A SATURDAY morning before March 2020 looked very different from a Saturday morning in November 2023.
Back then, I would get up, make a flask of coffee, jump in my bakkie and drive to Somerset West, Wynberg or Ceres. To wherever there was a general household auction. I was looking for modernist furniture from between 1930 and 1980. We run a shop that sells this type of furniture. But I was also looking for an excuse to attend an auction, because I love them.
Auctions are places of loss, transience, adversity and change. One's belongings rarely end up at an auction because you're doing so well that you bought better belongings. It happens, but it rarely happens.
Belongings are auctioned after a life-changing accident, a divorce, or death. The stuff that washes up is often the leftovers after the family have picked out what they want. Or your stuff is being sold because you have given up on the country and are getting out.
Or a court ordered a sheriff to seize your stuff from under your bankrupt backside and leave you with only a kettle, a spoon and a plate so you can eat while thinking about your sad state of affairs.
Or your stuff is auctioned off because the insurance recovered it. That curved screen TV with the cobweb and splatter pattern on it as if someone threw a mug of coffee at it.
Or the Italian sofa with the water damage. Or the laptop, which was broken by its owner so he could submit a claim.
You see only flashes and fragments of many stories. The objects can never tell the whole story. Sometimes, you may notice things from an upper-middle-class household with a particular style, but the bigger story remains a phantom.
An auction is for all
Before the auction, I would walk through and make a list of every piece of furniture that was relevant to me, trying to reconcile it with the vague budget in my head. Then I would sit in the corner on an unknown refugee's antique couch and watch the buyers roll in.
First, I would watch for dealers after the same furniture as me. There are few enough of them in the Cape that you get to know them well. Not only how they look but also how they buy. Over time, you learn what items a particular dealer will bid harder for, so you adjust your plan and expectations.
Then there are the big aunties from the townships who come to buy beds and newish lounge furniture. And the thin, neat little men from Zimbabwe and Malawi who fix and sell cellphones and laptops. And the Tanzanian, a genius with old refrigerators that no longer work. Sometimes, he will buy a fridge just to get his hands on a specific rare compressor, he told me. He runs a thriving business in Khayelitsha.
General second-hand furniture and appliance dealers from a whole range of Boland towns come with their Hyundai vans and trailers and buy a week or two's worth of fridges, microwave ovens, Beares lounge suites, kitchen cabinets and boilers. They usually have a shop not far from the station in their town, and their market is poor people who buy basic foodstuff on layby. Some of these people are such excellent entrepreneurs that they stash away enough cash to provide for the next generation.
Sometimes, if a valuable piece of antique furniture has fallen through all the filters and appears at a general household auction, one of the high priests of the antique furniture world from Stellenbosch or Wynberg might even appear to claim it, but these types usually bid by phone.
I can't remember the last time I attended a real auction. One of the last to hold out, in Brackenfell, also switched to WhatsApp a few months ago. It was probably inevitable that auctions would be snatched away by cyberspace, but Covid accelerated that process exponentially. Auctioneers had to do this to keep their businesses going.
I'm sure Sotheby's and Christie's in London and New York still hold live auctions of art, valuable furniture and other artefacts because the marketing value of these sensational sales, where a Picasso can go for as much as R3 billion, cannot be overestimated. Most of the auction is conducted online or on the phone anyway. Journalists and other interested parties attend as if they are theatre because it can get dramatic.
The farmers still wave the flag
Among the exceptions are livestock auctions, where farmers buy and sell cattle, sheep and other animals. A farmer wants to see a live beast.
Before investing a princely sum in a Brahman breeding bull, he wants to see how it moves, that it has a robust and manly head, that the colour of the skin around the hump is correct, the topline of the back has the right shape and the rump is big and strong. He wants to see that the hips line up correctly and that the buttocks are large and round; that the sheath has the right shape and the scrotum the ideal circumference.
Farming is increasingly scientific, but a farmer's intuition and experience are still big factors in the decision to buy, and if he can't see the animal he will struggle to assess it.
Auctions are also places where farmers get to see each other and hang out. Rural children will know. An auction is a place of braais and vetkoek, pancakes and jaffles; it smells of cow dung, soil, smoke and mutton chops. In our town, the Karoo Osche auctioneers' sale was every Wednesday at the pens near the railway station, next to the co-op's grain silos.
Most farmers would come for a break from the stress and effort of farming. Bakkies were parked haphazardly in the veld around the sales pens. After the auction, a farmer would inevitably drive away with a couple of Dorper ewes on the back of the Isuzu that he hadn't planned to buy. But he got to eat pap and chops, and to feel refreshed and encouraged by the shot of Richelieu in his Coke from the circulating hip flask.
In my childhood, there were still some old farmers born around 1900. Those uncles drove big American pick-ups with round fenders, Chevs and Fords, before the Japanese Isuzus and Toyota Land Cruisers took over the scene.
This was before farmers wore denim. Instead, they sported khaki pants like tents with crisscrossing suspenders over a substantial belly. Leather shoes and knee socks. Hair brylcreemed into arrow-straight side partings under fraying felt hats.
Their wives would share dried peach rolls or homemade quince sweets from the bakkies' cubbyholes. The men all smoked. Every last one. Lexington, Paul Revere, Texan Plain, Mills, Rembrandt van Rijn and pipes. Light cigarettes were in the future. They bought them in flat packs of 30 and made auction notes on the back of the box. Some people still call those boxes “auction packs".
Those who did not sit on the small stand would rest their large forearms on the steel pipes of the round kraal in which the animals were made to move around while the auctioneer did his thing. With their rough hands stained from years of tractor oil, the pipes would be emptied against the heel of a vellie or a fence.
Every now and then, a gate in the enclosure would be opened, the animals inside would be chased out and a new group of Merino ewes or Afrikaner oxen or heifers would be driven in and guided in circles by a worker in the middle with a whip or a stick. Then the auctioneer would start with his unique rhythmic chant.
Long live the cattle rattle
Auctioneers were mythical figures. The only other men who stood on the same kind of platform in a small town were preachers, lawyers and school principals.
Auctioneers were also priests, but of money and trade. They were usually visitors because good auctioneers were rare and had to be brought in. It took me years to figure out what they were saying in their machinegun gibberish. They spoke in long phrases that usually began after a pause with a drawn-out exclamation in a higher pitch, something like “heeeeyt" or “eeeeeeen" before a rapid-fire recitation where you could only periodically make out a number or amount.
You couldn't figure out whether they spoke English or Afrikaans because what you could recognise was in both languages. “I'm fifty; I'm fifty, I'm fifty, fiiiiiiftyyyyy!" Every auctioneer has their style. The English call it “the chant". Some Americans call it the “cattle rattle".
Later, when I became a buyer, I realised the numbers are all you need to hear. The auctioneer will always jump back and forth between the amount already accepted by a buyer and the next higher amount he is seeking a bid for. The rest is filler words.
The purpose of the chanting is to arouse a little excitement and enthusiasm in bidders, to create drama so that it feels like something is happening, to give the auction a rhythm and to get through the lots at a good pace, because some sales could be working through 1,000 lots a day.
It's not important to hear and understand the filler words, but it can be entertaining because a good auctioneer is also a comedian, a joker, a poet and a salesman. A good auctioneer knows his bidders.
When the bidding gets a bit stuck on a valuable bull, he can gently play on a bidder's ego by putting him in the spotlight: “Yes, Uncle Hannes, you know you want to. We all know Aunt Marie likes a reeeeeed bull!” I have seen it work several times.
You don't see or hear the cattle rattle at the fancy auctions where the art and European designer furniture are sold. Those guys speak in complete sentences and everything is audible and understandable. However, I have never driven back from that kind of auction, at 3pm on a Saturday, with a van and trailer loaded high with tired pieces of furniture, in a raging southeaster, but in a zen space as if I have just meditated for hours. Now, one doesn't want to get silly and dramatic, but I can believe that's how a rock climber feels when he has had to concentrate for hours on a challenging cliff.
With the first online auctions, I thought lying in bed with a cup of coffee and bidding on my phone was fantastic. But it quickly became sterile. Auctions are so much more effective these days but infinitely more soulless.
Moreover, if the auctioneer starts a bidding process at R200 and no one bids, I can no longer, after a pregnant silence, shout “R50!" And then wait for the auctioneer to give me the bid because he is a nice guy who knows me and realises everything in the world isn't only about money.
♦ VWB ♦
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