This is a cautionary tale. It starts with a fox.
The fox has been a regular visitor to our garden in recent weeks, spending early mornings snoozing under a dwarf acer in the herbaceous border. Already I hear murmurings from pernickety blog readers: An acer in a herbaceous border? How shocking! Well, yes, I’m afraid we do allow a few non-perennials to get into this flower bed, mostly because they were planted there before we decided pretentiously to refer to it as a herbaceous border. But we are not purist gardeners, and any attractive plant which takes up a decent amount of space and doesn’t need much attention is most welcome to grow on any part of our plot.
The fox doesn’t care about the niceties of suburban gardening, and we don’t mind it coming and going now and again as long as it doesn’t decide to take up permanent residence and start a family. It leaves a strong smell behind but otherwise it’s picturesque and causes no trouble. I have no desire to hunt it or kill it or destroy it. In this respect my feelings towards it are entirely unlike the emotions which I experience in relation to a second Fox which has just come into my life, along with a Badger, a Mole, a Squirrel and a Rabbit.
No, there isn’t a Toad as well. We’re not in Wind in the Willows or Toad of Toad Hall territory. Neither, sadly, are we in the Hundred Acre Wood with Christopher Robin, Pooh and Piglet. Instead, we’re in my local auction room where, last Saturday, I accidentally bought a taxidermy tableau of unparalleled hideousness.
In the world of art and antiques, I have many likes and few dislikes. I collect, or have collected, ceramics, books, paintings, prints, rugs and textiles, coins, gramophone records, sculptures, woodcarvings, furniture, kitchenalia, garden antiques, and much else. Where I don’t collect, I can appreciate the preferences of other collectors: silver, jewellery, glass, postage stamps, and so on and on and on. But never taxidermy. I hate it.
I’m not a hunter. I don’t like the idea of killing animals for sport, and I abhor the idea of killing them in order to stuff and display them. Unlike the manly but villainous Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, I don’t “use antlers in all of my decorating”. This distaste has potential to cause some tension in family relationships.
I live in Scotland and am related by marriage both to people who shoot and fish for sport, and to people who earn their livelihoods from deerstalking and gamekeeping. In this company I tend to keep discreetly silent about my effete and citified aversion to killing and stuffing animals for pleasure.
My wife Frances feels as strongly as I do about taxidermy. Despite this, she is the owner of one example of the genre, which she keeps under wraps in the attic. It’s a red deer’s leg, which has been preserved and mounted on a silver-plated base and surmounted by a sconce to form a candlestick. Now why would she own an object as unutterably horrible as this?
Because the object is an heirloom, that’s why. It has been retained in her family since it was brand new in 1904, the year when her grandfather Ebenezer left a village on the island of Mull to settle in the town of Oban on the west coast of Scotland. On the occasion of his leaving, the Lady of the local estate caused a farewell message to be engraved upon the base of the candlestick, and presented it to him. History does not reveal what services Ebenezer had performed to earn gratitude from the Lady in the form of a deer’s leg candlestick, but my theory is that he assisted her in some way with her pet project to improve and beautify the small Scottish Episcopal church located on her estate.
Ebenezer’s Leg, as we tend to call it, has been passed around within the family for more than a century. Frances is its current custodian only because she weakened when her elder sister threatened to throw it in the bin while moving house a few years ago. Since then, we have tried repeatedly to pass it on to one of the younger family members, but (unsurprisingly) in vain. Our main hope for its future lies with a nephew, in direct descent from Ebenezer, who is a senior engineer with NASA at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, and who hopes to become an astronaut. The family’s fervent wish is that he will take the Leg aloft with him on his first flight, thus giving it a place in history as the first item of taxidermy in Space. Better still, we wish our nephew to take Ebenezer’s Leg on a mission to Mars. And to leave it there.
But I digress. Back to my cautionary tale.
This blog piece is being written during the Great Coronavirus Lockdown of 2020. Not the least onerous of the draconian restrictions imposed by Government is the enforced closure of all of my regular sources of Random Treasure. For weeks and weeks there have been no charity shops to trawl, no antique shops to browse, no auctions to bid at, nothing coming into the house for me to investigate and blog about. It’s been a disaster.
But slowly, a version of normality is re-emerging. Both of my local auctioneers have begun to take tentative steps towards full re-opening by offering sporadic online-only auction sales. This has been hard work for them because, with hands-on viewing difficult or impossible for most bidders, they have had to raise their game in terms of the quality of their photography and their cataloguing of the items for sale. However, I understand that for auctioneers generally, online sales during lockdown have tended to be very successful, with a higher than average percentage of lots sold, and better prices. I assume that this is because bidders like me have passed many weeks starved of opportunities to buy, and not only are we craving to start accumulating objects again, but we have been saving our money and thus have more to spend.
Last Saturday, one of the Edinburgh salerooms held an auction featuring 333 lots of general antiques, pictures, jewellery, silver, furniture and collectables. Naturally, I spent some time poring over the online catalogue, and decided that I would register to bid live at the sale with the-saleroom.com, an internet bidding platform to which the auction was connected.
There were a few pieces of pottery for which I might have paid a modest amount, a couple of rugs, two lovely country chairs, and an early oak chest of drawers. I didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with any object (as I often do) but was looking forward to tuning in to the live broadcast of the auction, perhaps to submit a bid or two in the hope of getting a win.
I had some household chores to do that morning, and didn’t have time to sit at my desk and watch the auction all through. So I made a list of the lot numbers of interest, and went about my other Saturday-morning business, checking on my phone now and again to see if one of my numbers was about to come up. It is usually easy to predict quite accurately how a sale will progress because each auctioneer will in normal circumstances sell at a personal rate of so many lots per hour. Say for example that a sale begins at 11.00 a.m., and you know that the auctioneer sells at an average of 120 lots per hour. So if you’re interested in Lot 180, then you know to get ready to bid around 12.28. It’s pretty reliable.
Unfortunately this rule-of-thumb didn’t work last Saturday, which was why I had to keep checking in with the auction website. The auctioneer’s usual selling rate of 120 lots per hour was impeded by technical issues with the online bidding platforms she was using, and by the simple fact that, for the auctioneer, online bidding is much slower than the traditional method of standing at the podium watching for hands or paddles to be raised among the crowd in front of you. It’s difficult to encourage hesitant bidders whom you can’t see and who might be thousands of miles away or experiencing line delays. On this occasion the sale was moving forward at a snail’s pace of around 80 lots per hour.
The next lot that I was interested in was number 249, a Qashqai lion rug. Not my favourite kind of rug, but a fairly attractive example with a low estimated price. At what I thought would be an appropriate time, I switched on my phone to check progress, noting with slight annoyance that the current lot number was 226, so it would be necessary to wait another 15 minutes or more before my lot was exposed for sale.
And then it happened, in the briefest of moments. At the time I consulted my phone, I was standing in a room in my house where the wifi signal isn’t always completely reliable. The phone screen froze. I clicked the back button to get it going again. In doing so I inadvertently touched the blue BID NOW button on the bidding screen provided by the online auction app. With horror I saw the bidding button change from blue to green and a message appear saying YOU ARE IN THE LEAD. Oh no! I had accidentally submitted a bid for lot 226!
In a panic, I jabbed the back button again, vainly attempting to undo what I had just done. This time the phone bounced out of the auction app altogether and returned to its home screen. On logging back into the auction website a few seconds later I discovered the awful truth. No-one else had entered a bid for the lot. The auctioneer had knocked it down to me as the first and only bidder. The price at the fall of the hammer: £260.00.
I had entered into a binding legal contract to buy lot 226. But what had I bought? I braced myself firmly, and tentatively read the catalogue description: a taxidermy group of a fox, badger, squirrel, mole and rabbit, on a plinth base, 107 x 80 x 30cm.
Oh Lord, what had I done?
If you visit small-town museums anywhere in Britain, and perhaps also in other countries, there’s always a room-full of glass cases containing tableaux of dusty dead moth-eaten stuffed wild animals, placed there by late-Victorian forebears to help teach children about Natural History. These days, of course, we have HDTV and David Attenborough, but then, you learned about Nature by looking at taxidermy. This dimly-lit gallery is usually the very last room on your tour, and it’s usually deserted, but sometimes it contains a group of bored-looking primary-school children accompanied by an over-enthusiastic teacher. You take a quick glance at what is in the glass cases and you make a hasty exit.
Now you know what my taxidermy group looks like, except that it isn’t protected by a glass case and is therefore dustier, deader and more moth-eaten even than the average small-town museum exhibit. Much more so. However, I only know this from the photo in the online auction catalogue. I haven’t been to the saleroom to visit it. Can’t bear the thought.
Here’s the photo. See what I mean?
My accidental purchase took place around lunchtime on Saturday and thereafter I was much too flustered and woebegone to bid for the lion rug or any of the other subsequent lots in which I had been interested. Instead, I immediately emailed the auctioneer confessing my error and begging her to cancel the sale, arguing that she knows me and my taste in antiques, and could easily see that it would have been impossible for me to bid for lot 226 except by accident. However, I conceded that if she wasn’t prepared to cancel, I would pay up but would ask her to retain the ghastly object at her premises and re-sell it for me in her next sale. I didn’t get a reply – because of course the sale was still proceeding – but later that afternoon I was devastated to receive an email invoice for £322.24, being the hammer price plus buyer’s commission, bidding fees and VAT.
As you can imagine, I spent the remainder of the weekend in a welter of misery and anxiety. Would the auctioneer cancel the sale? Would she re-sell the object for me? What might the re-sale price be? Would she charge me the full buyer’s premium on purchase followed by the full seller’s commission on re-sale? How would I explain myself to Frances? It was a bad, bad weekend.
First thing Monday I phoned the auctioneer. Yes, she had just seen my email. Yes, she was surprised to see such a fast and high bid come in for the lot. Yes, of course she understood that it was all a terrible mistake. Yes, she would put the object back in her next auction. Yes, she would cancel the sale to me. Yes, the invoice for £322.24 had been sent out automatically and I should simply ignore it.
Phew! Panic over! My auctioneer had behaved in a reasonable, straightforward, honest way, as she always does. I can forget about the whole horrific episode.
But it’s difficult to forget. I have been a regular attender at auction sales for more than half a century. I’ve even written a book about auctions. It has always been axiomatic to me that it’s impossible to bid by accident. Countless times I have encouraged nervous novices to attend auctions by saying “no, no, you won’t inadvertently make a bid if you scratch your ear: the auctioneer always knows who’s bidding and who isn’t”.
But here’s the caution in my cautionary tale. It ain’t like that any more. If you’re bidding online in a spot where your broadband signal is dodgy, you can find yourself in deep trouble. And if you are not well-known to your auctioneer, you might have difficulty extracting yourself from an accidental bid. What if it was a Picasso at £20 million instead of a taxidermy group at £260?
You might end up just like lot number 226: stuffed.