GOING, going — gone!

2012-07-13 00:00

FOR years, I assumed auctions were for the well-heeled, those who had a lotta loot to spend — I obviously watch way too many movies.

Auctions are not all at Sothebys, involving rich women in faux fur glaring at other rich women fighting over a Ming vase.

Auctions have gone to the people. They have proliferated on the Internet and made everyone a bargain hunter. If you don’t like the price on something at your local superstore, you simply go online and see if you can find it at a cheaper price — make a bid for it and wait to see if you get lucky.

Bidding at an auction is like respectable betting. The advantage at an auction is that you don’t lose, you just lose out.

I decided my foray into the auction world had better be at the modest end — I went to the household-items auction at Cannon and Cannon Auctioneers. It is the oldest auction house in Pietermaritzburg. The showroom in Hilton is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of trinkets and antiques. Attending these auctions is addictive for some, while it provides entertainment for others and is a novel way to bargain hunt. I spotted a dinky little maroon chair, my friend did too, and I hoped that no one else would see its quirky appeal, but of course seasoned bargain hunters all act nonchalantly, while secretly coveting the object of their desire. The trick, I am told, is never to hover around the object that you really like.

The small items are auctioned first, and then the furniture is auctioned later. But I was not here to buy, I was here to observe. You have to arrive before 9 am sharp, if you want to get in on the action. Seasoned bidders arrive and sift through the motley collection of furniture that is assembled in rows facing the podium, their faces expectant.

The items for auction have been on display for a few days, and they have been marked into lots with bright orange stickers. The lots are a strange collection of bedfellows — not always uniform in value or by association. A nine-carat silver toothpick holder could be in the same lot as a grimy old beer mug and a ceramic fish platter. It is all about discerning the most valuable item in the lot, and deciding what you would be prepared to pay for it. Bidders register at the back counter and receive a ticket with a number on it. This allows them to bid for items, and it helps the auctioneer register the final bids. I settle down to watch and am amazed as Ross Arbuthnot gets to work. Not missing a beat, he barely glances at the lots, looking only at his notes.

Lots start at R10 or R20. and steadily climb up in R10 increments. I find his voice hypnotic and almost sing-song. Perhaps, I wonder, that’s how people get hooked. It’s the subliminal melodic intonation of the auctioneer wooing them to part with their hard-earned money.

In the background, the auctioneer assistants efficiently move the lots into view for display: “Here we have a copper pan pancake maker, do I have R10? [someone nods]. Ten, 20, 30, 30, 30,40,40, 50, 50 … can I go 60, do I have 60 anywhere?” He scribbles in his notebook, and the next item appears into view.The audience are a mixed bag of people, some in tracksuits and jerseys, others in the genteel clothes of the idle speculator, one man in a farmer’s uniform of shorts and boots. He seemed inordinately pleased when he managed to get a George Foreman griller for R40.

Sitting in the front row is Hilton gardening royalty Nancy Gardiner gently sipping her coffee from a cardboard cup, courtesy of the neighbouring restaurant. They provide auction clients with a take-away service. Gardiner told me she loves to go to the auctions and see what is on offer. Her home is a beautiful assortment of antiques, paintings and collectibles. Others in the audience are there to stock their shops. Laurel Engelbrecht said: “I just love the thrill of buying something that has history. It has been owned by someone else and you can see it’s been loved and used and treasured by someone else, compared to the stuff you get in the shops today. The things you buy at auctions are valuable and cheap.” Engelbrecht owns a shop in Pietermaritzburg called Gogo’s, selling used furniture and décor. She said she first became interested in antiques and old things when she was disinherited by her family. “I was very bitter and then I said to myself, ‘I can buy my own old things that have been handed down from generation to generation.’ I just got hooked.”

Andy Breedt also buys for his two shops, Bouton and Bargain Basement, in Ladysmith. He said you have to be able to spot a real bargain. “I usually come in with a budget and I know what I want to buy. Occasionally, I go overboard when I see something that is out of the ordinary.” He also collects Boer war memorabilia from 1898 to 1904, and this is when he splashes out.

Sisa Mtombela has come to watch. Her sister, Thembeka, has told her to bid for the mattresses, which will be up for auction soon. “These ones are better than the sponge ones we can get,” she explained.

I am amazed at how Arbuthnot can detect the bidders. To me, the novice, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. They barely indicate their bids, but he is an expert in body language — an imperceptible nod is a “yes”, a frown is a “no”, a purse of the lips is a maybe. His eyes scan the room for the two people who will engage in a tug of war for an item. Then he eggs them on until one of them shakes their heads to indicate the game is off. Occasionally, he injects humour into a process that has become like a shopping list.

“A genuine antique jockey helmet, made of leather and metal … if the rider of Jackson had been wearing this at the Durban July, he would have fared much better,” he quipped. Another interesting item was Mrs Beeton’s Household Management, a large leatherbound volume printed in 1923, which would have been invaluable to the conscientious housewife in the thirties. It was snapped up for entirely different reasons I suspect. Cannon and Cannon has a monthly antiques-and-collectibles auction, which attracts bids from overseas investors. Auction owner David Cannon says that while he and his wife, Noelene, appreciate the antique pieces that come through their doors, they don’t collect antiques. “I am happy with my role as a conduit, and I admire and let these fine pieces find their real home.”

His grandfather started the business in 1943 and when he went to war, his grandmother, Dorothy, took to the podium, becoming the first women auctioneer in the country. Cannon says his job is to keep on top of prices and to constantly do research on the value of items, so he can accurately advise his clients.

He says the role of the Internet has changed the nature of the business. “We are no longer just selling to local bidders but we can offer our items to a global market, which means that our clients are exposed to a wider audience.” Noelene often takes phone calls from bidders on the telephone during the auction, and it can be quite exciting. She said: “Two women were set on buying the same leather wing-back chair. At some point, reason went out the window and they were bidding way beyond the real value of the chair.”



According to ancient Greek records, the first auctions date as far back as 500 BC. The most popular auction items of that time were women auctioned off as wives. About the time of Christ, Romans auctioned off family estates and the spoils of war. Roman soldiers would often drive a spear into the ground, around which the spoils of war were left to be auctioned off. Later slaves, often captured as the “spoils of war”, were auctioned in the forum under the sign of the spear, with the proceeds of the sale going towards the war effort. In early America, colonists auctioned off livestock, crops, tobacco, slaves and farms for quick, easy cash.

After the French Revolution, auctions came to be held in taverns and coffeehouses to sell art. Such auctions were held daily, and catalogues were printed to announce available items. Such auction catalogues were frequently printed and distributed before auctions of rare or collectible items. In some cases, these catalogues were elaborate works of art themselves, containing considerable details about the items being auctioned. Today’s auctions offer many items for sale, such as property, machinery, guns, appliances, housewares, tools and clothing. On-line auctions advertise their wares for several days, allowing more time for non-impulsive bidders to make decisions about items they wish to bid on. Sotheby’s, now the world’s second-largest auction house, held its first auction in 1744. Christie’s, now the world’s largest auction house, was established around 1766.

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