Scouring clearance sales for top quality furniture with a difference
'Auctions are a cool way to get your hands on lovely and unusual stuff,' writes Eleanor Flegg
I've lost my heart to a claw-footed, hairy-legged Georgian serving table. It's a vast piece of furniture and it looks like you'd need to feed it raw meat. I stroke its sleek mahogany surface, almost expecting a growl of pleasure.
"How much do you think this will go for?"
The auctioneer thinks for a moment: "Maybe between €1,500 and €2,000."
Then he points out that I would be unlikely to get it in the front door of my two-bedroom Victorian cottage, let alone into any of the rooms. This enormous piece was made for an enormous house and an entirely different way of life.
I'm in the Herman Wilkinson Auction Rooms on Dublin's Lower Rathmines Road, talking to David Herman who has worked here for 50 years.
The Georgian table will be sold in the antiques auction, which runs every six weeks with items selling for up to €5,000, but there is also a weekly furniture auction where humbler items change hands.
"The weekly auction is our bread-and-butter," says Herman. "The antiques auction is the icing on the cake. It's important to have both. The auctioneering business is like politics – lose your grass roots and you're gone."
We cross the yard to the weekly auction, where nothing is likely to fetch more than €400. The rooms are stuffed from floor to ceiling with everything from wardrobes to fridge-freezers. It's chaotic, scruffy and exciting.
"All of human life passes through here," Herman reflects as we pick our way between solid but unfashionable three-piece suites.
He shows me a set of old leather suitcases balanced on top of a cupboard. "That's been to Paris," he says, pointing out the travel label. "The more labels, the better people like them." From decades of experience, he's got a very astute idea of what will sell, and for how much. In general, items sold at the weekly auctions go for between €15 and €300.
He shows me a piano (very hard to sell nowadays because people haven't got the space); a radio the size of a fridge (a collector's item); an old family bible; a coal bucket; a ladder; a barometer; a fire screen embroidered with a picture of a dog. There is a lovely Victorian wardrobe that will sell, he reckons, for around €300. And a number of huge Chinese urns.
I'm a bit sceptical about the urns. "What would you do with those?"
"One of them would make a good umbrella stand," he suggests. "It will probably go for about €40 and no-one else will have an umbrella stand like it." Buying at auction is often a matter of imagination. Amid the jumble of the showroom, you have to work quite hard to imagine how a piece of furniture will look at home.
The weekly auction doesn't have a catalogue but the staff will give you a pretty good idea of what the items will go for and, if you feel intimidated by the bidding process, you can ask them to bid by proxy for you, up to a specified amount. Herman's advice to new bidders is to come to the viewing and decide what they want to bid on. "It's a touchy-feely business. The spur of the minute decisions are the ones that we make our money on."
Most of the items in furniture auctions around the country come from house clearances.
"When a family suffers a bereavement and need to clear out the house, they call us in," says Herman. "We sell it to the highest bidder and take a commission." Out of the corner of my eye I recognise one of my neighbours testing the robustness of a well-worn chair and a couple of men in leather jackets closely examining the contents of a cardboard box.
"I might sell a box of oddments for a tenner to a dealer who would sell the items in the Galway market for a tenner each," Herman says. "There are people making their livings out of this place."
Do they ever let valuable items slip through for low prices? "Oh yes," he says, "but those are bought by specialist collectors who know what they're looking for."
The average punter is unlikely to buy a genuine Chippendale for a fiver. That's because the auctioneers know their business. What you will find is plenty of decent, interesting and incredibly cheap furniture.
Unlike a lot of furniture for sale in the shops today, much of it is handmade, expertly crafted, finely detailed and of solid wood, often oak and mahogany.
If you wanted a kitchen table, for example, and were prepared to spend a few weeks looking, you would probably find a good quality one for around €100.
Buying at auction is more time-consuming and less predictable than buying from a shop. It's also much more fun.
The next day, I go back to see David Herman in action. He's selling old furniture like there's no tomorrow. He loves it which is probably what makes this auction a life-enhancing experience. This auction is certainly much of the soul of Rathmines.
Mrs Williams of Rathmines is an auction veteran. "When we were furnishing our house in the 1970s, I would go down to the auction with a budget of £20. There was a pall of cigarette smoke, a handful of dealer-types, and horrible greasy landlords furnishing bedsits in the worst possible way. There seemed to be a huge run on commode chairs and I once saw a stuffed dog, somebody's pet!"
"We were buying heavy dark Victorian furniture that nobody else wanted and we couldn't possibly afford shop prices. You needed to be handy, though, to clean them up. I bought a lovely military chest with brass corners and found a newspaper folded inside from 1913. Once I bought a pair of high-backed Windsor chairs covered in the most disgusting grey varnish. We took it off and found the most gorgeous pinky blonde wood underneath."
More recently, Mrs Williams went back to the auction to furnish her daughter's house. She feels with buying at auction the rules of common sense apply. "It's a case of Buyer Beware. You look for woodworm and ask yourself – does it smell funny?"
Meantime in the more rarefied atmosphere of fine art and antique auctions, there are still good deals to be had. "There is a lot of value in furniture that happens not to be in fashion," says James O'Halloran of Adams Auctioneers. "People talk disparagingly about 'brown furniture' but we see some fantastic bargains in good straightforward Victorian and Edwardian pieces. The better quality stuff from Ikea is easily as expensive as some of the furniture that passes through our auctions."
O'Halloran is keen to debunk the aura of snobbery associated with buying antiques at auction. "A lot of people are a bit afraid of the auction business," he says. "The vast majority of the people who buy at our auctions do know what they're looking for, but there are also people who just like the look of something and buy it. Spend a few months exploring, going to auctions, and get a feel for what's involved. Do your homework. With the internet, there's no excuse not to."
Buying at auction, as O'Halloran explains, is not about trying to outwit the system. It's a cool way of getting lovely and unusual stuff. "Buy what makes you feel good," he says. "Go for the thing that gives you a bit of a buzz. But don't get carried away. Give yourself a budget and stick to it."
www.hermanwilkinson.ie; www.jamesadam.ie. For listings of auctions around the country check out collectireland.com and www.myantiques.ie