The Dealer: Gorillas in the midst of an auction house

Just when you think you’ve bagged a sleeper, the hunt can go very wrong, discovers antiques dealer Ian Butchoff

One of the ways we source our stock is by trawling the internet, which is a very slow  process that very occasionally reaps results. We had such a moment when Peter, my researcher, alerted me to a 17th century French cabinet on stand that was to be sold at auction the following week, in a sylvan corner of England’s green and pleasant land.

The auction house – no Christie’s or Sotheby’s – operating from an unprepossessing ex-agricultural building in the middle of farmland, normally handles antique items from the lower-third division, bankrupt stock, household clearances, and, in this particular sale, as well as the cabinet, there were the contents of a defunct toy shop, including Matchbox toys, Barbie dolls and Star Wars figures.

“We were truly excited indeed, as we thought we had discovered what is known in the trade as a sleeper”

The cabinet on stand was probably the best piece the saleroom had ever handled. Of considerable size, it was constructed in carved ebony, (the French term for a skilled cabinet maker, “ebeniste” derives from this root, and similar cabinets are to be seen in Windsor Castle, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Louvre, among others). 

We were truly excited indeed, as we thought we had discovered what is known in the trade as a sleeper. The cabinet was estimated by the saleroom at £10,000-£15,000, a figure, from our point of view, a fraction of its true worth.

Personal inspection was necessary, with questions such as, was the stand contemporary with the cabinet? Had alterations or adaptations been made? Were the hinges, locks and handles original? Was it of the period? How were the proportions? The colour? The quality? Was it a “looker”? And, finally, what was it worth?

“On the sale day, we returned to the well-attended saleroom, finding the only seats available were next to a life-size model of a silverback gorilla, which regarded us with disinterest and more than a little disdain”

Peter and I arranged with the saleroom for a private viewing before the official view day, thus avoiding the mêlée that invariably occurs on viewing days and, most importantly, have uninterrupted inspection.

Armed with torches, since this saleroom is dingily lit, and magnifying glasses, we set off early on the four-hour drive to the saleroom. The cabinet did not disappoint. It was a jewel of Parisian cabinet making and, surely by the ebeniste to Louis XIV.

Bearing in mind that ebony was an expensive raw material, even nearly four centuries ago, and only a very skilled worker would have been permitted to carve it, it was made, no doubt, for one of the great and the good of the period and, if we bought it, would require further research. The discussion between Peter and me on the return drive to London was nothing less than very animated. We had surely found a sleeper.

A week later, on the sale day, we returned to the well-attended saleroom, finding the only seats available happened to be next to a life-size model of a silverback gorilla, which regarded us with disinterest and more than a little disdain.

Peter observed we had found ourselves next to a lucky mascot, which we ought to own, and I told him he should take more water with his whisky.

The sale commenced, and at once we were into the Barbie dolls, Star Wars models, the auctioneer extolling their possible worth when we were all dead and gone. Bids of a fiver were notable.

Peter was deeply immersed in The Times crossword, surfacing only to put his hand up to buy the gorilla for £50, claiming the gorilla was now the official Butchoff mascot and, having Mr Gorilla with us, how could we fail?

So, the three of us waited with anticipation for lot 267, the cabinet. It was now on the block, and suddenly the auction woke up.

Saleroom assistants appeared with mobile phones, the auctioneer asked if the internet bidders were all on line and smirked as three important dealers from London and the continent entered the room. Bidding started at £10,000, went quickly up to £50,000, and then started to pause. Encouraged by Peter and Mr Gorilla, I joined in the bidding, and quickly found myself bidding £90,000. 

At that point, a man I had not noticed before who looked rather like a local farmer and was standing behind a pillar, raised his paddle.  Eventually, after some excited bidding between the two of us, I reluctantly put down my hand as I had bid more than I intended, and it was knocked down to him for £120,000 which, when the auctioneer’s buyer’s premium had been taken into account, amounted to nearly £150,000. 

A not insubstantial amount for a cabinet estimated at just £10,000 – some sleeper indeed!

Feeling very deflated and defeated, we paid for our purchase and strapped him unceremoniously into the back seat, ready for our long journey home. As we pulled away from the auction room I swear I heard Mr Gorilla utter with a sneer in his voice “you should have kept bidding”.

Read Ian’s last column A traveller in an antique land

Ian Butchoff is the founder and owner of Butchoff Antiques, located on Kensington Church Street . He entered the trade aged 11 and is today recognised as a leading authority on 19th century furniture. He is a co-founder and board member of the dealers’ association, LAPADA, and will be writing a regular column for Londonlovesbusiness.com.

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