Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Buried treasure among the tat

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Anything goes at the weekly Webb's market auction. Photo / Supplied
Anything goes at the weekly Webb's market auction. Photo / Supplied

Webb's market auction regular Alan, from Huntly, once found an empty double box in a pile of rubbish at a deceased estate. It turned out to be the packaging for a 1956 Rolex, and it earned him $400 from a British dealer. Mark, another Webb's regular, once saw the bidding for a stuffed cat start at $10 and go all the way to $2000. "It was just a raggedy old cat! And I hate cats," he says.

John once bought a shoulder-high wooden goat-horse. "It was a funny looking thing - but you sold it," admits his friend Christine, who prefers china and coloured glass, and knits while she waits for proceedings to begin at 6pm. John and Christine come up from Rotorua every Thursday for the market auction, leaving around midday and returning just before midnight. They bring sandwiches and buy chips when they stop for petrol.

We're all sitting on comfy lots (mostly sofas) among a glorious cramped jumble of camel bags, barbecues, vases, tea cosies, dolls and walking sticks.

This is a world away - but also only two rooms away - from Webb's signature style of impressive artists hung cheek by jowl in front of discreetly bejewelled eastern suburbs types.

Last year, the Newmarket auction house hocked off a Ferrari for a record price of over a million. At the weekly market auction bidding starts at $10, although if you're cheeky enough you can get a bargain for as low as $5 (plus buyer's premium of 15 per cent).

But even some looking at antiques next door deign to pop their noses into the back room, says auctioneer and estate assessor James Hogan: "There's a broad appeal to the Steptoe and Son feel about the place."

Well over 1000 objects are sold in such auctions around Auckland every week - Webb's itself usually sells about 200-300 lots in around two hours. It's quick-fire stuff - a tap of a pen against a clipboard in place of an auction hammer.

Hogan says he lightens up his usual professional manner for the weekly auction: "The more money people are spending, the less they want you joking." Absentee bidders are allowed; they've either come in during the day, or named their top price online.

The stuff usually comes from people getting rid of too many items to bother with individual sales on Trade Me - people who have moved overseas or whose parents have died, or who have to sell up because they lost so much money fixing up a leaky home. Hogan says he's seen great poverty as well as great wealth.

"At one house, they wanted to sell their lounge suite because they needed the money, even though they had no other furniture. It wasn't worth anything, but these people were desperate."

Apart from fashionable 20th-century modern stuff, the price for second-hand furniture and collectibles has plummeted 60-70 per cent over the past 10 years.

Beautiful but finicky Victorian writing desks and sideboards are often sold at market auction now rather than at the antique auction. People can no longer be bothered reupholstering, says Hogan, and besides, we don't use as much stuff as we used to.

"People have dishwashers - they don't want floral design plates with gold rim."

Crown Lynn, though - now there's another story. Alan once sold "a little wee horrible piece, a vase all dirty brown on the outside", for $650. Buried treasure indeed.

- NZ Herald

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