I didn’t range very far in my search for auction bargains; Acle market was one, G.A. Key at Aylsham was another, and of course the weekly auction at the Corn Hall at Norwich Cattle Market. Once or twice I ventured as far as Abels at Watton. I may have been to one or two others but these were the main ones. I never got as far as Diss, although the sale room there is a favourite with television audiences of programmes like Bargain Hunt. All this sale-going I did was long before television made auction sales such a popular entertainment. It is well over 5 years since I last went to an auction sale, and that was specially to buy some wire netting to put up round our chicken run. The days of going just on the lookout for bargain musical instruments are long gone. I am sure that bargains are still to be had, especially of violins which mystify many, but not by me any more.

The first auction I attended would have been in Southwold, about 1960, and that was well before I was old enough to bid myself. This was the sale of the model yachts that had been made by the late Stanley Aldrich  (see my posts on Southwold, 7 August and 22 November 2011), and then my father did all the bidding of course. I must have been 11 years old.

The next auction I went to was on the 15th March 1972 at Whissonsett. It was the sale of the local blacksmith’s forge, he having given up the trade.  I noted in my diary that a batch of large nuts was in a different lot from the bolts they fitted, and the same buyer did not buy both. One local bidder told his mate that it was no good buying any of the spanners; “They were all made left-handed for old Bill”. It was a nice bit of local knowledge, but I am not sure that right and left handed spanners exist. After all you merely have to turn a spanner over to change its handedness, even where it is present.

I was sent off alone by my father to bid for a swage block. I must explain that a swage block is an iron block with various sizes and shapes of holes through it. These are used by the smith to hold hot end of a bar of metal while he bends, twists or otherwise shapes it. I thought the swage block rather big for our needs and only bid up to £5 for it and it went for more. I returned without the swage block. Perhaps if I had bought it I would by now be a rich and retired blacksmith, but I somehow doubt it.

My great period of auction going was about ten years later. It began with a chance purchase, not at auction, but from a junk shop in Magdalen Road in Norwich. It was a pile of old papers that I picked up for a few pence. It was a treasure trove of violin music, and I sold it off piecemeal for many times what I paid for it. That encouraged me to look for more, and that led me to auction sales. It wasn’t my business – at the time I was making Versator binocular magnifiers – but being self employed I could get a morning off to spend it bidding at an auction whenever I wanted. That was my hobby, or one of them.

I soon found that violin music was too specialised a source of bargains, and I branched out into violins themselves. I got quite good at recognising a good violin, which would leave most people puzzled. As a result I could at the time pick up an instrument worth a hundred pounds or more for a tenner or less. They needed restoration of course, and at first I left that to others. As time went by I learned the various skills involved including the rehairing of bows, but this lacked the excitement of violin hunting.

I didn’t always do as well as that, and I have come away with some turkeys too. I once bought a square piano from somewhere in Oxfordshire; I should have stuck to what I knew best, violins. The piano lost me money. It was on whole good fun while it lasted, but it was a hobby only, and it got squeezed out by the practicalities of raising a family.

A shed built out of the timbers of the ship Mountaineer at Acle in 1982; this area is now a housing estate.

A shed built out of the timbers of the ship Mountaineer at Acle in 1982; this area is now a housing estate.

During the time I was frequenting the auction rooms of Norfolk changes were taking place. The animals which were a rural feature of these country sales disappeared; bullocks at Acle and pigs at Aylsham and poultry just about everywhere. The areas where they were once sold became developed for housing. At Acle a shed was built from the timbers of an old ship, the Mountaineer, on which I wrote an article for the East Anglian Magazine, but this too has gone. Other things happened, like the imposition of a buyer’s premium; formerly only the seller paid a premium, and as far as the buyer was concerned the sum he bid was the sum he paid. Latterly all the sale rooms issued you with a number, which you had to wave at the auctioneer on making a successful bid. When I first began I merely waved my hand when I was the successful bidder, and said what bids I was successful on when I went to pay. I didn’t even have to give my name. There was obviously a degree of trust involved; this was there when I began to go to auctions but is now missing.

One of the essential aspects of East Anglian auctions is the East Anglian’s humour. Whenever three chairs were to be sold some wag would always go “Hip, Hip, Hooray”. To appreciate the humour of this you must have knowledge of the Norfolk dialect; three cheers comes out of a Norfolkman’s mouth as three chairs.

JOSEPH MASON                                                                                                                                              



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