The big surprise at yesterday’s Fine Art auction at Mitchells in Cockermouth was the bidding battle for Lot 31, described as “A continental porcelain dish with cover – possibly Sevres circa 1783, Height 9.5 inches. Estimated price £50 – £80.”
I was outside the auction room, looking at items in the galleries when I was attracted by the sound of rapid repetitive bidding. It reminded me of Wednesday night’s Wimbledon match when John Isner from the US after 11 hours defeated the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the final set by 70-68 games – a record length in the history of tennis, which has hit the headlines.
It wasn’t that long for Lot No 31, but it had everyone talking. The bidder sitting at the back was a svelte dark haired woman with a tall companion. She was definitely not a Cumbrian farmer’s wife. Did that metropolitan look suggest a French aristocratic provenance? After all our own Queen Elizabeth is said to have the world’s finest Sevres collection. “She’s a Parisian” someone whispered. On the grapevine I heard they’d come over from France the day before to look at Lot 31.
Her opponent bidding remotely via the telephone remained unknown – ‘Incognito’ we’ll call him – and wouldn’t give up on this bone. Both of the bidders thought they had smelled a good dish and proved willing to fight it out. The bidding started with lower increments, but after a while moved to £100s.
At the front the auctioneer’s face moved sideways and then forward like a pecking bird, inviting another £100 bid to the increasing amazement of the audience of farmers, locals, dealers and holiday makers. Up to £1,000.. £2,000.. £3,000.. £4,000.. £5,000 they soared. Surely this must stop.
‘Another bid?’ came the question to the man in green at the end of the telephone. Pause. A nodded head indicated ‘Yes’ and so it went on – £5,000, £6,000 reaching £7,000. How long could this continue? Put us and the bidders out of our agony please! Now it’s £7,200. The Parisian ups the stakes – “£7,400″. Incognito hesitates but goes to £7,600. Is the end near? The Parisian is back quick as a flash, “£7,800″.
The auctioneer turns once more, but that head by the phone is motionless then shakes a definite “No”. Incognito has seen the writing on the wall. This time the French are not going to fail at the last hurdle. “Going at £7,800″ and the hammer drops.
The price is almost exactly 100 times more than the highest expected. The prize a missing piece from a dining set of King Louis XVI, made just a few years before the Revolution, when the French monarchy was to disappear for ever.
“Surely someone at Mitchells should be a bit embarrassed”, I murmur as I pay at the desk for my 19th century Chinese plate of a watery scene with cherry blossom. “On no – that’s what happens”, I’m told. “If it’s more valuable than anticipated, it just gets picked up at auction by people in the know”. “Oh yes”, I’m thinking, I wouldn’t be so sure. The moral of all this? If you see there’s a good sale on at Mitchells, get along there. It’s good to support businesses in Cockermouth and you could be in for some fun!