Selling Flags

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There was a period of a couple of years after I retired from full-time work and before I started writing my book Random Treasure when I became a semi-serious antique dealer. Which is to say that I trawled the house for possessions that I could live without, and started selling them off fairly systematically. And then I started buying stuff in charity shops and local auctions for the sole purpose of selling them on for a profit.

Of course I could never have made a living out of it, and wouldn’t have been prepared to make the attempt. An office job with manageable hours, a regular income and a decent pension was ever the height of my aspirations. That’s not what you get if you’re an antique dealer. If you’re going to do it as your main source of income, it involves hard work and dedication and risk-taking of an order which I could never contemplate. Even if you are lucky enough to have some spectacular successes – as I have had on several occasions – the windfall profits will never be sufficient to compensate for the long and fearsome fallow times and the vicissitudes of the market.

I found, however, that my post-retirement dabblings in the selling of antiques gave me considerable enjoyment and a modest profit. I would probably have carried on if I hadn’t found another outlet for my sparse energy resources in the writing of my book. From the first sentence until the day of publication, the book took nearly four years. I leave it to readers to judge whether it was time well spent, but during that extended period I scarcely sold anything at all (although I did find time to keep on buying).

Random Treasure was published in September 2017, and in the following few months I was kept busy trying to publicise it and to promote sales. But now, finally resigned to the inevitability that my literary efforts haven’t produced a best-seller, my marketing efforts (such as they were) have tailed off. Coincidentally, one of my regular voluntary commitments, as an adult literacy tutor, has ended because of local council funding cuts, and I have also retired from chairing a charity committee. So I find myself with more time on my hands, and I’m going back to selling.

Availability of time is not the only reason for this. There are two other reasons.

Here’s the first: at the very end of 2017, both my wife Frances and I came down with very nasty cases of flu. We were almost completely out of action for most of January 2018, and have only felt reasonably normal since around mid-February.

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Part of our garden pictured from the house in last week’s snow.

Question: how is flu connected with selling antiques? Answer: intimately. We have lived for the past 20 years in a 3-storey Victorian house, just the two of us since the children left many years ago and the dog died. Our house is too big for us. It has a complex slate roof, stone walls, 160-year-old window frames, and a huge garden. It needs work done and money spent. It’s full of stuff. In January we were both feeling so ill that we could barely get up and down the 37 stairs from kitchen to bedroom. We thought: we can’t manage any more in this house, we’re too old, we’re too ill, we’ll never get better, we’ll have to move somewhere smaller and easier-to-manage, let’s sell up and buy a nice modern flat.

We invited agents in to value the house. We went to see a lovely affordable apartment for sale in a nearby modern development. We told our daughters about our plans. They approved. We were all set.

Then we felt better. Suddenly it was: we can’t leave this house, we love it, we still have a residue of youthful vigour, we can manage for a few more years yet, that modern flat has no character, let’s just stay here.

We told the agents that we aren’t interested in selling or buying. We’re staying. But on reflection, the experience of sudden illness was a shock to our systems. What if it happens again and we don’t get better? What if one of us is left alone? What if we both go and the children are left to clear the house? Shouldn’t we do at least something to reduce the stuff?

Here’s the second reason why I’ve gone back to selling: as a displacement activity, defined here as “something done needlessly when procrastinating”. The truth is that I don’t really need to sell things and I don’t really need to sell them right now. But I’ve got something else more important to do and keeping myself busy selling on eBay is a good way to avoid doing it.

That something else is . . . writing my next book. I know what its subject will be; I’ve got a structure sketched out in my head; I have amassed a considerable amount of material; I have even told a few people about my plans and they are waiting eagerly for me to get on with it.  But it’s going to be very hard work, needing lots of research and lots of writing and lots of thought and lots of time. I’m scared of the scale of it. So I’m procrastinating. Selling makes me think I’m doing something useful with my time. It stops me feeling quite so guilty that I’m not writing the book.

So I have time available and two good reasons to resume selling. Well, one (to declutter) is a good reason. The other (to avoid writing a book) is an excuse, not a reason.

But what should I sell?

I’m not concerned about the good stuff – our girls know in general terms which objects have any significant value, and they will be helped by my catalogue (see the series of blog pieces starting here) to identify them and to select the best means of disposal. And I don’t care much about the bad stuff – that can all go to house clearance contractors or the local saleroom or charity shop. No, it’s what’s in between, the curiosities and obscurities in the attic or shut up in cupboards, objects which haven’t seen the light for many years, but which might, just might, have a value.

Take for example my collection of flags. I had forgotten all about them until I started to think about what could be moved on. They were in the attic in a box under many other boxes. I hadn’t looked at them for decades. No point in keeping them. No way that my daughters or the clearance men would expect them to have a value. I wondered if they would sell?

Flags? You might reasonably ask how I happen to have a collection of 33 vintage and antique flags. To explain, I need to wind the clock back a very long way.

Here I am in 1971, a slim, youthful undergraduate at the University of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland. Together with a small group of like-minded (i.e. equally eccentric) fellow students, I spend most Saturday afternoons not partying, not boozing, not snoozing, not studying, not spectating or taking part in sports, but attending jumble sales in search of interesting and unusual objects and treasures.  Jumble sales are very rarely encountered today, but in those days before the invention of charity shops, eBay, Gumtree or Craigslist, they were a mainstay of charity fundraising, and the best way to get rid of unwanted but not quite valueless articles.

I guess I need to describe a jumble (or rummage) sale to those younger blog readers who have never had the privilege and pleasure of attending one. It would usually be held in a church or scout hall, and would be organised by volunteers from a local charity or church, who would spend weeks beforehand collecting donations from supporters. The goods would be roughly sorted and set out on long trestle tables – women’s clothing, men’s clothing, household goods, bric-a-brac, home baking, toys, etc. No articles would be individually priced – prices were determined by the volunteer who was in charge of the table, and gentle haggling was permissible.

If the sale was to start at, say, 2.00 p.m. in, say, the Victory Hall in Market Street, St Andrews, an orderly queue would begin to form outside the doors from around 1.30, comprising local families, supporters of the charity, collectors, occasional dealers and a few students. It was essential to be as close as possible to the front, because when the doors opened at 2.00 sharp, the quiescent orderly queue instantly turned savage and became a disorderly rabble, dashing towards its target table to fight for and seize the best items of jumble. Although sales were usually advertised to last for two hours, to all intents and purposes they were all over within the first ten joyous minutes of elbowing, scrambling and grabbing, during which you might be lucky enough to pick up something really good for a few pennies – or you might just miss out on something which you’ll regret for the rest of your life. In those days in St Andrews, you’d sometimes see boxes of old golf balls including featheries and gutties which would be worth hundreds or thousands of pounds apiece today – but of course I didn’t know that then.

20180311_120551.jpgMy flags were bought in jumble sales at around this time, most of them, I recall, in one bundle, and the remainder one or two at a time in three or four subsequent sales. Jumble prices were ridiculously low: to give you an idea, on one rash occasion (at the Salvation Army Hall) I bought a Victorian mahogany chaise longue for ten shillings (50 pence) and a matching chair for five shillings (25 pence). Years later I sold the couch for £165, but the chair still adorns the spare bedroom. I don’t remember how much I paid for the flags, but there’s no way I would have spent more than five shillings (25 pence) on the entire collection. Probably much less. Incidentally I’m giving prices in old and new currencies because in February 1971 British money went decimal, replacing the old currency (240 pence or 20 shillings to the £1 sterling) with a new one (100 pence to the £1). My flag purchases were made close on either side of the change.

Readers might be wondering why a 22-year-old hippie-ish left-wing politically-active student would wish to own a bunch of old Union Jacks and related nationalistic emblems? Here are my credentials: in late 1970 I returned to Scotland from a year at a university in upstate New York – a year in which I had become deeply involved in the student protest movement against the US war in Vietnam. I had marched in demonstrations, gone on strike, helped to collect and burn draft cards, churned out multiple column inches of anti-war polemic in the student newspaper. I had worn flowers in my shoulder-length hair, grown a Zapata moustache, experimented with a number of substances, attended rock and blues festivals (but not Woodstock), and hitch-hiked solo from San Francisco to New York.  I had been briefly arrested in Wyoming and threatened with guns in California and Idaho. I had slept out under the stars in the Painted Desert of Arizona, on the plains of Nebraska, and on Route 66. So what’s with the flags?

You might perhaps associate gratuitous displays of flags today with extreme nationalism, anti-immigration policies and xenophobia. You might think that ostentatious waving of the Union Jack, the St George’s flag of England and the Stars and Stripes symbolise the most right-wing and unpalatable aspects of militarism, Trump and Brexit. You probably won’t expect to see much of this kind of behaviour on campus.

the whoBut it wasn’t like that in the early 1960s and ‘70s. The Union Jack, especially, was the height of cool. Pete Townshend of The Who started the fashion by wearing on stage a jacket made from Union Jacks, causing affront and disgust to the entire older generation, and, of course, hysterical delight to the entire younger generation. Flags were everywhere, worn and waved not as acts of patriotism but in an ironical sense to show youthful rebellion. A similar phenomenon recurred slightly later in the 70s with the Union Jack used by the Sex Pistols to raise two fingers to the establishment, and then again in the 90s, by Ginger Spice in an effort to add a touch of much-needed piquancy and edge to Girl Power: 

“the wearing of the flag, with an attitude more of irony than national loyalty, has come to define the look of subculture perhaps more consistently than any other artefact” (Quoted from http://louderthanwar.com/the-union-flag-pop-culture/).

In this context, perhaps it isn’t so strange that I should return from the jumble sale, fix strings diagonally across the bedroom ceiling in my shared flat, and suspend my 33 flags therefrom, so imparting to my room an air of coolness and trendiness not shared by other student digs. Well, perhaps it’s a little strange. But the room appeared thus when my new girlfriend Frances saw it for the first time, and she’s still with me 47 years later, so it was well worth doing.  You couldn’t do that sort of thing now – it wouldn’t pass the fire risk assessment.

In June 1972, I took down the flags, left the flat, left university with a moderate degree, then got a job, got married, had children, endured a professional life, had grandchildren, retired, wrote a book, started de-cluttering. The flags stayed in a box, moving from cupboard to garage to attic over the years until I disinterred them just a couple of weeks ago.

Perhaps I should finally get around to describing them. The core of the collection appears to have been assembled to decorate a room – perhaps the very hall where the jumble sale took place? – in celebration of the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. The centrepiece is a souvenir Union Jack with a wreath in the centre showing portraits of the new King and Queen. Accompanying this are flags of England (St George’s Cross), Irish harp flagScotland (lion rampant) and Ireland (the Irish Harp surmounted by a crown – a superb image and by far the most beautiful item in the collection). Marine interest is represented by blue and red ensign flags. Then there are larger versions of the Union Jack and the White Ensign, and two small Stars and Stripes (one with 48 stars, one with 49). And a dozen small Union Jacks, five of which are still attached to their sticks for the purpose of waving at royalty. And a couple each of French and Dutch tricolours. Images are shown in the slide show at the start of this piece. The largest flag is 68 x 46 inches (173 x 107 cms), the smallest just 6 x 4 inches (15 x 10 cms).

I divided the collection up into thirteen lots and listed them for auction on eBay, with a starting price of £10 for each lot. If you’re interested, you can see a sample listing here. The response was fantastic. Twelve out of the thirteen lots sold. Ten lots received competitive bids. The wonderful Irish flag was viewed 288 times and got 18 bids from eight different bidders. Nine lots went to buyers in England, one to Scotland, one to the Republic of Ireland and one to Texas. The two French and two Dutch flags, grouped together, were the only lot which didn’t sell. Total hammer price: £434.52. A breakdown is shown in the table below. An excellent and unexpected return for an original investment of five bob.

Flag table

What have I learned from this exercise?

  • That there are a lot of enthusiastic buyers of antique and vintage flags out there;
  • That the unlikeliest objects, if kept for long enough, can return a nice profit;
  • That eBay is a wonderful resource for selling certain specialist and easy-to-post types of antiques;
  • That my attic (and, blog readers, perhaps yours too?) contains a modest trove of random treasure;
  • That I can write a blog piece of more than 2,500 words about almost nothing (I probably already knew that); and
  • That I’m capable of cutting through sentiment and nostalgia for lost youth, and getting rid of stuff that I don’t need any more.

So overall, a profitable and enlightening episode. Highly satisfactory!

 


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