Take the human skull. Scraped down, cleaned up, teeth polished, a couple of springs holding the jaw so that it clacks open and shut in a naturalistic manner, and it could make a jolly table ornament. One such was selling for pounds 220 on a stall at Bermondsey antiques market in the heat haze of last Friday morning, though its antiquity wasn't certified. Come to think of it, this could be the perfect way to dispose of murder victims: the police would never suspect that such audacity could be possible.
They probably wouldn't be up early enough, either. The only people who rise with the Bermondsey market traders are milkmen and disc jockeys. I'm not unfamiliar with the dawn myself; it's just that I thought it existed to remind you to stop talking and go to bed. But the wedding season is here, and if one's going to pay for the slot in church and those half- dozen glasses of sparkling wine, one has to come up with the booty.
Bermondsey market is famous as the place where the contents of people's houses end up. The term "house clearance" can have a certain euphemistic qualify, after all. The contents of museums occasionally fetch up there, as well. A punter famously bought a Gainsborough for pounds 85 and a Reynolds for pounds 60 there in 1992. They had been stolen (with some violence) from Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1990, when they had been valued at pounds 2m. Not a bad profit margin if you don't mind a spell in jail.
Bermondsey has apparently cleaned up its act since the law of Market Ouvert was rescinded in 1994. Market Ouvert basically said that, as long as you bought your stolen goods in certain markets during the hours of daylight, the former owner couldn't claim it back if they tracked you down. Nowadays, the only trace of Market Ouvert is Bermondsey's absurd opening hours: once, the traders wanted to cram as much daylight as possible into their day. Now, the sight of hundreds of exhausted shoppers raking through the piles of Zippo lighters is just one of those quaint historical oddities, like Beefeaters, or Bruce Forsyth.
The serious horse-trading kicks off around 5am: the dealers with shops descend like vultures after a kill, and old tables and job lots of Nazi memorabilia changed hands several times before anyone has even left their lorries. The dawn is rent by cries of "I'm not doing it for less than a pony, mate" and the hacking coughs of men who live perpetually on their nerves. This is where Essex man meets Home Counties Henry: a rich broth of plums, gravel and wads of cash. The objects in question may end up in hushed emporia with stripped wood floors in Stow-on-the-Wold, but this is where they will have started.
Serious business. Once London Transport has started running, the steady trickle of "real" punters - the people who might just buy that brown melamine cup and saucer for a fiver - turns into a torrent, and the traders have assumed the patience necessary to deal with the public. The crowd is a mixed bag of British, American and Japanese girlies in short skirts. The Europeans come later and buy very little. Last week, the heatwave had hit in earnest and it was already somewhere in the eighties by 6.30am. Traders grinned encouragingly, punters assumed that "you can't kid me" blankness of the person who knows they're going to get ripped off.
The thing is, Bermondsey resembles, at the end of the day, nothing more glamorous than your local church jumble sale. The stalls are planks on trestles; silver sugar tongs hang 100 to a string like wind-chimes; stainless steel cigarette boxes are stacked like filing cards next to haystacks of silver spoons. Some stalls have made an effort, with black felt and even glass cases, but the effect is still the same. Maybe it's deliberate, to lull the punter into thinking they're about to get a bargain.
I paused to buy a small ivory elephant. An American woman stood next to me, sorting through scraps of lace and telling the stallholder an incredibly tedious story about how she had hired a car with aircon at Heathrow the previous day. "I said," she was saying, "excuse me, but are we, like, living in the 20th century or what? And Jack, my husband, well he's usually the one who does the talking, but this time there was no stopping me." Stallholder nodded politely. "Yeah," he said, "it is hot, isn't it?" "Thing is," said his next-door neighbour, "we're happy four months of the year and the rest we're freezing." "What d'you mean, happy?" said the neighbour on the other side. "I'm bloody melting here."
American woman hadn't drawn breath. "So he said to me," she had moved on to a box of assorted beads, " `Well, we might just have a car with air conditioning out on the lot, I'll just look for you,' and I said: `Oh, thank you, that would be kind...' " "Uh-huh," replied the stallholder, "That'll be pounds 45." Antiques dealing is as much psychiatry as straightforward shopkeeping. To sell, a dealer must make friends with the client: it's part of the bond that turns a second-hand bookcase into an heirloom. This facet of the dealer's art was much in evidence at the private view of the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair on Wednesday. The clientele was very, very different and the accents on the dealers were clipped to the point of bogusness, but that chumminess, that ability to listen with rapt attention to mundane details of people's lives, was still plastered all over them.
If Bermondsey is a street party, then Grosvenor House is a Royal Garden Party: it even features pieces lent by members of the royal family. The hotel in Park Lane has been mounting this hoolie for the wealthy since the 1930s, and it goes from strength to strength. I thought it might be a bit of a PR exercise, an opportunity to schmooze and hand out cards, but I couldn't have been more wrong. "Oh no definitely not," said a lady from Spink & Son, "we generally do very well at this show. Everyone keeps back their best pieces for Grosvenor House."
Spink were showing a pair of Meiji-period Japanese gods, life-sized; rather satyr-like and likely to give nightmares to the average grandchild. The asking price was pounds 250,000. Did they really expect anyone to just pop in and buy them? "It's not entirely unlikely. It could well be an impulse buy. We had these about 15 years ago, actually. An American couple were walking past our showroom one night on holiday and saw them. They came in first thing the next day and had them shipped." Grosvenor House is, in a word, terrifying, and the people who shop there even more so. I've long since got used to the fact that I will never own something like Pieter Bruegel the Younger's The Battle between Carnival and Lent, on sale from Johnny van Haften at pounds 1.5m, but to hear "That's pounds 950,000. $1.5m" (these dealers can convert to dollars without blinking) of a sideboard and hear "Really? And can you ship it?" in reply is enough to make you extremely nervous.
You can understand why they can put up with the clientele's life stories at that sort of price. And what life stories they were. A woman in a lime jacket and a pink hat fingered an Aubusson. "It was jolly tragic," she informed the man in the suit, "he had a hunting accident. He hit a tree. But he's made a full mental recovery and how he's a trainer. Upstairs, three youngish women wore their old Ascot suits (tops and bottoms obviously recycled from different years) and eyed Phillip's gold and enamel bracelet emblazoned with the words "ROMA Amor" (the antiques world's equivalent of the INY badge). "I gave up smoking," said one, who bore an uncanny resemblance to a stick insect, "and I put on two stone here" (she pinched her waist), "here - " (the hips got a massage) " - and here" (upon which she slapped her rump).
Standing before the Andrew Edmonds gallery, which was selling subscribers' sets of The Rake's Progress for pounds 4,000 (I almost wavered in my ambition to buy a car), three Armani Men ignored their bejewelled consorts. "Brilliant," said one. "Never been leaner, never been fitter, never been tougher, never been more aggressive. Everything." I shuddered and went to covet the Cezannes and Bonnards at William Weston. Two tweedy women and a bored-looking teenage girl were locked in conversation. "Well, we opened up for the day, though we kept them out of the bedrooms. We had two-and-a-half thousand people round, but they didn't spend much money," said the first. "Oh, what a shame," her companion tutted sympathetically, "And you must have worked like demons to set it up." "Yes. The place was a complete tip and we can't have made much more than pounds 10,000 in the end."
They talk silly money at Bermondsey as well, of course. Phrases like "pounds 400 the pair" and "pounds 150 each" slip off the traders' tongues with the assurance of those who have successfully shifted brass folding rulers for pounds 60. I didn't do too well on the wedding present front: I guess it'll have to be the list after all. Even in Bermondsey, there are few bargains to be had.
I did pause for a moment, though, over a pair of brooches. They were made of a fox's paw and a pheasant's foot set in silver and amber with little bits of tartan. "How much are these?" I asked. I thought I might buy them to wind up an animal lover. "pounds 70 each," said the man. "What?" "That's real silver." "I'll think about it," I said, which is slang for "you've got to be kidding". I wandered on. Further down, a stray mid-morning dealer filled in the time before Grosvenor House by studying jewellery. He picked up a ring, squinted at it. "It's 14 carat, that, guv," said the Essex man behind the stall with breezy confidence. Dealer lowered his eyeglass, raised his chin and gazed at him imperiously. "Bollocks," he said.