Spectator: Lucy Baring on auctions

On leaving school, my first job was working for a delightful Arab family, whose numerous business interests were not my concern. My tasks varied from making sure they had fresh fruit and flowers in their multiple Mayfair houses to delivering briefcases of cash before a gambling night. I was once asked by the diminutive company accountant to take his son to Great Ormond Street to find out why the boy was so small. The paediatrician and I were both baffled by this encounter.

My boss’s first wife had a penchant for Art Deco jewellery and instructions would clatter in from Jeddah by telex with items she wanted from Christie’s or Sotheby’s. I would set off for the auction house armed with lot numbers and my bidding limit and, apart when I bought the wrong lot for the wrong sum (I had added a 0 to both, bidding £4,000 instead of £400 on lot 40 instead of 4), she was usually delighted. Auctions have held a fascination for me ever since-and not only when spending someone else’s money. It has, therefore, been a little dangerous living next door to one.

I enjoy it from the moment I walk in. Initially-because I’m only browsing, after all-I don’t splash out on a catalogue. This is viewing day, when the poker game begins. There’s something about the other punters, the thrill of the unexpected, the feigned disinterest when an item catches your eye, the people watching and eavesdropping-a perfect blend of theatre and shopping. Inscrutable dealers lift the corners of rugs with their toes, husbands and wives disagree on the merits of floral sofas, rivetted plates nestle in boxes of Toby jugs and, before I know it, I can’t store the lot numbers in my head and the catalogue is marked all over the place.

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 This morning has been no exception. As I mount the steps to peer inside a charming gypsy caravan, one of the auction staff rushes out: ‘Zam says we’re abso-lutely not allowed to let you bid on this.’ I feel a tinge of regret before my eye is caught by the stacks of lost or stolen bicycles sent by the police. Then, I remember that it looks a bit like this behind our shed, so I rein in my magpie instincts. Garden furniture comes next, always seductive, before I move inside for the paintings.

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From holiday watercolours by amateurs to oils by Oliver Messel, the range is unpredictable. My heartbeat quickens when I spot some rough sketches attributed to Paul Maze, the painter who met Winston Churchill in the trenches during the First World War and who went on to become Churchill’s lifelong friend and artistic mentor. Paul was a friend of my parents and, when we visi-ted him for tea as children, he gave us each a painting-I’d know that signature anywhere. Within seconds, a man sidles up to say quietly: ‘They’re fake.’ We have a short conversation, each convinced the other is somehow hiding or playing a trump card.

Charm bracelets, tea caddies, velvet dresses, motorbikes, stuffed animals, sheet music, birdbaths, box brownies, Edwardian ping-pong sets, 18th-century buttons, slip-top spoons-it’s all there. Or, actually, here. Our house is so full of successful bids that when my friend Clarissa, who lives in a white-and-beige house near Geneva, came to stay, I caught her taking photographs of the chaos. ‘It will cheer me up,’ she said, ‘when I’m back in the land of the immaculate, to remember some people actually live like this.’

As I later found her snapping the car footwell, I’m not sure I can blame my acquisitions entirely.
On sale day, the rhythm will ebb and flow as dealers bid discreetly, their gestures barely discernible. I will want to thrust my arm skywards as if answering a question. But no, I am reformed, I am resolute, I am not going to bid. I’m only going in order to see who wins the five-drawer wooden chest, stuffed with hundreds and hundreds of shark’s teeth, each drawer beautifully labelled with where, on the south coast, they were found. Oops, I don’t mean wins. I mean buys… buys… buys.

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