The story of an antique Chinese vase, found in a house clearance in Pinner and sold for £43m in a small auction room, was a suburban fairytale. Was it also too good to be true?by Sam Knight / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
On a Thursday evening in late March, with the clock above his head showing twenty past six, Peter Bainbridge climbed into the rostrum at his auction room in West Ruislip. A large man in his early sixties, with owlish eyebrows and thin grey hair that he combs back, Bainbridge was wearing a tweed jacket with a handkerchief in his top pocket. He folded himself into a wooden chair hidden by the rostrum and leaned forward.
Bainbridge was resuming an auction of antiques and general effects that had started at 11am. As yet, the murmurings in the saleroom—a beige warehouse crammed with dining tables, rocking horses and grandfather clocks from the 954 lots that day—had not died down. A freelance auctioneer had spent the afternoon selling off “the smalls”: the clocks, books, records, china and bric-a-brac that clutter the homes of the nation. Bainbridge, as he always does at his monthly sales, was about to get rid of the furniture. He picked up his gavel and without waiting for the talking to stop, introduced lot 800, an uncertain family of pine furniture that included a coffee table, chairs, a “magazine rack-cum-television table” and two shelving units.
Bainbridge opened the bidding: “OK-twenty-pounds-to-go-going-to-start-at-twenty-pounds-anyone-for-twenty-pounds,” he said in a voice that held no space for a pause. “Twenty-pounds-now-showing-ten-I-will-take-your-bid-now-ten-pounds-anybody-for-a-tenner-nobody-for-ten-pounds-OK.” Finally he took a breath. “Remember if you don’t buy now it will cost you double afterwards.” There were no buyers, and 154 lots to go.
Next up was 801, which went without a fuss: a dining table and chairs for £20. Then Bainbridge was off: he sold a sewing machine, a mahogany bureau and an oak desk in quick succession. The saleroom, whose atmosphere was a cross between a National Trust tearoom and a bookmakers, began to wake up. “Let’s sell these quickly before they find they’re missing,” joked Bainbridge, as he rattled up the bids on a set of old gates. Bidders, perched on chairs that were to be sold later that evening, either sat glazed, listening to the march of money—“thirty-thirty-five-forty-forty-five-fifty”—or else ticked through their catalogues, doing sums in their heads. When Bainbridge opened the bidding on something they wanted, they stiffened and nodded. A man in a black fleece delivered his winning bid of £240 on a set of garden furniture with a short punch to the air.
These, though, were the embers of the day’s trade. By the time the auction entered…