Bid me a grand for Gazza's old shirt: When a venerable sports hero has to pass round the hat, it is Nick Stewart who bangs the gavel

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
NICK 'the Colonel' Stewart is rather good at selling things. In the past month he has auctioned off an old golfing glove for pounds 4,500; one of Paul 'Gazza' Gascoigne's cast-off football shirts for pounds 1,400; and a first-day front page of the Independent, signed by its editor, for a staggering pounds 250. You could send him to Cherbourg tomorrow with a consignment of Guernsey cod and fancy his chances of flogging the lot.

If he did, Stewart would not trouser the proceeds. He sells strictly for charity. More than 150 evenings a year, everywhere from the Pavilion at Lord's to the Forte Crest Hotel, Newcastle upon Tyne, he can be found at lunches and dinners, auctioning off sackfulls of memorabilia on behalf of other people, usually retiring sportsmen. So successful is he that he could, if he wished, bring down his gavel every night of the year.

'This is a cricket bat signed by the entire England team that has just toured India,' he says, as he begins his sales pitch. 'It is something of a collectors' item, since none of this shower will ever play for England again. What am I bid, pounds 200?'

And, invariably, he will get more.

Last Thursday night he took his gift of the selling gab to a dinner hosted by Gary Mabbutt, the Tottenham Hotspur footballer. Mabbutt, approaching his dotage as a player (he is 31), had been granted a testimonial by his club. This means he can form a committee that will spend a year raising money on his behalf, to provide for imminent retirement. One of the first people Mabbutt approached for assistance was Nick Stewart.

'I think it's very sad that sportsmen, our heroes, have to pass the hat round to secure themselves a life after sport,' Stewart explains. 'It is a great shame there isn't a better way.'

In the meantime, he was happy to help Mabbutt pass his hat around at what the invitation called 'A Gentleman's Evening'. Four hundred gentlemen had paid pounds 50 each (drink extra) to gather in the wood-panelled hall of the Whitbread breweries in the City of London for supper, after-dinner speeches and the Colonel's sales patter.

'One does two or three of these a week,' Stewart said, before the first course. 'And one just doesn't know what will happen. It is the ultimate high-wire act.'

Neil, who works for a Japanese electronic goods firm, said it was the first such event he had attended. 'Normally I don't see why someone like me should line the pockets of a bloke earning far more than I ever will,' he said. But he felt that Mabbutt, who had overcome diabetes and been a model servant of Spurs, was different: 'If I was going to do it for anyone, it would be him.'

Some suggested that the after-dinner speeches - by the avuncular Jimmy Greaves and a ventriloquist with a Frank Bruno doll - were worth the fee on their own. Others, such as Neil's friend Simon, seemed happy enough to be rubbing limbs with the sporting famous. ' 'Ere,' Simon said, after returning from the lavatory where he had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Terry Venables, Tottenham's chief executive. 'I just done a leak next to El Tel.'

As midnight approached, with alcohol intake at its highest and resistance at its lowest, and no women around to provide a restraining brake on spending, the Colonel stood up to begin the serious fund-raising. 'Now gentlemen,' he said, with his Prince Charles vowels, 'Open up your wallets.'

'Bleedin' 'ell,' said one of the men at Neil's table. 'Where'd they dig this upper-class twit out from?'

Nick Stewart has had no formal training as a fund-raiser or auctioneer. With a manic style that gives him the appearance of Michael Barrymore after several jolly good lunches, he would, he says, be 'quite bloody hopeless' in a proper auction house. 'At Bonhams or wherever, it is all discreet nods and winks,' he says. 'I try to get full physical audience participation. It's more akin to cabaret.'

He conducted his first auction in 1989 to help out his friend, the cricketer Chris Cowdrey, who had been let down at the last minute. With his raffish Harrovian guile (he was a contemporary of Mark Thatcher at the school), his former Coldstream Guards officer's bearing and the ability to think on his feet (acquired as a talent scout for Island records, where he signed up U2, a feat most A & R men would give their ponytails to emulate), Stewart discovered he was a natural.

'The Eighties had been awfully good to me,' he says (by day he works on the Lloyd's insurance market, so the Nineties have been less beneficent). 'And, as a fan, I found myself at quite a few sporting charity functions, so I sort of knew what to do.'

He was soon raising money and organising events across the country. He found himself mixing with sportsmen, 'some of whom became very aggressive about fund-raising, some became greedy and some just weren't bloody interested. Now I've learnt to turn people down whose reputation I don't much care for.'

He has also learnt that sportsmen will endlessly sign their autographs for him to sell off on behalf of other sportsmen. In the pavilion at a Test match there will be dozens of bats, pads, balls and other trophies waiting for saleable monikers. This may help to explain why we have no decent English wrist spinners any more: they have knackered themselves signing autographs.

But Stewart has discovered that a swirl of the pen is not enough to make money. 'This business is a very good barometer of the economy as a whole,' he says. 'In the boom they'd buy anything. These days people want something with a bit of added value, a good package, something worth having.'

Most items have no intrinsic value; this is a true market. Gazza's cast-off shirt might fetch pounds 1,400 at midnight in a room full of tired and emotional Spurs fans; at a lunch at Lord's you might be lucky to raise more than the pounds 35 cost price.

'People will often bid because they just love to be identified,' says Stewart. 'They are showing off as much as I am. I make them stick their hands up, do a twirl. Of the 400 people at an event, only 20 will bid, so I have to entertain the other 380. I make gags about the bidders - which, odd as it may seem, encourages them to bid more.'

At the Mabbutt evening Stewart singled out a bald bidder. 'Yes you, sir,' he said. 'The man in the pink crash helmet, you fancy this, I know.'

The man eventually paid more than pounds 500 for a signed, framed portrait of Gary Mabbutt holding the FA Cup.

Stewart does not deny that drink plays its part. 'Well, yes, people get drunk and make ludicrous bids because they have no self-control,' he accepts. 'I ignore a lot of people, and luckily, those you can't ignore are often rescued by other people at their table. What is very annoying is when someone is really pissed, persists in bidding, and then refuses to pay.'

Fortunately, nobody at the Mabbutt dinner behaved like that. Stewart tickled up prices with exceptional skill (one man paid pounds 2,200 for an executive box at a Spurs match when he was, as a season-ticket holder, already guaranteed a seat for the game).

At Neil's table, Simon spotted a white shirt with the name 'Lineker' embroidered across the shoulders. He decided that was for him. 'My little bit of money in the bank, I'm gonna go for it,' he said. 'I can go up to pounds 500.'

'Here is Gary Lineker's shirt as worn by him in the European Football Championship,' announced Stewart. 'Signed by a great man, an exceptional item. I'll take an opening bid of pounds 500.'

'That's me bollocksed,' said Simon, holding his head in his hands, distraught. 'I can't go any higher. Unless he'll accept a Vauxhall Cavalier as part-exchange.'

At the end, after Stewart had raised pounds 15,000 from a dozen items, he stood by the bar beside the evening's beneficiary, who was shaking hands with a long line of gentlemen as they left.

'I'd hate you to think I was entirely fired by altruism,' he said. 'I have a bloody good time doing this. I've met everyone, from John Major to Jimmy Greaves. And I really do love the sound of my own voice.'

(Photographs omitted)