Having had a query about the need for secrecy regarding John’s help with valuations, I’ll explain further. It wasn’t a problem as far as Russell was concerned, but John’s fellow dealers would have been angry with him for spoiling their game. There was a lot of pressure to join in the Knock and to get the goods for as little as possible. If it had been known, the auctions might have been boycotted for a few months and John would certainly have lost some friendships at the least. And, more simply, John and Russell rather enjoyed outwitting those dodgy dealers – the Knock may have been illegal but it was pretty near impossible to prove it was happening.
The other point was, however, that there wasn’t as much beautiful antique furniture coming their way. The Victorian and 20th century stuff was saleable – “brown furniture” has been unfashionable now for a good couple of decades, but it wasn’t then – but it didn’t interest Russell so much. He also realised that, with an increasing interest in more obscure and ethnic items, there was more scope to get things wrong. He was interested, knowledgeable and experienced, and also willing to ask someone else if he wasn’t sure – he was still learning to the end of his life, until the few last weeks when he was too exhausted by illness – but he was aware that being a provincial auctioneer was becoming less straightforward. The firm had a monthly auction and I’m sorry to say that I’ve forgotten which day it was. I have a feeling it was the third Thursday. They also had periodic property auctions (we bought our Lowestoft house at one in 1976) and an estate agency, which also acted as a letting agency, and had several office staff, a property negotiator and a full-time saleroom porter plus several hired for the auction itself. About twice a year, they had a high-quality auction with fine paintings, jewellery, furniture etc, but it was getting so that these special sales weren’t enough to please him.
I’ll pause for another anecdote that few people have ever been told. They had a very fine sale, which had had a lot of publicity. Of course they welcomed that, but Russell was uneasy. I’m fairly sure he had heard nothing specific but he had a suspicion…and he decided to spend the night at the saleroom. I think that there was a shotgun coming up for auction – I can’t remember how that worked back in the 70s, a licence certainly would have been needed, but anyway, it was there. It could have been an air rifle, I suppose. Anyway, sometime after midnight, he heard some sounds at the door downstairs – the auction house itself was on the first floor. He went to get the gun, loaded it and stood at the top of the stairs. As the robbers broke through, he switched the light on and stood in plain view, gun aimed, and invited them to come on up…..
It was one of the most exciting and hilarious moments of his life. He phoned me, full of glee, to say what had happened. I suppose he called the police, but there was no publicity and the sale went ahead later the same day – the thought of the awfulness if the staff turned up a few hours later and the place had been ransacked doesn’t bear thinking about. As it was, the miscreants scarpered in panic, while the Sage laughed theatrically (yes, I got the full played-out account). He hadn’t seen who it was, the light was behind him, and he never knew (he had his suspicions who was behind it, but it was pretty unlikely that person was there) and he didn’t much care. The tale would have spread behind the scenes and it never happened again.
All the same, it was yet another factor and he decided he wanted to change direction somewhat. He talked it over with me and then had a discussion with his partner David.