This is one of the great free things to do in Greenwich. Forget Sotherbys – this is the Real McCoy. Greenwich Auctions occasionally gets the odd piece of quality furniture or a stray antique, but on the whole this is the result of house clearances, liquidated stock and people’s old junk. And all the better for that, I say. A good half of our furniture comes from that place – and the thrill that this week maybe – just maybe I’ll find a gem, keeps me a regular visitor.
It’s populated by four main types of people – blokes in puffa body warmers on the lookout for stuff you’ll see in Greenwich Antiques Market the next day for ten times the price, trendy young couples after cool kitsch or interesting quirk, curious tourists who were expecting something completely different and, well, everybody else. Actually, there is a fifth type – TV crews. Many of these dreadful daytime TV shows that keep reinventing themselves with minor changes end up here because of the atmosphere. You can tell ‘em a mile off – usually a couple of desperate young Meedja-type “experts” in flamboyantly idiosyncratic clothing and square glasses hustling an embarrassed, grinning family round the warehouse like cattle, pointing out what to bid for, followed by scruffy young blokes in jeans with enormous bunches of keys attached to the belts carrying massive cameras. On the day, you always know when these hapless individuals are about to bid for something as the lights suddenly go on, the cameras all point at said hapless individual and everybody ignores them.
The thing is, Greenwich Auctions is really brilliant. To get the best from it you need to go to the viewing on the Friday – the day before. It actually opens on Friday afternoons at 2.00pm – but wait until about 6.00pm because then you can get a glass of the cheapest plonk known to mankind and wander round, catalogue in paw, pretending that you’re at Christies.
“What’s Lot 398?”
“Um, a Large Quantity of electric kettles…”
“Put a ring round it, will you?”
The guide prices are hilarious. If they don’t know what something is, the guide price is a standard £10-£15. If they don’t know what it is but it’s been cleaned up a bit, the guide price rises to £15-£20. If the guide price is above that mark then it’s usually a fairly accurate estimate because they have some idea what the item actually is, but those £10-£15 jobbies are the fascinating lots. They are the ones which will either not even sell for two quid or will suddenly engender a bidding frenzy between two rival collectors. I recently saw a pair of prints that started off at the £10-£15 estimate reach a staggering £500. Riveting stuff.
When you’ve decided what you want, you just bowl up the next day. The auction is always on a Saturday morning. There’s no entrance fee, so you can just wander in. It opens at 10.00am for viewing (no wine this time) and the actually bidding begins at 11.00am sharp.
You go into the little smoke-filled office and collect your number, then sit in one of the old church pews and wait for the fun to begin. The great barn-like warehouse’s temperature always seems to be the exact opposite of the weather outside, but you can at least wonder at the decor on the walls – clearly the result of years of unsold lots. Everything from a piano to a coffin lines the walls, as well as several hideous paintings whose unsaleable status is no mystery…
To warm you up, the constant aroma of bacon rolls pervades the place. They go almost as fast as the lots themselves, and mugs of steaming orange tea are also too tempting to miss out on.
Make no mistake. This auctioneer doesn’t hang around. He gets though 200-250 lots an hour – even up to 300 – and if you’re not fast enough it’s your hard luck. Similarly, I’ve accidentally bought several items where I didn’t get my hand down quickly enough after they passed the price I was prepared to pay. But in spite of the speed at which he’s going, he still manages to make jokes, be rude about various lots he doesn’t care for, and indulge in banter with the bidders.
“Are you sure?” he asks a woman who has snapped up a Barbie-pink leather three-piece suite at £50 which failed to sell for a fiver the week before.
“Come on – the plug’s worth that,” he says of a particularly vulgar lamp. “Tell yer wot – Start it ‘alf price ‘n I’ll cut the plug off…” And so on. I sometimes go just for the fun of watching him in action. The auction is usually over by about 3.00pm, after which you have until Tuesday to collect your winnings.