Inspired by the following Decamot items: Rome, pea, football, policeman, village, John, hospital, battleship, leopard, cushion
500 people crowded into Sworders Stansted Mountfitchet auction room on Tuesday 12th February 2019 for what had been advertised as a special Homes & Interiors (with Toys) session. In the nineteen nineties, Sworders had built an ultra-modern complex, just off to the Cambridge Road on the outskirts of the village of Ugley in Essex. It had quickly become very popular as a regular venue for various BBC TV shows from Bargain Hunt to The Antiques Roadshows and Flog It!
How many attending on this day were genuine buyers and how many simply hoping to spot a celebrity was anybody’s guess but Stuart Jones knew what he was after. He had spotted two items in the catalogue which he was convinced he had once owned.
“Lot no 26!” announced Peter Armstrong, Sworders’ auctioneer for the day, with his trademark tongue in cheek humour “A large leopard skinned cushion which would not look out of place at one of Elton John’s most opulent residences!”
A murmur of merriment rippled through the room as two uniformed members of staff held aloft said item, which was more plumped up duvet than cushion.
“Even Elton John would have found that garish” whispered Eileen Hubbard to her neighbour who nodded, with a smile.
“What am I bid for this perfect example of seventies retro furnishing?” continued Peter Armstrong in an effort to engage prospective buyers. “It’s spotless, even for a 40-year-old leopard” he joked.
The silence in the room was palpable as the auctioneer tried to encourage interest
“I can see it mounted as a wall covering for an art gallery or a museum or even an Italian restaurant” claimed Armstrong, a hint of desperation creeping in to his voice “Come on now, use your imagination - can I suggest £100 to get us started?”
“I can’t see Elton John mounting a leopard can you?” whispered Eileen Hubbard to her neighbour who immediately succumbed to a fit of giggles which puzzled her naïve friend.
Meanwhile, in the back row of the crowded saleroom, Stuart Jones held his nerve. He was waiting one final impassioned plea from the auctioneer to extract any bid before giving up and withdrawing the item. Finally, at £30, he raised a discreet finger to confirm that £30 but no more was acceptable.
“Going once, going twice” said a relieved Peter Armstrong before briskly bringing down his gavel on its wooden block “Sold! Bottom left!”
He waved vaguely in Stuart Jones direction who acknowledged his purchase by quietly nodding at the auctioneer’s assistant with whom he had registered his details earlier in the day. He now settled back to await the two items he really wanted.
“Lot No 27!” announced Peter Armstrong immediately; anxious to create some momentum.
“This is an unusual Chinese flute believed to have been made in Guangdong Province around 1845; a rare example of a traditional musical instrument used to accompany Chinese Opera that has barely been blown. Although it is called a flute, it looks more like the brass spout of a watering can with six fingering holes and an external reed. A truly remarkable offering the like of which I have never seen before. Hardly surprising, I already have some interest on the internet, so I must start the bidding at £100 ….”
Stuart Jones kept his counsel, but he was surprised. He remembered buying the flute from a market trader in Hong Kong in 1971 and presenting it to his late brother in law as a home coming gift. His wife’s sister’s husband had been a gifted self-taught musician. Stuart had hoped to buy the flute as a memento of times past. In those days, Hong Kong was part of the British Empire and Guangdong Province better known as Canton, so Stuart felt uneasy at the instrument’s apparent attribution.
Again, he waited patiently to see where the bidding was going.
It went up in £50 jumps but stalled at £450 … “I have £450 on the internet …. Going once, going twice … Stuart Jones nodded discreetly ... I have £500 in the room for the first time!”
A buzz went around the room, but the internet did not respond so Peter Armstrong found himself drawing the auction to a close by bringing down his gavel with the usual theatrical flourish indicating Stuart’s single bid had been successful. Once again, Stuart exchanged silent nods with the auctioneer’s clerk, but felt distinctly uneasy at his success. He also noticed a policeman had materialised and was now standing near the exit.
“Lot No 28!” announced the auctioneer swiftly moving on; “a rare opportunity to acquire a pristine first issue Subbuteo kit complete with handmade purpose-built mini stadium. For those not familiar with table football, Subbuteo was the creation of Peter Adolph an English game designer and former Royal Air Force veteran who invented the game in 1948. It was manufactured in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
Adolph always had an interest in football and ornithology. He once sold birds eggs to make extra money. He originally wanted to call the game The Hobby, but the Patents Office said that that was too general a term, so he named it "Subbuteo" which he knew was the Latin word for "hobby", the Hobby Hawk being his favourite bird.
“Not a lot of people know that!” whispered Eileen Hubbard to her neighbour who smiled back obligingly as the auctioneer continued his build up to the bidding process.
“Peter Adolph patented his sports game in 1948. By 1950, it was such a success that he was able to give up his full-time job. Around 1970, he could no longer keep up with demand and sold the game to Waddington’s, but this is an original from the Tunbridge Wells factory unit. The origin of the accompanying stadium is unknown, but it makes lot no 28 genuinely unique. Now, who would like to start me at £50?”
“We have an opener on line for £50 so what about £75? Do I see £75 in the room? I do indeed back right but do I see £100? I do on line again, £150? Thank you sir now back right? Thankyou … £200 … £250 … £300 … £350 … the bidding kept going up until the on-line buyer withdrew at £550 leaving the bid back right in the room. Do I see £600 anywhere?”
Stuart Jones made his opening bid at £600 glancing left to see who his opponent was. After a second or two, which seemed much longer to Stuart, a small thin man with wispy hair and hollow cheeks nodded at the auctioneer.
“I have £650 on my right … do I have £700?” he said looking straight at Stuart Jones.
Stuart thought for a moment and nodded almost imperceptibly …
“I have £700 … £700 top left … do I see more anywhere ….”
Eventually wispy man shook his head, a grim looking smile on his face …
“Going once at £700 … going twice at £700 … Sold! On the left!” announced a triumphant Peter Armstrong with a final slam of the gavel on its wood block. A murmur of approval went around the room and Eileen Hubbard was even moved to applaud.
“Best session yet!” she whispered excitedly to her neighbour. “It’s just like on Bargain Hunt!”
Stuart Jones passed up the opportunity to acquire an early form of the grid game battleship although he was tempted having enjoyed many hours of fun playing it as a teenager. His principle objective had been achieved. The three items, two of which he could definitely vouch for personally, were from a sale of contents from The Malt House in Widdington, a house with six acres near Saffron Walden which he had part owned for a while in the eighties before moving back to Surrey.
His wife and wider family had enjoyed some riotous times there. He was now writing a book about his life as a celebrity booker; when he read an article about Sworders in one of the Sunday newspapers, he could scarcely believe his eyes when he spotted the Chinese flute and the Subbuteo stadium. His brother in law had made the stadium.
“You were always a middle finger flicker” said wispy man as Stuart approached his erstwhile opponent. “As rare as left handed golfers in those days. I did my best with a traditional index finger approach; we had some close games, but you usually won” he added with outstretched hand.
As Stuart clasped his hand, he suddenly recognised Barry Barnes who he hadn’t seen for 30 years. He was a shadow of his former self, his curly ginger hair now reduced to a thin patchy covering not even worth a Bobby Charlton style makeover; his stocky muscular build severely drained of its vitality. He looked close to death.
“Barry! I hardly recognised you – I am sorry – fancy meeting you of all people here”
The policeman quickly moved up to Barry and said firmly “It’s time to get you back to the hospital Mr Barnes. You’ve achieved your objective. My life won’t be worth living if I am found guilty of breaching the terms of your Interpol temporary release”
Stuart Jones was nonplussed but anxious to understand. Hospital? Police? Interpol?
“Can we have 10 minutes officer? I haven’t seen this man for over 30 years. Let us have a coffee together – I will guarantee his safe return – you can keep your eye on us from here”
The policeman reluctantly agreed but insisted on sitting at the adjacent table as two coffees arrived, but his presence didn’t seem to impede the flow of information that Barry Barnes seemed anxious to impart to his old Subbuteo opponent.
“I left the country 15 years ago to live in Rome when they put a warrant out for my arrest. Sharon – you might remember my blond missus – did the dirty on me. Took the diamonds we were supposed to have stolen and scarpered with Micky Morgan, leaving me to take the wrap. It was all over the Press at the time – you must remember the Hatton Garden Diamond Heist? Truth is we were only on the periphery. I was doing alright. I bought The Malt House in the early nineties; partly because it was tucked away and partly for sentimental reasons. You breathed life into the village when you came. Shame you ever left the area. When my life fell apart, I gathered up what I could and rented a lock-up store from Sworders. I couldn’t believe what I found in that shed in the garden. You must have forgotten to take it with you. Anyway, I have come home to die on the NHS, but I thought some of the gear might fetch a bob or two - hence this sale. I need to be back at HMP Chelmsford by 6.00 pm. The governor there is a decent bloke, one of the old school, if you know what I mean, but you turning up here out of the blue has made my day that’s for sure”
Stuart Jones was lost for words and didn’t know what to say for the best but opted to take his old friend at face value. “You haven’t lost your touch Barry. I paid way over the odds for the Chinese Flute and the Subbuteo stadium!”
Barry Barnes looked left and right to ensure he wasn’t overheard.
“Easy little trick” he said “My associate in Rome was the on-line bidder each time. It is all a question of nerve and timing when you know you have amateur bidder in the room! Even easier, when you have an unexpected mug who is a genuine punter!”
“But the Chinese Flute’s attribution was a real stretch – I bought it in Hong Kong!” protested Stuart Jones without much enthusiasm.
Again, Barry looked left and right before tapping his nose with his Subbuteo finger
“I called in a favour” he confided with a smile “From my old fencing days”
“As I say” said Stuart “You haven’t lost your touch. By the way, what happened to Sharon!”
“Huh!” snorted Barry “Micky and she fell out shortly after arriving in Spain! I’ve heard nothing from any of them since – serve them bloody right!”
There really is no honour among thieves thought Stuart to himself as Eileen Hubbard approached with what looked like an autograph book.
“Would you mind signing my catalogue please?” she said handing out the document with a pen. Puzzled, Stuart reached inside his pocket for his own pen when Eileen said, “Not you sir, unless you are famous like Bazza here?”
Barry Barnes actually managed a laugh as he took the pen and wrote
“To Eileen Hubbard to put in your cupboard - love Bazza” which left one fan well chuffed with her morning’s work.
Anticipating Stuart Jones next question, Barry again kept his voice down to a low whisper.
“She lives in Widdington – used to be a neighbour of mine. Once you get featured on TV, even if it’s for being the alleged mastermind behind the Hatton Garden Heist, you become a celebrity in her eyes!”
“Time to go Mr Barnes” the policeman said and led Barry away in handcuffs leaving a bewildered Stuart Jones to load his acquisitions into the back of his Volvo estate ready for the drive back to Surrey, during which he had plenty of time to ponder the nature of celebrity.
He reluctantly concluded that criminals and entertainers might just as well be peas from the same pod as far as people like Eileen Hubbard are concerned just so long as they have appeared on television. Surely there had to be a moral to draw here somewhere?
Two weeks later, Stuart Jones read Barry Barnes’ obituary in the Guardian. It was the same length as one on the same page for a much-loved TV presenter who had only just retired after 40 years with the BBC as a weather forecaster.
Two weeks after that, Stuart’s wife discovered a bag containing 200 uncut diamonds inside the leopard skin duvet which she had decided to mend before presenting it as a gift to her local Hospice Charity Shop where she worked. Stuart and his wife were now faced with a real moral dilemma.