A friend e-mailed me this week, asking if I could be of assistance in valuing some antiques for them. Years of ‘antique running’ taught me that there is only one answer to that question – they are worth whatever someone is prepared to pay for them.
Some items, like a mahogany chest of drawers, maintain a fairly stable value, rising in small increments each year. Two reasons, both connected. People have always found room for an extra chest of drawers inherited from Aunty. They were well made and they are useful. Even if you shove them in the back bedroom where they don’t spoil your new G-Plan interior decor. Thus there are a lot of them about. Most dealers have one for sale; so you can compare prices easily.
When you come to the more useless items to fit into a modern home, a little inventiveness is required, both in the pricing and the use you put the item to.
I bought a small steam boat, Lake Windemere style, once. I paid a price that matched the paltry cash in my pocket, with no thought of reselling – I lived on a riverside and thought it would be fun to own – it was a pain in the neck! I cursed and put an ad in Private Eye – the only place I could think of where I might net a buyer with a private lake and boat house who could make use of the damn thing. I put a ‘hopeful’ price on it, a mere thousand (!) pounds more than I had paid for it – and sold it the next day to a local man who turned up on my doorstep. The phone rang for the next three months, day after day, with Private Eye readers begging me to disclose the name of the man who had bought it – seems I had under priced it by several thousand pounds, and Britain was full of people with private lakes who had wanted it. You live and learn. Who knew?
When I sold the business, one of the items I was faced with disposing of, was a collection of circular iron pig-feeders. Two large, two medium size. I had paid a pound or two for them, drilled holes in the base, and placed the smaller ones on top of the larger outside the front door – a lick of paint, a little potting compost, a few begonias, et voila! Do we not have decorative Victorian garden planters? Nobody was fooled, and they sat there for years.
Ever hopeful that I might recoup my couple of quid investment in them, I heaved them into my pick-up truck and delivered them to the sale ground of the local auctioneer, where they sat amongst the tin baths, tractor tyres, and collections of ‘might-be-useful’ iron bolts, much to the amusement of the local pig farmers who had long since adopted modern feeding methods courtesy of the Common Agricultural Payments…
As the swarm surrounding the auctioneer moved slowly down the lines, it was noticeable that two well dressed ladies, straight out of Tory HQ right down to the Hermes headscarves, stood guard over the pig feeders eyeing each other balefully. The auctioneer finally caught up with them, rolled his eyes and hopefully enquired ‘what am I bid…’.
He probably didn’t expect an answer at all – certainly not a robust £50 delivered in cut glass tones. £55, £60…£70…£80…neither of those women would give an inch. The bidding war finally ended at £162, to my delight and a collective gasp of ‘strewth’ from the audience.
The following week I returned to collect my ill-gotten gains, and, I imagined, the effusive thanks of the auctioneer for having dramatically increased his commission. He was standing by the gate of the sale ground as I drove in, and far from rushing over to kiss me, he formed his hand into a ‘gun’ and aimed it squarely at my head.
Not quite the reception I had expected. Parking up, I began to understand his reaction. No sign of tractor tyres, nor tin baths – the sale ground was a sea of cast iron pig feeders, dozens of them, rusty ones, broken ones, smelly ones – every pig farmer in Norfolk had spent the week digging through his slurry pit in search of his ancient pig feeder.
I think the first one made 50p, after that it was a couple of hours of ‘No Sale’, ‘No Sale’ ‘No Sale’. Pig farmers sloped off with the exaggerated steps of the Pink Panther before they could be made to take their pig feeder home with them; the Porters groaned at the mountain of pig iron to be moved to the scrap heap before next week’s sale goods could be taken in. I hid.
The following week was little better – Suffolk pig farmers, always a little slower in these matters, had got wind of the ‘pig feeder bubble’ occurring in Norfolk. A dozen or so had managed to book theirs in before the auctioneer arrived on site and ordered ‘No more pig feeders’ – on pain of death. They didn’t even recoup the cost of the petrol to get them there…
How do you value a Victorian pig feeder? Is it worth the couple of quid I paid 30 years ago? The £162 I sold for 20 years ago, the 50p I might have got the following week, or nothing? The answer of course, is, as ever, hopefully a couple of quid more than you paid for it. Valuing antiques? Huh! Everybody guesses, everybody.
Searching for a picture to illustrate this stream of nostalgia – I found one for sale on e-bay. £125! Have Norfolk farmers gone digital in desperation – or has word only just reached Cambridgeshire?