Shopping with knobs on: There is no greater pleasure for choosy materialists than the rich pickings to be found at a country house sale. This summer brings a bumper crop, as Nicholas Roe discovers

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Twenty yards was all that separated two strangely different worlds in the beautiful village of Northiam, East Sussex on Tuesday this week.

In one spot stood a vast marquee on a paddocky lawn, where some 500 buyers fought with discreet passion for objects taken from one of the best of English country houses: GreatDixter, home of Christopher Lloyd, the famous garden writer and horticulturalist.

Mobile phones rang. The auctioneer's gavel banged down 372 times as bidders scooped up art and furniture worth thousands. Rubber-neckers gawped, dealers dealt. It was a gentle, vibrant jamboree celebrating acquisition and the glory of having something - anything - from the rich man's table. Even the table itself.

Moving 20 yards into the garden of Great Dixter brought you, via topiary hedges and gentle stone paths, to a secluded area fenced off by three bean poles and a screen of yews. Behind the poles knelt a white-haired figure quietly digging a flower-bed with a trowel.

Unmoved by the nearby bustle, though it was earning his family around pounds 374,000 for one afternoon's patience, Christopher Lloyd looked up and smiled, and said in reply to the obvious question, 'The house was over-stocked, and the loss of 40 per cent of its contents hasn't left very dreadful holes. No, I don't mind . . .'

And he returned to his digging.

The country house sale season is with us and all the experts - Phillips, Christie's, Sotheby's - report a wonderfully bouyant market after a period of commercial drought. Thank the Lloyds insurance crash for these new opportunities, they say; and sometimes death; or a resurgent house market that has sent the great and the good on a fresh round of cupboard clearing.

The fact is that we are currently being offered our best chance for years to wallow in the sweet, contradictory sport of reducing our betters by coveting their goods: the rich man on his knees, the rest of us picking over his goods and chattels.

Shopping with knobs on, that's what it is. M & S may build cathedrals to materialism, but country house sales are heaven itself; no check-out girls at Great Dixter, just Roedeany sorts with lovely smiles handing out catalogues at pounds 10 a time. No grumpy manager, just smooth Mr Jeremy Sparks, a Phillips director fielding queries with the discreet charm of a man well aware that he is helping his company earn 15 per cent of a hell of a lot of dosh. No bing-bong call for change from the supervisor, just a girl on the phone saying, 'He wants to put pounds 10,000 deposit down. His account number is . . .'

While in the middle of this elegant bustle (15 staff, five phone lines, a computer, tea-tent, trips round the garden, trips round the house, nice man in the car-park waving the Mercedes' and Bentleys to that corner over there) stood the articles themselves.

No, you don't get goodies like this at Do-It-All. To put these items into context, you must look at the house, the place from which Christopher Lloyd sends his books and writings round the world, the place from which these tables and chairs and paintings and instruments and bits and bobs were all gleaned. Great Dixter dates from 1464. It was restored by Sir Edward Lutyens, and inside its timbered walls it is cool and quiet. It is also beautifully furnished. There is no sign that 40 per cent of the contents, worth enough to pay for, say, 10 terraced homes in Liverpool, have been removed for sale. Meanwhile, outside in the grounds - which are managed by Christopher's brother Quentin - three oast houses glint in brilliant sunshine, their white cowls swivelling in a mild spring breeze.

You can ask why anyone would risk disturbing such a perfect setting by flogging off the furniture, but that is a hazy area. Both brothers agree that the house was over-stocked and it was time for a good old sort-out of items largely collected by their businessman father Nathaniel. But there were other issues: insurance was a burden. Ownership and responsibility for the things have been divided unequally, which may also have caused strains.

Well, all families have their problems, and the Lloyd's were solved like this, with a super car-boot sale in which the sublime was a Stephen Keene spinet (pounds 26,400), and the ridiculous was a set of children's bricks (pounds 60).

So who came? Everyone. And there would have been more if only Christopher Lloyd could have been persuaded to part with mementoes from his famous garden. 'They want his dibber,' said Jeremy Sparks. 'It would have been a major bun-fight if we could have had that. This is a minor bun-fight.'

Oh yes? Tell that to the four Italians who flew in for the day, conferred on mobile phones, then paid extraordinary sums for things which came from their own country anyway: pounds 6,600 for an enamelled Venetian drug jar (estimate, pounds 1,500); pounds 5,500 for another which should have fetched pounds 1,900 top whack. Tell that, also, to the dealers, though you couldn't always spot them because they looked like everyone else.

'It's for me personally,' said the man in the car-park as he heaved a statue into his Volvo. Oh really? 'Well, I'll sell it on, actually.' 'Uh huh?' 'I'm a dealer, in fact.'

Some came clean. Some even tried to fix their first deal before they got in the door.

'It's late - give me a complimentary catalogue,' demanded a loud-voiced man in a stripey shirt at the entrance to the marquee. 'I'm sorry, no . . .' said the Roedeany sort. 'Charge me half price, yes?' 'No . . .' Call it bravado, call it balls, there was a lot of it about. The key to sales like Great Dixter is that dealers, collectors and ordinary folk all pitch for the same things, but for wildly different reasons.

It is what pushes up the prices and fills the car-parks with picnickers and children playing ball and hard-eyed men with hatchbacks open and phones on the go. The dealers will tell you everything is crap, because that is their job, but then they wander in and wink at Jeremy Sparks: 'We're looking for something that's been asleep,' disclosed one; by which he meant something that has not been flogged round the sale-rooms for years and years, gathering fake bits and a patina of tired familiarity. Country houses hold reserves for the market. They are secret repositories, disgorging intermittent dollops of treasure to be flogged round the sale-rooms, gathering fake bits . . . etc.

The collectors are a milder bunch. Leaving the tent, one gentle soul said that he had come for a silver butter spade to add to his collection, but it had gone for pounds 350, so now he was going to walk round the garden.

Birds sang, and you could see that despite the disappointment, he was having a jolly day out. Jolly, too, was the woman in the floral dress who lived down the road and who put her finger on the nub of this complex interweave of motivations and impulses.

'If I can pick out something that is reasonably priced,' she explained, picking up a candlestick (estimate, pounds 120), and putting it down, 'perhaps a little piece of silver, you know, I will enjoy having it in my home and saying it came from Great Dixter.' Then she added, 'I'm a keen gardener.' It's the dibber factor, you see. The 'something from the man', no matter what. The element which mingles serf with democrat, introducing hero-worship to the rugged materialism of the new shopper.

The odd thing is that by worshipping, we reduce those we came to honour, but no one was giving that much thought at Great Dixter. They were too busy strolling and watching and being part of it all. Too busy pushing the day's take through the roof as sales figures doubled best estimates. Too busy having fun. Too busy shopping.

(Photograph omitted)

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