I was supposed to be looking at the trains. That’s what you do on a visit to the National Railway Museum in York. And indeed I did look at them, and very wonderful they were too. After our visit we sat in the sunshine on a bench just outside the Museum and overheard a market research interview being conducted by a young member of staff with an elderly couple who might have been Canadian. One of the survey questions was “Did you see anything in your visit which made you feel emotional?”
I didn’t listen to their answer because my mind wandered to those aspects of my just-ended visit which had stirred my emotions, not theirs. Awe at the magnificent engineering and manufacturing achievement embodied in a steam locomotive. Astonishment at learning that the last one built for British Railways – a huge black beast from an antique age – went into service brand new in 1960, when I was twelve years old. Nostalgia at seeing ancient station platform slot machines such as I used to see at Marylebone station in central London en route for the steam train which my school would charter every week, bound for the games field at Sudbury Hill for rugby (Autumn term), cross-country running (Winter term) or cricket (Summer term). Please don’t, readers, go looking for parallels with the Hogwarts Express: ours was a strictly suburban journey with no magic and – for me – nothing but misery at the end of it.
And one more emotion collected in the Museum – a mild residual ruefulness about a silly mistake made several years ago.
Shortly before leaving the Museum, I had been admiring this nice red steam engine parked beside the café. On turning cakewards (as one does when near a café) my eye momentarily lighted upon a vase of flowers above the cake shelf. Not actually a vase, but a stoneware Virol jar, large size.
Virol was a concentrated patent bone-marrow-derived food with magical properties for building up strength in sickly and weedy children and adults. It sounds vile, but was popular and stayed in production from around the 1890s to the 1950s. You’ll get the idea from the advertisement above, published in 1950, which I found here.
Although a long-lived brand, Virol didn’t have the lasting properties of other meat or vegetable extract products such as Marmite and Bovril. But for over half a century it was sold in large quantities packed in jars made of stoneware and latterly of glass, each carrying the distinctive Virol logo.
Virol jars belong to a class of collectible that I am aware of but which doesn’t hold any great interest for me. However, there exist armies of collectors all around the world, keen to buy old branded bottles, jars and other advertising materials. The objects themselves are attractive to display, abundant, easily found (often in abandoned rubbish tips or middens), amenable to trading and well suited to classification and detailed documentation – so this type of object ticks all the boxes for the kind of collector that I am not: the completist. If you go to this website http://onlinebbr.com/about/ you’ll see what I mean.
You frequently see Virol jars in antiques fairs and car boot sales but I had never felt the slightest inclination to buy one until a few years ago in a charity shop in Corstorphine, a western suburb of Edinburgh, when I spotted a Virol jar (large size), just like the one in the Museum, and bought it for £7.50. I don’t know what it was about it that caught my eye. Perhaps it was the size. You usually only see small ones and this was a monster.
I brought it home and did some online research. Virol jars were produced in several sizes. Small ones are very common and large ones are scarce. If you’re a completist collector, you want one in every possible size. So you’ll pay handsomely for a rarity (picture sourced from here).
I listed my jar on eBay, hoping at least to get my money back. At the time, I was newly-retired and a very inexperienced eBay seller, having only listed and sold a few objects, but thinking that this would be an interesting and potentially profitable pastime for my retirement. So I was buying all kinds of miscellaneous objects experimentally in order to list them and see what did best. Was I going to make my fortune from Virol jars?
In the event the jar did very well. It attracted lots of bidders from several overseas countries, eventually selling for £79 to a buyer from Japan. Interestingly the underbidder was also from Japan. I wonder what it is about these objects that makes them particularly desirable to Japanese collectors? I did try vaguely to find out, but with no success.
And then I made the silly mistake – you remember, the one that made me rueful in the Railway Museum. Here’s what happened: I had published in my eBay listing a low overseas mailing charge of just a few pounds, based on my expectation of despatching a non-tracked, non-insured parcel weighing less than 2kg to an address within Europe. But now I was committed to sending a high-value item by airmail to Japan. It would require tracking and insurance, and once safely packed, I found that the damn thing weighed well over 2kg.
In very recent years, in response to the exponential growth of online shopping, there has been a phenomenal increase in the availability of international parcel delivery services. But back then, not all that many years ago, there was a much smaller choice of carrier and much less flexibility and competitiveness in the carriage options available. At the time (and perhaps still, but I don’t know because I haven’t sold much on eBay lately), it was important to try to keep the packed weight of an airmail parcel below 2kg, because exceeding this threshold triggered huge extra charges.
Naturally I didn’t want to go back to my buyer and ask him to pay extra costs for delivery. This would without doubt have resulted in negative feedback and probably a lost sale. So I had to grin and bear it. In the end, the carriage charges when added to eBay commission ate up all of the profit that I’d hoped to make on the sale of my jar, and a little more besides.
No-one to blame but myself. A lesson learned and then almost forgotten, only to be revived at the cake shelf in the York Railway Museum. But was it perhaps an early instance of the type of frustration and annoyance which led me before very long to realise that eBay trading in low-value antiques wasn’t quite my cup of tea or my jar of Virol?
So I more or less gave up eBay selling and decided to be a writer instead. Hence this blog and hence my forthcoming book Random Treasure – Antiques Auctions and Alchemy. I want my book to be a success. In fact, I hope it goes Virol.