Expensive souvenirs from the big house: Country house sales can be great fun. But private buyers rarely pick up bargains, says John Windsor

THE TRADE lay in wait last week as the country house auction season reached its peak. Private bidders flocked to the sales for a day out - and probably a day out of pocket. Illegal dealers' rings were poised to raise private bids sky-high, then leave them in mid- air. Jocular auctioneers beat their way through fag-end lots of kitchen tat as seekers after souvenirs of 'the big house' sent prices spiralling. In corners of panelled rooms, country auctioneers whispered congratulations over lots that had been 'got away', never having belonged to the big house at all.

But the private buyers ended up shooting themselves in the foot, as usual. Judicious privateers can force dealers out of the bidding at the point where the price bid threatens to eat into their profit margin. But if inexperienced bidders then continue to compete against each other, they can push prices even beyond dealers' high street levels. Country house sales are not upmarket jumble sales full of bargains, as many a private buyer discovered last week.

At Barton Abbey, Oxfordshire, where surplus contents were being shed before refurbishment, the trade sagely stopped bidding at about pounds 1,000 for three clapped-out late 19th-century oak and upholstery French armchairs estimated by Phillips at pounds 400- pounds 600. Private buyers took the price to pounds 1,595.

Michael Wynell-Mayow, of Phillips Oxford, said: 'At country house sales the private buyer's benchmark tends to be shop prices.' He cited a set of six George III mahogany dining chairs in the same sale, estimated at pounds 800- pounds 1,200, which sold for pounds 2,035 to a private buyer. 'The trade would have paid pounds 1,200 maximum and they would have been priced at more than pounds 2,000 in a shop. So private buyers regarded that as a bargain. But they are still paying more at country house sales than they would if they came to our general sales in Oxford.'

A private buyer with a keener eye came away from the sale with a genuine bargain, paying only pounds 242 for an Arts-and-Crafts-style oak dressing table and wash-stand estimated at pounds 100- pounds 150.

For the inexperienced, the biggest bargain at country house sales is the entertainment - the cut and thrust of the bidding, the atmosphere, the bar. In the fairytale Gothic of Shadwell Park, near Thetford, Norfolk, last week, any sightseer with pounds 12 to spend on a Sotheby's sale catalogue (admits two) could have seen more than pounds 1m change hands in a day. The bangs of the gavel echoed the guns of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al- Maktoum, Shadwell's new owner, blasting away at wild duck.

At Barton Abbey (catalogue pounds 5) more than 3,000 people watched two British dealers fight a saleroom duel up to pounds 28,050 for a six-inch French gilt-brass figure of Bacchus, catalogued by Phillips as 19th century and estimated at a trifling pounds 150- pounds 200. (The victor believed the figure to be older.) The sale totalled pounds 236,516, more than double its estimate.

The main reason for the high prices is that every lot at a country house sale has a provenance - the house itself. Locals eager for small, easily housed souvenirs of a well-known, well-to-do family pack the marquee, outnumbering dealers by more than 2:1.

At Shadwell Park the gala atmosphere of unrestrained bidding was encouraged by the fact that its former owners, the late Sir John and Lady Musker, were famous for creating the biggest stud farm in Europe. Also, Sotheby's had overdone the underestimating of the decorative lots. The sentimental paid pounds 350 for two small wooden cupboards estimated at pounds 20- pounds 30, pounds 80 for 'two toasters and a portable radio' (est pounds 10- pounds 15) and pounds 40 for two wicker cat baskets (est pounds 5- pounds 10). But they had seen a West Country dealer pay pounds 115,500 for a William Morris carpet estimated at pounds 20,000- pounds 30,000, so pounds 40 for a pair of cat baskets seemed next to nothing. (Even more remarkably, Christopher Weston, chairman of Phillips, recalls a sale at the Abbey, Aston Abbotts, Buckinghamshire, in 1989, when two wicker and leather picnic baskets estimated at pounds 40- pounds 60 sold for pounds 1,210.)

Furs, stamps, coins and jewellery over pounds 5,000 seldom appear at country house sales. The small valuables are put in specialist sales and the furs are put on bonfires, sacrifices to conservationist sensibilities. But in May a fox's head on a shield (est pounds 80- pounds 120) made pounds 143 at Phillips' sale of the contents of Stone Farm, Exford, Somerset. Locals knew the fox had been dispatched by Captain Ronnie Wallace, Britain's most eminent master of foxhounds, only two fields away. (A hideous chair made from moose remains was left unsold. According to Celia Haddon, daughter of Stone Farm's late owner, Darby Haddon: 'If it had been an Exmoor moose, it would probably have sold well.')

Much to the relief of dealers, private bidders seldom compete above pounds 5,000. But at Groombridge Place, Kent, last month, dealers looked aghast as a private bidder paid pounds 33,000 for a pair of 1745 walnut side tables (est pounds 20,000- pounds 30,000), which Sotheby's catalogue hinted strongly had not always been in one piece.

Christopher Proudlove of Sotheby's attributes the strength of trade bidding at country house sales to a plentiful supply of lots in the pounds 50,000- pounds 150,000 range, in short supply at regular auctions because would-be vendors are sitting on them until the recession lifts. Country house sales, often occasioned by death, divorce or despair, force them on to the market.

Mr Weston of Phillips reports that Italian, Belgian and Spanish dealers are active at country house sales, encouraged by the weak pound. The Belgians are scouring East Anglia for big, free-standing furniture such as wardrobes (Belgian householders have not yet succumbed to fitted furniture). Four Italian dealers pushed the price of an exceptionally ugly pair of 18th-century Italian walnut parquetry commodes to pounds 7,920 at Barton Abbey, against an estimate of pounds 3,000- pounds 4,000.

Phillips Oxford holds a house sale only if the total is likely to exceed pounds 100,000. There is the marquee and security to pay for. But in Hawkhurst, Kent, the auctioneer Michael Shortall is reviving the modest house-clearance auction that was common 20 years ago. 'I used to move from room to room, sit on a chest of drawers and auction the lot,' he said.

The biggest chance of bargains comes from mistaken or incomplete cataloguing. House contents span numerous sectors of the art market and London auctioneers may be hard-pressed to spare experts to make on-the-spot attributions. Auctioneers are bedevilled by stories of Vanbrugh archways worth pounds 150,000 emerging from piles of stone bought for pounds 350.

After Sotheby's 1977 sale of the contents of Mentmore Towers (the Bedfordshire home of the Rosebery family), which raised an astronomic pounds 6.6m, a dealer insisted that for pounds 8,800 he had bought a Fragonard, The Toilet of Venus, catalogued wrongly (but not inappropriately) as by his less bankable master, Van Loo. The Dowager Countess of Rosebery was unruffled. 'Well, at least somebody got a bargain,' she said.

(Photograph omitted)

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