is the figure at which the bidding starts in the back room auction.
Say, for arguments sake, this item then reaches two hundred and fifty. The difference between these two amounts, the one in the original auction and the one in the back room, in this case, one hundred and fifty smackers, is chucked into a pot. All the items are bid on in this manner, the difference between the two prices accumulating into a sizeable chunk of cash. This money is split between the group at the end of the auction.
The upshot being that one gets the goods one wanted for the price one was prepared to pay at the original auction, but with a nice lump of readies into the bargain.
Not something the Long Arm of the Law looks too kindly on, mind you. Assuming one’s unlucky enough to get nabbed, that is.
There are six of us. Molly Hargreaves is elected to do the bidding and away we go. Everything goes swimmingly; all items are secured including the chest. All I have to do is bid on it at the backroom auction and I keep the old ball and chain happy for practically nuppence and get a priceless book absolutely buckshee.
We arrange to meet in an upstairs room of “The Hare and Pheasant” to wait for Molly. A couple of stiff gins and an hour and a half later there’s still no sign of her. Well, we’re all more than a smidgeon on edge and quite naturally we’re thinking the worst. Molly has given us the old heave-ho.
We were wrong. In one of those strange quirks of irony, her Volvo was hit by a brewery lorry on the Badbury ring road whilst on her way to the pub.
She wouldn’t have known a thing about it, apparently.
Of course, I hot foot it round to the auction house as soon as possible, only to be told all items purchased by Molly were now the property of her next of kin. This was her father, a cantankerous old duffer if ever there was one. I make him what I consider an extremely generous offer on the chest, but to no avail. There are a few items he wants to keep for sentimental reasons and that happens to be one of them.
After my fourth attempt, the old blighter calls the Boys in Blue. I’m given a stiff ticking off followed by a rather lengthy lecture on what constitutes harassment in this country.
Of course, all that was ten years ago now.
Then, last month, the old boy finally popped his clogs.
Look over my shoulder, slightly to the left, next to the Breakfront Bookcase. It’s that one there. Can you see it? Lot 317.
The top drawer is still locked, but fortunately I still have the key.