Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other
papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 3 - Mock Auctions
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PASSING along one of the most crowded thoroughfares of
the city the other day, I was attracted by the arrangements
made for the sale of a "respectable tradesman's
stock." Large placards pasted on the shop-windows announced
that Mr. Ichabod had the honour to announce
to the nobility and public in general, that he was about
to dispose of a valuable stock by order of the proprietors; and long slips of paper shooting diagonally across the .
whole shop-front, like a flight of rockets, inscribed with "This Day," in large letters, testified to the vehement·
desire of the proprietor to realise without more delay.
The dishevelled state of the goods in the window well
seconded these outward. appearances. A plated coffee-pot,
of rather florid design, with a deep smear of tarnish across
its bulging sides; a candlestick, with resplendent glass pendules, ornamented with doubtful ormolu
work; and a
lady's work-table of papier maché, varnished to within an
inch of its life, and so deposited as to show the full glare
of the flagrant rose wreath that ornamented its top; spoke
of the rather mixed nature of the stock now in the agonies
of dissolution within.
As I entered the shop the bidding was not very active, [-36-]
nor the company large. Indeed, the group of bidders looked almost as lifeless as the figures in a stereoscope, and
the lots passed with pantomimic silence. No-one looked
round, but it was evident my footstep over the threshold
gave a gentle electric shock of pleasure to the assembled
company. The auctioneer seemed suddenly to find his
voice, the bidding grew brisker, and the splendid china
tea-service, as if by magic, seemed to become the object of
keen contention; the whole company leapt at once into
life, as though I were the fairy prince who had suddenly
broken into the enchanted palace.
I ventured to ask a tall gentleman, who volunteered to
assist me in my biddings, for a catalogue. They were not
selling by catalogue that day, he said, as the trade were
not there; and I should therefore embrace the opportunity
to get bargains. Taking a quiet but comprehensive glance
around me, I certainly could neither see any signs, nor smell
the proximity, of that lively race which is indigenous to
ordinary sale-rooms. There was a tall man, dressed in a
brown coat, that hung down to his feet, with a face long
and lean, and of a most simple expression. His modest
white neckcloth, neatly folded beneath his old-fashioned
waistcoat, and his rather large hands encased in black
woollen gloves, gave me the idea that he was the respected
deacon of some provincial Zion. As a contrast to this
unsophisticated individual, there was a rough man in top
boots and corduroys,. with a huge comforter tied in a great
bunch under his chin; whilst in his hand he held a cudgel,
greatly exaggerated about the knots. He might have
been a drover. The rest of the company were remarkably nosey and breast-pinny.
"Come, show the gentleman the matchless Dresden
service," said the auctioneer.
Whereat the company instantly seemed to part down
the middle, and I found myself raked by the piercing eye
of the presiding functionary.
My friend the deacon appeared all of a sudden to take
an amazing fancy to that splendid service, for he stretched
out a nervous hand to examine a cup, when it slipped
through his fingers, and broke upon the floor. My friend
apologized for his awkwardness, and begged to be allowed
to pay for his mishap; but the auctioneer would not hear
of it it was quite an accident he was among gentlemen,
who would treat him as such.
My heart began to soften; possibly it was a genuine
concern, after all: I actually made a bid. It had been a
bad day, I suppose, in consequence of the "absence of the
trade." Be that as it may, the sight of a naked foot-mark
did not more astonish Crusoe than did apparently the
sound of my voice the assembled company. "One pound
ten," I cried.
"Why, you're a making game," said my tall friend.
"Why, it's a hundred-guinea set.
Two pounds ten."
"It's only Stafford ware," I retorted.
"Only Stafford, is it?" he remarked, with a faint
laugh: "I should say they was Sayvres."
But the auctioneer held me with his "glittering eye."
"Let the gentleman come forward," he said: "they
was made for the Grand Dook of Saxe Coburg, only they
wasn't finished in time."
" Indeed," said I: "that was a pity."
I suppose there must have been some peculiarity in the [-38-]
tone of my voice, for I instantly perceived that I had incurred
the displeasure of the gentlemen around me, and
my position was beginning to grow rather unpleasant, as
all the noses and breast-pins converged upon me in rather
a threatening attitude. The deacon alone looked mildly
At that moment I was aware of a fresh footstep on the
floor, the same gentle electric shock as before seemed to
pervade the bidders, and the rather bloated gentleman in
the rostrum gave a slightly perceptible start, just as a
spider does when a bluebottle blunders into his web. And
now I discovered how it was that the company could see
so well what was going on behind them; for on the opposite
wall hung a looking-glass, and in it I could see an
unmistakable country clergyman timidly looking at a "genuine Raphael."
"Jim," said the auctioneer, sotto voce, "tip us the old
In a moment the "Grand Dook" tea-service was
knocked down to a sulky-looking bidder in a blue bird's-eye
cravat, and Jim staggered beneath the weight of a
remarkably brown Virgin, encased in a resplendent frame.
"The pictures I have the honour to submit to your
bidding this morning, gentlemen," commenced the auctioneer,
in the most impressive voice, "have been brought
to the hammer under the most peculiar I may say unprecedented
circumstances. The late proprietor a nobleman ransacked the stores of foreign collectors, and purchased,
regardless of cost, the few, but priceless gems I
now have the honour of submitting to your notice. Unfortunately,
circumstances have compelled his representa-[-39-]tive
to realise, without a moment's delay,-in short, they
must be sold for what they will fetch. The first lot,
gentlemen, is a genuine Raphael, originally in the collection
of Cardinal Ritz. It is a genuine engraved picture,"
remarked the official, examining some apocryphal memorandum through his gold eye-glass,
"termed the Virgin
and Twilight, which accounts for the dark and solemn
nature of the subject."
The noses and the pins now became violently agitated.
"Ah! that ain't for such as we," said one.
"No," said another ; "it's a pity it
should be put up
when the trade ain't here."
"Come, gentlemen, make your bidding," said the voice
from the rostrum, "you must have it at your own price."
"Well, then, just to give it a start," said the gentleman
in the blue bird's eye neckerchief, "I'll say £5."
"What! for this untouched picture," almost shrieked
the horror-stricken auctioneer. "More likely £500."
The noses began to grow excited. They actually
seemed bidding "five pun ten," "six pun," "seven
pun ; " but the clergyman made no sign.
"Gentlemen," said the auctioneer, wiping the sweat of
agony from hill brow, "I cannot rob my employers in this
way. What! only seven pounds for this untouched gem
of Italian art! Jim, run round to the executor's, in
Doctors' Commons, and ask him if I must throw the
pictures away into the dirt in this manner."
Jim obeyed the order; and, calculating the time it
would take to go and return, in pipes and goes, quietly
stepped into an adjoining tap.
In about five minutes he rushed back. "Mr.
says they must go at any price they must be closed at
"Very well You hear what he says, gentlemen; it's
not my fault go it shall; " and with a look of horror he
held the hammer aloft, "Going at seven pounds."
"Let me look," gently interposed the clergyman. He
looked, wiped the Virgin's face with a wetted handkerchief,
and scrutinised the worm-eaten panel, enriched with
the seal of the art-loving cardinal
"Here's the buyer for the National Gallery coming,"
remarked the tall man by his side.
"Ah! I thought he wouldn't be far off to-day," said
the auctioneer, exultingly.
"Eight pounds! " cried the clergyman.
"Wait a minute," said the auctioneer;
"here's a gentleman
coming that knows what a good picture is."
"Nine pounds!" shouted the deacon.
"Fifteen pounds!" cried the new comer, scarcely
deigning to look at the gem.
"Twenty pounds!" faintly but hastily rejoined
The purchaser for the National Gallery, for sane
unaccountable reason which Mr. Conyngham should inquire
into, would not go further, and the clergyman
gained what the nation should have possessed so said
"You've been and made your fortune, sir," said the
deacon; and so the worthy purchaser seemed to think.
I fancy I can see that dear old black-gaitered pastor, in
his snug vicarage, standing, some fine morning, before his
priceless gem, his finger and thumb between the fresh-cut
leaves of this week's Guardian, pointing out its beauties
to a brother of the cloth.
"Snapped it up, sir, for a bagatelle; under the nose of
the National Gallery purchaser a gem from the Petti Palace sold under a distress for rent."
What other ancient masters were given away on that
day I know not; for, happening to hazard some mild
doubt as to the genuineness of the Raphael, the deacon, to
my amazement and horror, addressed a few words to my
private ear that I never dreamed could have fallen from his simple evangelical lips. I shall not repeat them, but
merely content myself by saying, that with Doric strength
he intimated that I had better depart, for it would be
the worse for me; and, taking the hint, I retired.
Since that occasion, I have passed the establishment
several times, and, I regret to say, Mr. Ichabod has not
yet accomplished the sale of the whole of the stock, nor
has the deacon yet returned to the duties of his local
Zion. He still bids with charming simplicity for the china tea-service; nay, it would appear that he is not yet
cured of that nervous bashfulness which led him to break
the tea-cup, for I saw him repeat his misfortune, with
many apologies, only yesterday; and, if I am not greatly
mistaken, I also perceived a pile of tea-cups behind the rostrum, which the benevolent proprietor, to all appearances,
has provided against his unfortunate casualties.
Strange to say, the cattle-dealer has not yet been able to
tear himself away from the excitement of the bidding.
At the same time that we must admire the skill with
which some figures in these little dramas play their parts,
I cannot help thinking that on one or two points, there [-42-]
is room for improvement, and if Mr. Ichabod is not
proud, I will venture to make a suggestion or two. In
the first place, why does he not introduce one or two lady bidders
representatives of those stout females, all false-front
and catalogues, who cheapen pots and pans at
genuine sales? Then, to make it look more like the
real thing, there should be a little more chaffing going on
quarrelling with the auctioneer anything to break
up the ghost-like silence of the bidders. I miss, too,
our old friend the porter one of those grimy individuals
into whose soul dirty carpet has entered. Surely the
genius that dressed the deacon and manages his deportment
is equal to improvising so necessary a functionary. There is another point which
strikes me as entirely neglected. There should be more bustle among the
company, more in-coming, and out-going. Why could
they not pass out by a back-door and in again at the
mart-entrance, thus economising their numbers as they
do in grand processions at the theatres? Some arrangement
of this sort would give to the scene an out-of-door
life which at present is altogether wanting, and the
absence of which tends to excite the public suspicion,
which might, with great advantage (to the proprietors), be
avoided by a little ingenuity.
The next time I pass Mr. Ichabold's establishment, I
shall see if he is above taking the hints I thus freely
source: Andrew Wynter, Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other