'You're like an undertaker when you clear a house'
Treasures: Ireland's Fine Arts, antiques and collectables column
Ninety-five percent of my time is spent saying a rather lonely word, No. If you're the type who likes saying No, then auctioneering is the game for you.
"No, unfortunately just a copy."
"No, not worth half that."
"No, no call for the top half of wardrobes these days."
"No, no point, we'd just be creating pointless paperwork."
"No, you'll end up getting a cheque for nothing, and worse, so will I."
"No, a futile exercise, nobody'll want it, I'll be standing on the rostrum chatting to myself."
"No, the artist may have been your beloved aunt but sadly she's unknown outside the family circle."
One could go on.
This is an extract from the January 26 blog entry of auctioneer Damien Matthews, who is also a house clearances expert. It highlights sadly that heirloom pieces, passed down through the generations, are often inherited by people who don't want them nor have room for them. And they probably won't fetch much at auction either.
"The family photos are the first to get thrown in the skip," says Matthews. "Then all the little mementos. Nobody cares."
Based in Kells, Co Meath, Matthews does a lot of house clearances. He also writes a very entertaining blog.
Typically, the auctioneers get a call letting them know that someone has died and asking them to do the valuation for probate. They go round to the house, go through all the contents, and give a valuation. That's a straightforward service that costs €150.
Then, about six months later, they get another call saying that probate has gone through and the house is ready for clearance. By this stage, the family have already taken anything that they want to keep.
"We arrive with a van and go through everything. We photograph it, list it, agree that there will be no reserve, and take it away."
A few weeks later, those objects deemed saleable go under the hammer. They will sell, but often for less than the owners hope. Then there are the auctioneer's fees, including transport and venue hire.
"I've worked it out," Matthews says. "If I hold a 900-lot auction over two days, it costs me €22 per lot."
This doesn't always leave much for the vendor.
"One good sale can make everything okay. If a cabinet sells for €3,000 everyone is smiling. But if it doesn't, the family might only get a cheque for €500. You're like an undertaker, providing a service," Matthews explains.
But, even if the house clearance sale doesn't raise a lot of money, it helps solve the practical problem of what to do with unwanted possessions. They have to go somewhere, and as Matthews points out, an auction gives them a chance to be resurrected and have a chance at another life.
Every so often, the house clearance process uncovers something unexpected.
In 2011, Matthews undertook the clearance of Annesbrook House in Duleek. Among its contents was a decapitated head believed to be that of Saint Vitalis of Assisi (1295-1370) the patron saint of genital disease. The head was enclosed in a 17th-century Queen Anne case and wore a crown of dried leaves. It was kept in an outhouse because it was believed to be bad luck, possibly for good reason.
Saint Vitalis' head sold for €3,500 to Billy Jamieson, a Canadian antique dealer and the star of History Channel's Treasure Trader. He died, at the age of 57, on the day that the deal was finalised.
Meanwhile in Co Wicklow, Arabella Page has recently launched ClearMove, a business that handles house clearances for her clients. It's a type of service that's well established in the UK, but new to Ireland.
"My great-aunt passed away and we had to clear the house," she says. "The experience made me realise how stressful a house clearance can be."
Typically, the process takes place in the six-week turnaround period after a house is sold and before its new owners move in. It's a narrow margin within which to deal with the contents of a house, possibly accumulated over generations.
Page offers a combination of emotional and practical support that begins with an inventory and valuation and ends with the final clearance and cleaning. The service costs €300 a day, depending on travel costs, and can be tailored to what people want.
"I'm almost like a personal assistant," she says. "The client only has to deal with one person, and that's me. I'll make sure that the contents of the house get put in front of the right people and that the clients know what their options are.
"We avoid skips as much as possible and move furniture on to auction houses or charities. Even sheets and towels are donated to animal charities so there is very little waste involved and the process is as environmentally friendly as possible.
"Most of what I do, my clients could do for themselves but they don't know where to start."
Occasionally, there are nice surprises.
"I was clearing out a cupboard at the back of an old house and I found a Belleek breakfast service. I'm not an expert, but I knew that it was old."
Page sent a photograph of the china to the auctioneers at Adam's, who identified it as a "Belleek first period ring-handle ivory ware part breakfast service" (est. €500 to €700). It sold at Adam's in February for €3,000.
See matthewsauctionrooms.com and clearmove.ie