Working at an auction house is often a very rewarding experience. Many experts start as porters and it’s a great way to learn about antiques. There was a porter in the ceramics department who knew more than most experts, and over 30 years had handled a bit of pretty much everything. Every object must be found and moved several times during the sales process. You very quickly learn to identify age, maker and style.
Some days were not so rewarding however. I started at Sothebys South, which was a 19th century Jacobean style country house, much like Dunstan Hall. It had uneven floors and big heavy doors fitted with security key-pads and closers. It also had the kind of hushed, hallowed atmosphere usually associated with museums and libraries.
Duties included delivering to the various departments items taken in at the front desk for sale. One such item was a pair of 18th century porcelain Staffordshire candlesticks. These each took the form of a cherub standing on one foot on an acanthus leaf base holding aloft a candle. The pose was typically classical with one leg bent slightly back at the knee and the face looking up with unabashed love and reverence.
They weren’t sculpted to be well balanced as I discovered when one of the security doors abruptly closed on me as I passed with the loaded tray. After a brief argument with each other one lay on its side with a detached arm.
The head of the department wasted no time reminding me how these had survived intact for 300 years before making my acquaintance, and how pedantic the client had seemed. Not to mention the cost of the impending restoration.
After failing to sell, and the client refusing the payout offer, it fortuitously fell to me to deliver them to the front counter when the client came to collect them. I was obviously very careful negotiating the security doors but it was as I set the tray on the counter in front of the client and extracted my fingers from under the flat base, that the slight movement caused the candlesticks to judder resulting in the restored arm dropping off.
There was a sharp intake of air by all those present followed by a distinct change in facial colour by the owner. In fairness he was quick to point out that there was nothing I could have done to have been more careful. Followed by the line ‘I blame the damned buffoon that broke them in the first place!’
Suffice to say I was about as popular as a pork pie in a synagogue that day. Moving hundreds of works of art every week may be an education but it can come at a cost.