Accidental buyers' club: 'How I mistakenly spent €1,200 on a toy at auction'

Bidding by accident at auction is scenario that has spawned a dozen comedy sketches. The seated protagonist waves at someone, scratches his nose, tries to swat a fly away; each time unknowingly registering a bid from the auctioneer. Until the hammer falls.

You’d think that the new age of online auction bidding would have eliminated the risk of accidental participation and purchase. After all, if you scratch your nose on your living-room sofa, you’re not in danger of buying anything. But recently, I interviewed the British artist and novelist Charlotte Cory, who also has an interest in antiques. She explained how she recently ended up bidding online by accident and ultimately bought a lot worth €1,200.

So how did it happen?

When I meet Charlotte Cory, she is carrying a very large bag containing the Victorian Noah’s Ark that she accidentally acquired at auction. “I’ve no idea how I’m going to get this on the plane,” she says. “I came with hand luggage!”

Cory caught a lot of media attention for her recent eclectic works, which saw her playfully adding animal heads to posers in original formal Victorian family photos. I became aware of her work this summer as I researched a collection of dolls’ houses in the run-up to Fonsie Mealy’s summer sale.

The dolls’ houses were part of a collection of antique toys from the Museum of Childhood in Powerscourt House, Enniskerry, but some of the best pieces had previously been in Vivien Greene’s dolls’ house museum in Oxford. In 1998, Greene sold her collection through Bonhams in London, and Cory wrote an article about the whole affair for The Independent of London.

“I spent weeks researching those doll’s houses,” she told me. “Cooped up in the cage at Bonhams, covered in dust.” Of all the dolls’ houses, the one that she remembered was an 18th century travelling baby house, of the kind that Jonathan Swift describes in Gulliver’s Travels (1726). When she discovered that it was going under the hammer once again, Cory decided to bid for it.

“In the article, I said that I coveted it and the truth is that I did. The estimate was €3,000. I woke up in the middle of the night and I thought maybe I’ll buy it! It’s not that much for something that I have remembered very fondly for 21 years.”

Cory registered to bid online, which was not something that she had done before. There was a button to press if you wanted to bid, but she wasn’t quite sure if it worked. “I know!” she thought. “I’ll test it. I’ll bid on something – any old thing – just to see if it’s working.” She scrolled through the line-up, saw a Victorian Noah’s Ark and put a bid on it. Her bid was accepted.

Reassured that the system worked, Cory bid €2,000 on the Travelling Baby House. “It stuck there, and stuck there, and I thought that I might get it, but suddenly it started to climb.” The Travelling Baby House sold for €48,000. “I sat there with my heart pounding – I didn’t get it, but thank God! I’m so glad that I didn’t get carried away.”

Then Cory discovered that she was now the owner of a Victorian Noah’s Ark. “It was very beautiful, but not what I intended spending my money or my afternoon doing.” The next day she rang up and paid the auctioneers, and began to think about how she would get it back to London.

In the end, she decided to come to Ireland to collect it. “There’s a terrible irony about flying over to bring back a Noah’s Ark,” she says. “We’ve done climate change before, I’m afraid.”

But when we meet in Dublin, Cory is clearly delighted with her accidental purchase. It’s a boat-bottom Ark, constructed to look like a ship but also forming a box to house a cargo of play-worn animals. We carefully unwrap them, two by two. “Noah’s Arks were very popular with Victorian children because they were one of the few toys they were allowed to play with on Sundays,” she says.

“It’s because they were biblical. Do you see the dove painted on the roof?”

At the time, she also told me that the Noah’s Ark episode inspired a work of fiction. “I gave one of the main protagonists the name Fonsie after the auctioneer, whose dulcet tones I listened to online that baking hot day as he conducted the auction – I am not sure his dulcet tones didn’t mesmerise me into bidding for the Ark. I am glad he did.”

The Noah’s Ark realised €1,200, which is quite a lot to spend by mistake. But according to George Fonsie Mealy, auctioneer, Cory landed a bargain. “Victorian Noah’s Arks are extremely rare. They can make between €5,000 and €7,000, and if they have a complete set of animals, they can make up to €14,000.”

The best way to avoid accidental purchases, he says, is by actually going to the auction. “It’s a show, a carnival atmosphere. There’s always a bit of a buzz and people feed off that. There will be gawkers and tyre-kickers, people who are sensitive, people who are confident, and people who are cocky. I’d always strongly advise people to go along. You can calculate your bid better when you’re in the room.”

Most people, he says, are too proud to admit when they buy things by accident. What’s more common is people who think better of their purchase and don’t want to hand over the money. “You have to be kind to a certain degree, but it’s a legally binding contract.

There are rogue bidders out there who get off on bidding online for things that they don’t pay for. There’s a registration process, but when you call the number the next day, you get through to a pet shop in Cumbria…” This, as he points out, is unfair on everyone: the vendor, the auctioneer, and the genuine underbidder.

‘The Day Young Fonsie Stole The Fox’ will be published in 2020 as part of a collection of short stories by Charlotte Cory. See See also

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