Country house fever has set in again. During the few weeks after the summer art auctions and before the clocks go back, auctioneers' marquees go up in the shadow of crumbling castles and mansions throughout the land. The heady scent of trodden grass is in the air as both locals and London dealers tramp through mud and rain to pay silly prices for bits of "the big house".
Provenance is all. That Anglo-Indian table belonged to the late Lord Borthwick of Crookston House. His ancestors bought it in India in the early 19th century, so, although actually a pile of junk, it counts as "clean and fresh to market" - unlike the suspiciously over-restored and highly polished furniture that appears in London salerooms. Dealers acclaim such gear as "funky". It may only be half there, but its atmosphere is intact.
Dealers are prepared to bid near-retail prices against private buyers carried away with nostalgia. This is stock they cannot afford to miss - even if they think the vendors and auctioneers are raking in more than they deserve. There must surely be losers somewhere, but at the end of the day there is a smile on everybody's face.
This season, more country house sales are going on than ever - about 30, up and down the country. Although the aristocracy has now hired accountants to fend off crippling death duties and the spate of "distress" sales by Lloyd's losers is now past, once-rich families are still falling apart - or running out of heirs (future historians may well cite the diminishing sperm count as one reason for the demise of the country house).
But the most pressing reason, the one that still prompts every quavering telephone call from book-lined study to London auctioneer is, of course, money. The last of the estate's lands, once lucratively farmed and forested, has been sold off to pay for roof repairs. Now the roof is leaking again, wetting generations of junk in the attic. Could those old rocking horses and broken tables up there be worth something, by any chance?
Bonhams in Scotland has cottoned on to the fact that the contents of attics can be hidden money-spinners, whose sale causes the minimum of aristocratic distress. This month they held another "Stately Attic Auction" in Duns Castle, Berwickshire. Only 11 lots were from Duns Castle itself - a fact which, until recently, would have prompted dealers to tongue-wag that the wily auctioneers had resorted to the old trick of bulking up a stately home sale with lots removed from elsewhere. Not these days; multi- attic and multi-house sales are on the level. Bonhams' Duns Castle catalogue listed shabby-genteel treasures from Aldourie Castle, Skelton Castle, Crookston House, Balnakeilly, Kimmerghame... eight houses in all. The sale, where only pounds 100,000-pounds 120,000 had been expected, raised pounds 136,365, selling 99 per cent by value.
Christie's South Kensington loaded lorries up with furniture, carpets and bric-a-brac from three country houses for a single sale in London - Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire, Moyns Park in Essex and Munden in Hertfordshire. Luton Hoo was an executors' sale - the magnificent house has been put on the market to clear inherited debts - and the other two were money-raising sales of surplus contents.
Then there was Christie's sale of the contents of The Manor House, Little Marlow, Buckinghamshire, which was also removed to the London saleroom, where they were secure against screaming, souvenir-hunting fans who would undoubtedly have invaded a marquee sale; the house has just been sold to Mel B (otherwise known as Scary Spice).
As for The Old Vicarage in West Malling, Kent, there was no family to inherit its contents, they themselves the product of other country house sales. Its late, eccentric incumbent, the antiques dealer Jonathan Vickers, lived a life of fantasy there - when he wasn't on holiday in Tenerife or Malta - drinking too much and burning the cordon bleu dinners he cooked. His exuberant appearance once so alarmed a shop assistant in Jermyn Street (he'd dismounted his motorcycle in full regalia, black leathers and chains to buy his favourite room scent) that she called for the manager. But his faux-bamboo furniture, once desperately out of fashion (and known as "maid's bedroom furniture") were among the lots at a sale last Wednesday at Christie's.
At country house sales you can pay pounds 100-pounds 150 for a Victorian pine chest of drawers that would cost only pounds 80 in any other sale. So be sure you want to brag about its provenance before you bid over the odds. If there are bargains to be had, they are most likely to be continental goods disdained by the parochial tastes of Anglophile salegoers. The London antiques dealer Christopher Gibbs, who popularised the spare "country house look" among his clientele of rich pop stars in the Sixties, advises: "You'd be surprised how well Italian, French or Dutch furniture can fit into a country house."
What every astute dealer is after is Regency gear mistakenly catalogued as Victorian. That decrepit "late 19th-century" hall lantern was bought by an American convinced it was Regency. And the collapsed Anglo-Indian table still retained its Regency echoes.
At Sotheby's on-site sale of the contents of Derwydd Mansion, near Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire - ropey furniture at the end of a quar-ter mile of mud - bidders revealed a liking for Gothic-look furniture. A pair of oak carver chairs circa 1880 in Jacobean revival style, estimated at pounds 300-pounds 500 the pair, fetched pounds 2,070. A pair of silver and red leather dog collars from about 1810, along with a watercolour of pet dogs by a family ancestor (estimated at pounds 600-pounds 800) fetched pounds 1,495: and three Forties fire extinguishers, along with two fire buckets and a tin hand- pump, cheekily estimated pounds 150-pounds 250 the lot, sold for even more; pounds 322 - an example of what can happen after bidding has topped pounds 80,000 for a single lot, making a few hundred quid look like small change. The sale raised a whopping pounds 719,534, when only pounds 500,000 had been expected.
Derwydd, whose almost geological layers of carved furniture and bric- a-brac date back four centuries, was sold because Joy Stepney-Gulston - the widowed owner, who stoically watched the sale - has no children. This is the end of the line. The house, also to be sold, is damp. Re-furbishment would cost at least pounds 500,000. Derwydd's ghost appears in the room where King John slept in 1210 and only ever to unmarried men - whether to scare them into or out of matrimony is not known.
More, not fewer, country house sales - especially contents sales - are likely to take place as more and more owners find themselves un- able to afford vital repairs and the government moves against both stately- home tax concessions and the removal for sale of single, high-value artworks, now judged to be permanent fixtures and not removable fittings.
The government recently announced plans to phase out the "one estate election", a tax concession under which stately-home owners are allowed to set off repairs against rental income. The Historic Houses Association estimates that 64 heritage houses currently benefit from this concession, 54 of which are also open to the public, and that the move will lead to the further sales of contents to finance repairs and in some cases, closure to the public. A forthcoming survey of 40 houses by the HHA will show that, over the next 10 years, many of them will almost certainly face major, once-in-a-generation repairs - most notably roof and chimney restorations. Nicola Creed of the HHA says that, "it's coming to a crunch" citing the example of Kneb-worth House, near Stevenage, the scene of many fund-raising rock concerts. Knebworth's Lottery application for pounds 9m was recently rejected. The house has been in the Lytton Cobbold family for 500 years. Now ferns and shrubs grow from its roofs and the 55 acres that might have been sold for a science park or company headquarters is designated green belt, so unsaleable. There is nothing left to sell, except the contents. Ms Creed warns that Britain will go the way of the continent, with its grand chateaux standing empty.
Selling single, big-bucks artworks is now, for most owners, another closed option, following last month's ruling by the Environment Secretary, John Prescott, that a Henry Moore sculpture, Reclining Figure, along with other works bought for the Time Life building in Lon- don's New Bond Street, is an "integral part" of the building and must be returned. Timothy Clifford, director of the National Galleries of Scotland, where the Moore is being displayed on loan, has lambasted the decision as "ludicrous", pointing out that the art was bought "off the peg" and was never part of the Grade II listed building's original design.
One cause of this draconian decision is a horse - George Stubbs' painting of "Whistlejacket" - removed from its specially designed wall niche at Wentworth Woodhouse, near Sheffield, and sold to the National Gallery for pounds 11m before it could be put into Christie's auction of the house's contents in July. Even the sofa beneath the painting had been specially designed to fit the plaster frieze round its frame. Whistlejacket's removal was at least as ludicrous as the return of the Moore.
English Heritage recently announced a pounds 5m package of grants to rescue the 1,500 grades I and II listed buildings that it considers in dan- ger. That works out at pounds 3,300 per building - hardly enough to prevent a wave of house sales that could rival those of the Sixties, when death duties caught many stately families unprepared.
London auctioneers are wooing harassed house owners by guaranteeing the amounts that contents sales will raise. They are canny operators. Three years ago, Sotheby's mounted an exhibition called "The Artist and the Country House", which displayed paintings loaned by more than 100 stately houses. This venture gave Sotheby's auctioneers the opportunity to visit crumbling piles and assess which of the crumbling owners were facing ruin and which were about to pop their hand-crafted brogues. You can be sure that they have a little list.
! The contents of Noseley Hall, near Melton Mow-bray, Leicestershire, will be sold by Sotheby's (0171 293 5000) on 28th and 29th SeptemberReuse content