Authors: Priscilla Masters
‘There is no armour against fate’
James Shirley 1596-1666
Looking back I find it hard to believe that at that time, on that day, I was so unaware of the fact that the past was about to creep up on me and engulf me with its stories and legends, tricks and tales. Yet as an antiques dealer I should have been aware of the effect the past can have on the present, of the legends attached to an inanimate object which can increase its price tenfold – particularly if the story is a dramatic one – one of tragedy, murder, love or hatred. If you doubt me look at the prices fetched by the ephemera connected with the Titanic or commemorative ware of the untimely death of Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent, who died in childbirth in 1817 to the grief of the entire nation.
I remember that morning as a sparkling spring day, with lawns fresh and full of promise, gardens colourful with daffodils and tulips, prettily showy, celebrating the end of winter. Everywhere there was this same optimism in people’s step as the April sun beamed down on what my aunt used to call a Persil world, one washed clean, hanging out to dry. My aunt, Eleanor Paris, had this habit of coining phrases which exactly describe a thought, a day, a picture, a sentiment. It is the mark of an artist. I am told frequently that I am very like her. This I find flattering.
So – back to the day itself.
At nine o’clock that morning I was driving from Stoke-on-Trent to Chester, filled with the anticipation of attending a Sotheby’s Fine Art sale. I was humming a Supremes tune, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, the window of my car wound down three inches or so, letting my hair blow free. Perhaps the title of the song was itself a portent of my future.
Because of my mission, the bright weather, and a rather smart, new, navy blue miniskirt which I was wearing with a white, crêpe blouse, I felt infused with happiness and optimism. I never could rid myself of the conviction that in this sale or the next I would find a ‘sleeper’ – a piece which I and only I would recognise for its age, authenticity and value. I would buy it for a bargain price and sell it for more – much more. In knowledge could be hidden a fortune and, more importantly to me, kudos. Such finds were important to
establish a reputation in the competitive antiques world. It was a world which thrilled me with its secretiveness and stealth.
A little before ten I reached Chester.
I parked my car in the street, near to the saleroom, and walked briskly through the spring sunshine, passing the tiers of black-and-white shops to Sotheby’s auction room in Watergate Street.
My shop in Stoke-on-Trent had been visited by an American dealer from Texas the previous week and he had virtually cleaned me out of stock. My windows currently sported empty shelves. Empty shelves earn no money so it was imperative that I filled them quickly. But there is always the caveat: fill your shop only with the right pieces, bought for the right price. A few wrong purchases and an antiques business can quickly come crashing round your ears. So I needed to be vigilant.
Outside the saleroom I paused, just for a moment, to savour the name. Sotheby’s, the proud epitome of the quality antiques world; the familiarity with which I treated it, as though an old friend, always touched me. As I entered the door I breathed in the indefinable scent which is patina – age, dust, history and legend mingled with woodsmoke and sealed in with beeswax and lavender polish. The very scent of a saleroom sends my senses reeling – even today.
The next second I ran up the stairs, two at a time, straight up to the second floor which led to the viewing room, scanning the scene from the doorway.
It was a familiar sight, dusty sunshine slanting down through high windows onto glass-topped cabinets, tables of Staffordshire pottery, jugs, plates, figures, pieces of blue-and-white china and dealers moving slowly and quietly between them, up and down the aisles, picking over the pieces carefully – always carefully, sometimes with an eyeglass jammed into their eyes. There was very little consultation. Antiques dealers are happiest when they work alone. Naturally suspicious and considering everyone else to be a potential rival – someone who will outbid them and deprive them of stock, rob them of business, bid higher than them on the prize lots of the day and ultimately deprive them of income.
From my perusal of the saleroom advert in the trade press I already knew that all the great names of the Potteries were represented: Wedgwood and Spode, Whieldon, Minton and Obadiah Sherratt. And so many more anonymous potters whose names would never be known. For their pieces were unmarked, entire families who had all worked in the industry, their wares often containing spelling mistakes in their titles or letters turned around the wrong way because to the unschooled people of the Potteries they were as unfamiliar as Arabic. And yet these illiterates’ imaginations could run wild so they produced blue horses, impossible lovers, pirate kings and mandarins, dwarfs and giants, exotic animals – cheetahs and jumbo elephants and an animal even they could not quite picture so they named it a camelopard. To them it was
half-camel, half-leopard; to you or I, a giraffe.
A hand reached out from behind me to pick up a blue-and-white turkey plate and I recognised Eric Goodwood, a dealer I knew well, who would prove strong competition later on in the morning. He greeted me with a nod and we moved aside for one another. I would study the plate later after he had moved around the room.
As for me I had my own methods, working my way through the lots, beginning at Lot number one, considering it – rejecting it if it was a commonplace piece, too badly damaged or even, horror of horrors, a sneaky reproduction. As I worked I marked my catalogue with a coded guide price. The paranoia of the antiques world affected me too. I did not want anyone to know what my top bid could be.
My own guide prices were usually somewhere between the reserve price and my instinct for what I could sell it for minus the profit I expected to make and the cost of any restoration. To me it was a simple, almost instinctive formula which had worked well in the years since I had begun my business.
The atmosphere was soft, quiet and secretive, whispered comments wafting through the air unclear, tangled up like Chinese whispers. A time or two a phrase would unravel itself quite clearly – ‘eighteenth – not nineteenth century… Alpha piece…commonplace… damaged.’
It would all affect the price.
I worked steadily for two whole hours, absorbed in the task, until I reached the far side of the room and a tall glass-fronted cabinet with a brown-coated porter standing guard, holding the door open, observing the activities. And there it was, on the top shelf – a tall creamware jug with the most exquisite design on the front. I felt my pulse quicken in recognition of its quality as I moved forward to pick it up. It was eighteen inches tall, perfect and undoubtedly late eighteenth century.
Dealers have an almost fey superstition for a piece of singular beauty. It happens rarely but sometimes an object will wind its way towards your heart. It is a dangerous thing because it robs you of every ounce of business sense you might have built up over the years but it is unavoidable in a business which relies on your aesthetic sense.
I knew before I picked it up what it would feel like in my hands, lighter than expected, the body soapy smooth, almost warm. But what was remarkable for a jug of this age was that the transfer design on its front was unrubbed so the design was still perfectly clear. It must hardly have been handled, lived its life inaccessible, on a high shelf, rarely dusted – or else preserved in a glass-fronted cabinet with its doors locked. Either that or some miser had concealed it, wrapped it in tissue paper and hidden it in a box, away from avaricious eyes. I also knew that for me this beautiful jug was the prize lot in the entire sale.
I would have it.
And so my fate was sealed. The thread of fate had bound me to this object and all that it represented. I was now powerless.
I bent my head and studied the design.
The picture on the front was of a house which looked sixteenth century. It was black-and-white, wattle and daub crooked walls, half-timbered in the intricate Cheshire design known as magpie work which was peculiar to Cheshire three centuries ago. Casement windows stared out blindly from beneath heavily carved eaves and a roof which dipped down low then rose steeply. Beneath the transfer was the name of the house,
I remember wondering then whether such a place really existed, whether it ever had or whether it was yet another figment of the potter’s mind.
Like the camelopard.
I turned the jug around. On the back was confirmation of my dating.
, I read.
. Below was the date,
But what struck me was the macabre scene depicted. It was of a public hanging, the man’s head lolling at such an angle there was no doubt that the man was dead and of a broken neck. A ring of faces mocked. Yet I shouldn’t have been so intrigued by the depiction of a gruesome subject. The Staffordshire potters had loved a whiff of crime and mystery. Lucrezia Borgia, Mazeppa (stealer of women’s hearts, strapped to the back of a wild horse which was then whipped into a gallop), William Palmer
(the poisoner) and the Red Barn and Stanfield Hall, both houses connected with murder, always fetched a good price. Even the Tichborne Claimant was a popular piece.
I held the jug for a moment, intrigued by this glimpse into an unknown story and reluctant to put it back on the shelf, still wondering why the potter had decided to paint such a macabre scene on the back when the exquisite Hall o’th’Wood was on the front. I turned the jug round again to look at the house, wondering what ‘hys story’ was, then noticing that on the bottom, in hand-painted, tiny lettering, was something which made the jug even more of a treasure. The potter had signed it.
Matthew Grindall, hys work.
Rebekah Grindall, hys sister.
And with these added crumbs, the Ring of the Tolkien stories could not have held more power over me than this simple piece of domestic pottery. I felt then that I had to have it, to possess it, to own it and to keep it.
But for what price? I was a dealer, existing on profit, occasionally forced to swallow a loss on an ill-advised buy.
But I could afford, on odd occasions, to indulge myself as another woman might do with an expensive gown or exotic holiday. But these baubles did not interest me so much as holding a piece of beautiful history in my hand.
I struggled to screw my business head back on.
Normally such a jug, in 1967, in such fine condition, might have fetched ninety pounds. With provenance
providing a back story, possibly double that. The price I wrote in my catalogue was more than three times the estimate.
‘Nice little piece.’ The voice came from behind me.
John Carpenter was an antiques dealer who had a shop in Chester, less than a mile from here. We were friendly rivals. He dealt in much the same sort of stock as I. But because more people come to Chester as tourists than visitors to Stoke-on-Trent he had a healthier list of customers than I. I clutched the jug and he looked hard into my face and must have read some of my determination because he looked thoughtfully at me.
Dealers can work together at salerooms. They can ring pieces – that is buy an item for a knock-down price and then bid between themselves later. Or they can simply stand aside on the understanding that you will accord them the same courtesy. ‘Ringing’ is illegal and it goes on in salerooms up and down the land. But I had already made a bad move if this jug was to be ‘ringed’. To display too obvious an enthusiasm is always a mistake. Your colleagues can bid you up – and up – and up. So I smiled at him and put the jug back in its place on the top shelf of the cabinet, near the back. There is even the slimmest of chances that a fine piece such as this might slip by unnoticed. On such luck fortunes are made.
‘Time for a coffee?’ John asked and I nodded. This was a coded message for a swapping of intention.
Next door to Sotheby’s salerooms an enterprising woman called Sandra Pool had opened a coffee bar. Full of smoke and hot as the Black Hole of Calcutta. We found an empty table and a pert, blue nylon-overalled waitress brought us two mugs of steaming coffee. Moments later Eric Goodwood joined the party.
‘So, Susie,’ John said slyly. ‘What are you after today?’
I laughed. Because I was young they often tried me like this. But I had learnt not to be too open.
‘The usual,’ I said vaguely. ‘A few of the Staffordshire flatbacks, one or two of the figures, some of the plates. You know.’
Eric spoke next. ‘Anything special?’
This put me in a dilemma. I wanted to tell them that I would buy that jug. As there is honour amongst thieves so too there is honour amongst antiques dealers.
Of a sort.
If I really desired the Hall o’th’Wood jug they would let me buy it. If it was so important I could have it – at a price. The trick was to affect indifference, buy it for the lowest possible price, without them knowing quite how much I had wanted it and was prepared to pay.
‘A few things,’ I said casually. ‘Bits and pieces.’ I diverted the subject, spooned some sugar into my tea. ‘Anything you’re particularly interested in?’
‘I’d like to have a go at the Meissen,’ John said. ‘I’ve done well out of that in the last couple of months.’
I nodded. I had no interest in German porcelain.
‘What about you, Eric?’
‘I’m buying a lot of the transfer blue-and-white printed ware at the moment. Particularly Spode.’
I nodded again.
John Carpenter was eyeing me. ‘Funny,’ he said, smiling, ‘I could have sworn you had your eyes on that nice creamware jug.’
‘I might have a go at it,’ I said, struggling to keep my voice casual.
‘It’s a lovely piece,’ he commented. ‘In nice condition too.’ Interestingly his next comment reflected my own observation. ‘Must have been put away,’ he said. ‘It’s never stood on a dresser for nearly two hundred years. The enamelling’s not rubbed at all. Did you notice?’