There was a bit more to Russell leaving his auctioneering business than just wanting to spend more time with us. There were two other factors.
One was that he wasn’t getting on so well with his business partner. They worked well together to start with, but then the other guy left his wife for another woman. Russell was very sorry for the wife, whom he liked very much, and he didn’t like the other woman and he lost some respect for his partner too, because of how it happened. I don’t know details, it was a long time ago and it’s not my business – but she became more involved in the firm and Russell found that hard to take.
The other thing was the nature of the auctioneering business, in a couple of respects. When Russell had done his training in London and got his first job in Ipswich, antique furniture tended to be mostly Georgian. Victorian and Edwardian, not so much and later again simply wasn’t thought of as antique. Times changed and Russell started to realise that dealers were sometimes getting away with paying less than they should.
You may know about “the knock.” It’s not legal, but it can be hard to prove and it happens. A group of dealers get together and agree that they won’t bid against each other, the lots will be bought as cheaply as possible and, afterwards, they’ll hold their own private auction and share out the goods between them. If the reserve for an item is at about the sum it’s worth, they’ll get a limited profit but if the vendor doesn’t have a reserve or the auctioneer hasn’t advised well enough, they will make a financial killing. I should make it clear – if you and I went to an auction together and you admired one item and I said, I’m glad you told me you were going to bid because I like it too, but I won’t bid against it: even if you reciprocated on another lot, or if you sold one part of the lot to me, there’s nothing illegal about that. It’s the organised nature of it and the private auction afterwards that isn’t lawful.
Russell realised that he and his partner didn’t know enough about good 20th century furniture, which was very saleable back then. I’ve kept quiet about it all these years, but there’s no need to be any more – he and a fairly local dealer came to an arrangement. The dealer came along and told Russell what pieces should fetch, Russell adjusted the reserves accordingly, the pieces sold for more money and the dealer was given a small commission. Russell learned the ropes and was able to advise vendors more accurately in future.
Russell said that he soon found how it worked. Joe Bloggs from the junk shop started the bidding. When it got to a price that Joe wasn’t comfortable with, Mary Middle would carry on. Once Oliver Posh got involved, he knew that he was getting near the right price, for a good piece. Of course, there were sometimes private buyers bidding and it was interesting to watch that too. Sometimes, the dealers would back off, but if they felt that the bidder was throwing his weight around a bit, they’d have fun. They’d run the bidding up to more than the piece was worth and then land him with a big bill – of course, the risk was that he’d stop before them and they’d be landed with it.
I suspect things are rather more transparent now. This was before the days of published estimates, for a start (though they can be wildly inaccurate and annoy me somewhat). Anyway, he and his dealer friend John were never found out, though the dealers obviously realised the game was up somewhat and probably thought that the Sage had just done his research.
The Knock didn’t always go smoothly. We heard once that two dealers fell out and one chased the other down the street, brandishing a big knife of the machete persuasion.
Russell really loved antiques, though and, whilst interested to find out more about the value of relatively modern stuff, it wasn’t what he was so interested in selling. And I’ll have to leave you with another cliffhanger, because it’s time to go and cook dinner. Tomorrow (or whenevs), darlings