Last year I stood in the shallows of my house, a place now ankle-deep with books, pots, pictures and lamps, and I thought: I want more. More books, more pots, more pictures, more lamps. I’d barely left the house in months but still I’d managed to accumulate a warehouse-worth of new tut. I say new – it was all old, nothing made after perhaps 1989, nothing that had not been through at least two previous owners, at least one of those owners now long deceased, the other having woken one day and found themselves a minimalist. Everything was bought, you see, at auction. Specifically at auctions that pre-pandemic I would not have thought to visit, but (after viewings became online-only) I found myself walking through at night, panting.
My local auction house is a place out of time, a room Tetris-stacked with chests of drawers and boxes of Beatles magazines, the smell a specific combination of vape and dust. Every weekend I squeeze through the aisles, marvelling at the collections of erotic art or antique computers or nesting tables that have nested so long they have almost hatched. And every weekend I return home with another object that I didn’t need but needed immediately.
My boyfriend looks on with a combination of affection and disgust. His birthday card to me this year was a painting of a 70s lamp he is particularly unfond of, claiming its volcanic glaze looks like semen, and inside a poem which began, “Eva went to auction house, debit card in hand, to feed a strong compulsion that she couldn’t understand. For nightly on the internet and in person once a week, she would browse their sad collection of ugly furniture in teak.” There are five verses, he hates it this much.
We live in a home of compromise, pottery and thick-spread affection: “Eva scooped the jizz lamp up as though she were its mother, and rushed it home to meet its ceramic sisters and brothers. Her partner was agog to see this totem of bad taste and asked her why she’d said she was just shopping for toothpaste. But even though he rolled his eyes he knew it was his duty, to love a thing that she loves, and to try and find its beauty.”
I’ve tried to explain to him why I’m drawn to these things, and why they continue to fill our shelves. Partly, I say, because they are imbued with memory, partly because their quality is so much better than their Ikea alternatives, partly because there is no fixed price, partly because of the thrill of discovering treasure.
You don’t buy things from auction – you win them. I try to bring home only things I know will bring me joy, but the problem is, so much does. I urge him to understand my love of auctions not as a problem but as a hobby. One that leaked online from real life, in that way things do today.
I’m reluctant to encourage others to join me as an auction hobbyist because, of course, there is only one fabulous lamp for sale at a time, and there might be a wait of many months before a similarly jizzy one becomes available. But if I were to, if I were a better person and less worried by the competition, then I would recommend approaching the-saleroom.com (where auction houses the world over list their goods) as if visiting a gallery rather than a shop.
Sometimes it’s exciting to type in an offensively low bid, because sometimes you win it.
I’d advise people to relish the artfully random selection of tchotchkes and design, prioritising the pleasure of looking over the desire to purchase. Sometimes it’s exciting to type in an offensively low bid, because sometimes you win it – on the wall by our front door hangs a painting I bid £10 on, and after picking it up from an office piled with Matisse prints and Dalí objects, discovered the artist’s work hangs at the Whitney in New York. But on the rare occasion when you see something you want – something you absolutely must have – I’d recommend calling the auction house directly (to avoid the online commission) and if possible bidding live. Though that is a dangerous game, one that can leave you quite sick and poor.
At night I scroll slowly through abstract landscapes and modernist chairs and mourning rings and haunted dolls, bidding low and often. What is lost when viewing virtually rather than walking through an auction house – the ability to pick things up and turn them over, to enjoy the dissonance of seeing an antique truncheon balanced on a meticulously carved Buddha, or a vintage Chanel hat perched on a very large bear – is gained by the many miles you can travel with your thumb. This week I bought another lamp.
How to do it
The Saleroom is used by more than 2,000 auction houses worldwide to sell art and antiques online. Live Auctioneers is a similar service and includes jewellery and fashion in available lots. This site features auctions from more than 50 countries. The online design platform 1stdibs also launched a seven-day auction system in December 2021. The site focuses on furniture, home décor, art. For other good secondhand homeware, try Retrouvius, a salvage company which stocks everything from chairs to fireplaces. Or for bargains and to support a good cause, most charities now have eBay shops for furniture and ornaments.