Two Hockneys, a Hirst, a Perry: couple get lucky in art's lottery

To the untrained eye, the simple sketches of a willow tree and a vase of flowers could have been lost among the 2,000 colourful postcards hanging side by side.

But the couple who had spent a week camping on the stone steps of the Royal College of Art for the Secret 2004 sale in the hope of snapping up work by the world's best modern artists for £35 had done their homework. Their reward for six nights' camping out in central London was to be first in line for the college's annual artistic lottery - the postcard sale where the artist's identity is not revealed until the card has been bought.

Once through the door the pair, who were reluctant to reveal their identities, proved their expertise by correctly guessing (and then purchasing) the most sought after items - the only two David Hockney postcards in the sale. They also emerged with the prized trophies of cards by Grayson Perry and Damien Hirst.

Eleven years ago, when the annual show began, the signature styles of contributors including Hirst, Perry, Tracey Emin, Manolo Blahnik, Stella McCartney and Julian Opie might have been easy to spot amid the work of the RCA's students. But the games played by artists disguising their styles or students who produce convincing imitations led yesterday to some misjudgements.

Peter Sergeant, 75, a retired engineer was so inspired after visiting the Secret show in 1997 that he took up a history of art degree. This year, he spent six days camped outside the premises, agonising about whether a postcard with Hockney's name written in reverse on the front, could be the real thing. But when he bought it, he realised it was a trick work by a mischievous student.

"I knew it was a crazy long-shot for a Hockney. If it came off, great. If not, then I like the joke and the person who has done it," he said.

Hockney's contributions were undoubtedly considered the most desirable items by many in the snaking queue, which had already wound to the back of the building before dawn.

An hour before the doors of the RCA were due to open, dishevelled campers dismantled their tents and amicably wished each other good luck. But the tension beneath the camaraderie was palpable. A group of people had unknowingly jumped to the front of the queue while some campers were still in their tents and were ordered to get to the back.

"We didn't realise the queue stretched right round the corner," said one person.

A brief argument erupted in the main hall between two men near the front soon after doors opened over a disputed "agreement" that one had apparently breached.

Sue Bradburn, of the RCA, said it was the first time such heated words had been exchanged in recent years.

"There appeared to be a misunderstanding over a gentlemen's agreement they had reached. I think they eventually made up," she said.

Richard Kirk, 30, a graphic designer who was among the first 10 in line, said stress levels always peaked in the hour before opening.

"There's always a sense of stiff competition at the front, however friendly it is. It's the same people at the front every year," he said.

Mr Kirk and his partner, Elisabeth Lecourt, 31, later went on to sweep the sale clean of every Emin postcard as well as a Hirst and an Opie.

Such was the momentum of the two-day sale - with 1,669 cards already bought by yesterday lunchtime - there may be insufficient cards for proceedings to continue today.

The bulk of the big names had already been bought by 10am but excited rumours that postcards by Bill Viola and Mario Testino were still for sale travelled through the queue to revive dampened spirits of those who had seen their choices whittling down over the long hours of waiting.

But for some, the fun of the game was destroyed by those who took it too seriously.

The thrill, said Andrew Fox, 35, a television director from Bath, should come from choosing a unique postcard, not from who the stature of the artist.

"Maybe this sums up society's fascination with celebrity," said Mr Fox.

"It's a shame that for some it's all about who it is by, rather than what it looks like."

WHO GOT WHOM

Elisabeth Lecourt, 31, an artist from London, bought a Tracey Emin sketch, a Damien Hirst picture of a red skull and a Julian Opie picture of legs in high-heels: "I am an artist myself and a former student of the RCA so perhaps that helps me to pick out the more well-known artists. I love all the ones I bought this year, although I had hoped to get a David Hockney."

Richard Kirk, 30, a graphic designer from London, bought three Tracey Emin sketches of teacups, jugs and teapots and a Damien Hirst image: "I have got Tracey Emin's postcards from previous sales and recognised her style when I came for the viewing. Elisabeth [Lecourt] and I have now got a collection of 75 postcards at home from previous sales, which includes Sam Taylor Wood, Peter Blake and Chris Ofili."

Nuala O'Donoghue, 32, a doctor from south London, bought a Hussein Chalayan with a red and black design.

"I turned up at 1.30pm and about 80 per cent of the cards were gone," she said. "I bought three cards but the Chalayan was the first one I saw and I loved it. I didn't buy it thinking it was by anyone famous. I just found it very visually pleasing."

Chris Johns, 48, a property manager from Cardiff, bought an Eileen Cooper watercolour of a nude patting a dog. He said: "I went to the RCA looking for her work and this will be a welcome addition to my collection. I have got 15 cards from shows over the past three years. I do not purchase them for financial gain. It's for my own enjoyment of contemporary artists."

Robert Forrest, 23, a student of vehicle design at the RCA, bought the only Martin Parr postcard. "It caught my eye and I thought it could be a Tracey Emin," he said. "I got to the sale at 10am and I thought it would have gone because it was obviously a famous one. I will frame it and put it in my downstairs loo."

Anne Leach, a teacher from Farnham, Surrey, bought a Zandra Rhodes work of a woman in ethnic dress. She said: "I went to the viewing and thought that this postcard looked like the work of a well-known designer but I didn't think it could be Zandra Rhodes until I saw the signature. This is my first year at the sale. It will take pride of place on the wall at home. I would never sell it. I'd rather give it to my children as a present."

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