A good customer, whom I had been cultivating for some time, was in the market for a mid-eighteenth-century mahogany long case clock and I tracked down a contender at an auction in the west of England. I attended the pre-auction viewing and although the clock’s movement required cleaning, it was complete and original to the case, which itself, required only minor restoration. The movement was by a good provincial maker and the case was attractive and well made, so while I hung around for the lot to come up, I wandered round the saleroom in the event I had overlooked something in the catalogue.
There was a relaxed looking group of men near the door who were talking loudly and sharing the occasional witticism with a couple of the porters. Each clutched a well thumbed catalogue with figures scribbled in the margins beside specific lots; the evidence of the completion of the first part of their day’s illegal activities. This was the local ring – ‘The Boys’.
Some were runners in the trade and some were themselves, dealers. All of them were intrinsically after the same desirable lots, but rather than standing toe-to-toe, slugging it out with each other with prices escalating at every flick of the auctioneer’s wrist, ring members connive not to bid against one another. In stead, a few of them would take turns bidding for their chosen lots which, barring keen outside bidders, they would ultimately secure for unrealistically low prices – the second part of their day’s operation.
The final act – the knockout – takes place after the auction, either in the car park (usually in a Volvo estate; its windows all steamed up), or a quiet corner of a pub, where the items, bought cheaply at the saleroom, are re-auctioned amongst the ring members. The opening bids are the saleroom prices and when all the bidding has wound up, the profits (the difference between the saleroom prices and the ring members’ final bids) are shared equally between the ring members.
Despite The Boys’ interference, I bought my clock (I had a waiting customer and a healthy budget). After concluding my purchase in the saleroom office, I walked to my car, past the inimical gazes of the five ring members. I made a mental note of their vehicles.
A few weeks later I had occasion to attend a second auction in the same county. I was on another mission; a superb pair of George III mahogany sofa tables. I would be flying a kite with these tables… if I won them. However, I knew they would sell very well if I bought them well.
A few miles before the saleroom, I came upon the local pub and there in the corner of the car park were five familiar-looking cars and vans. The Boys were presumably within, enjoying a pre-auction cup of coffee and plotting their day’s strategy.
I was far from home and had arranged to stay the night nearby with a friend who restored old houses for a living. Nick had previously expressed an interest in learning more about antiques, so I called him and suggested, if he was free, that he join me for a look around the auction. I think Nick genuinely enjoyed himself and I also came away happy having bought the pair of sofa tables and a Chippendale period breakfast table.
We drove to the pub for a pint and a ploughman’s, and there sighted The Boys in the corner; sitting round a table covered with seemingly, dozens of empty glasses and bottles. As recognition slowly washed across their faces, they looked even more repugnant than on our previous encounter.
Nick and I enjoyed a second pint before walking outside into the bright sunshine. The Boys’ vehicles (unfortunately blocked in by a rather large van and twin-axle trailer) hadn’t budged an inch all day. Nick walked towards the van and removed a note from beneath one of the windscreen wipers. It read “MECHANIC IS ON HIS WAY”.
“OK…” said Nick as he climbed into the van and started it up “… follow me!”