A few weeks ago I attended a parish auction with only one aim. It worked two years ago, when I bought a wonderfully old blanket chest at a knockdown price. This year I was after a blue, leather-bound set of Walter Scott, not first editions, but published in 1900. In these events it’s as well not to make your interest to overt, so I hovered over all the books and was even tempted by a first edition of Biggles, meaningful to every Briton of a certain age. Then, when no one was looking, I inspected my quarry. What was so startling was not only their general condition, pristine, but the quality of the paper, still a startling white, with gilt edging.
I sat down in quiet anticipation with my bidding number 44.
I’d been given strict instructions not to come home with stuff we didn’t need. How a set of twenty-two leather bound book escaped this injunction, I don’t know. Only that my wife is very tolerant. But dear me, I was tempted.
Monmouth is quite wealthy and parishioners generous. There were treasures here, I tell you, gorgeous cut glass, decanters, whole tea sets, fine porcelain, all at ridiculous prices. The acquisitive gene was writhing, bursting for release. I held firm.
Then, at last the books came under the hammer, and I grew a little alarmed when the first edition Biggles was sold for £26. How the hell was I going to afford twenty two volumes of Walter Scott?
My beloved was brought into view, the price starting at a modest £10 for the lot. By this time, I knew the score. I held fire and observed. Who were my competitors? Were there any?
Yes. Two. They began in a fairly bored way, bidding against each other in desultory fashion, each time raising their bids by £2. At £20 one of them dropped out and the auctioneer’s hammer went down once, then twice—>I held up my card! And sensed the gnashing of teeth somewhere behind me. (At this point, I confess to an elementary mistake. I was sitting near the front and couldn’t easily see my competitor who stood near the back)
Time to play mind games. The price kept going up —> £22. £24. £26. Each time I hesitated, sweetening my rival with hope. The auction room had vanished. I was in Monte Carlo, wearing a white jacket, with a martini, shaken not stirred. Bloefield sat on the other side of the card table, face steady, his cards unseen. Who would blink first?
I had my limit—made up there and then—£40. I had my guardian angel, too. My opponent folded at £38 and I left the room triumphant, with twenty-two volumes I’d probably never entirely read. Stroke perhaps.