How Rings Can Easily Become Irritable and Sore

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!”

Jack Plane

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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10 Responses to How Rings Can Easily Become Irritable and Sore

  1. Phil Spencer says:

    Bunch of scoundrels

    Like

  2. Joe says:

    Sounds like a “Lovejoy” caper…Cool

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  3. Tico Vogt says:

    Great story. Thanks for the enjoyable read.

    Like

  4. I don’t understand the benefit of being “in” the ring? Seems like it just drives prices down for those “outside” the ring. What am I missing?

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    • Jack Plane says:

      By colluding, the ring benefits by stealing much of the profit from the saleroom. The eventual (ring) winner of a lot can end up paying as much as he might have done, had the legitimate auction run its course (the true market price), but the remaining ring members realise the profits rather than the lot vendor and saleroom.

      On the days when he is not the winning bidder, that same ring member will still reap a profit.

      JP

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      • That all assumes that the ring wins the item from the saleroom. It would seem that a non-ring member can win the item for even less at the showroom, and that the winning bidder in the ring auction still pays as much as he would have by bidding in the saleroom.

        I’m not promoting collusion, of course, but it seems like no detriment to the bidding public unless the ring somehow artificially inflates the price paid in the saleroom (because they can absorb the loss in the aggregate). In that case, however, it actually provides *more* profit to the auction-house.

        I’m probably missing something. I’m glad you got your items, for sure.

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        • Jack Plane says:

          Rings don’t always have 100% bidding success, but the odds are in their favour.

          As you suggest, rings have also been known to temporarily push prices higher to achieve various results such as forcing out persistent outsiders and competing rings. They will also force higher prices of known makers/artists to promote awareness and artificially increase market value of the makers’/artists’ work that they already hold stocks or examples of.

          Collusion is big business and there have been some very successful, high profile rings.

          JP

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          • Jack,

            This story is a good one and it gave me a good laugh.

            In the United States, a “ring” is called a “pool”, and pooling is illegal. Because auction houses almost universally conduct business across state lines, it is a Federal crime. The injured party is the consignor of the property. The pool conspires to reduce the amount of money the consignor would have made had the competition been open and fair. Additionally, any auction house that allows a pool to operate at its sales is considered to be a party to the conspiracy and is also subject to prosecution.

            Internet bidding has made a lot of this moot. Auction houses, even small local ones, have put their sales into the global marketplace, making the machinations of a few “local boys” irrelevant.

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          • Jack Plane says:

            You make a good point about internet auctions.

            JP

            Like

  5. Pingback: Potato Rings | Pegs and 'Tails

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