The Watney Auction

(an Alf Travel Journal)

On May 14th:

One of my children may even have a birthday on May 14th ... or, is it May 31st ... or July 14th ... I'm not good at dates.

Whatever, May 14, 1997 was sure to be THE date and place that most corkscrew collectors would not want to miss. That is not to say that boat loads of corkscrew gatherers would converge on London for the event; but, a substantial number of European addicts were sure to be there, along with a half dozen or so of their fellow North American addicts.

Close on the heels of the Watney auction, Christie's scheduled another, more general corkscrew auction. How convenient!

This reporter accepted the assignment to keep you informed, via prose and photos, of the drama surrounding every bid. But, to keep you from going to sleep at your terminals, I'll also chronicle some of our nocturnal meandering. Like in the past, this trip was destined to be a potpourri of stuff.


Saturday, May 10

The catalog listing all the corkscrews that will be offered at the two Christie's auctions arrived by FedEx late yesterday afternoon. I thought they would never make it. Truly awesome stuff between the covers! I have no doubts now about flying to London for these two sales ... and, I am sure that most of my corkscrew addict friends feel the same way. I think that five or six collectors will be leaving from North America either today or tomorrow. And, probably, a couple dozen from the continent will make the jump across the channel in the next few days.

OK ... I've booked the cab, locked up the house, set the spring guns, packed the bare essentials ... hey, what else is there to do? Oh, yes ... make a trip to the ATM for that extra spot of cash.

We're off! Jean just arrived, and after a quick swallow of Chablis (freshly released from its prison by a Farrow & Jackson corkscrew), we are heading toward FLL.

We are going to London via Atlanta. I hope there is no delay as I really do not want to take the alternate flight out of JFK. Not that I have anything against New York ... I just think JFK sucks.

Wheew!! Just made it! We arrived in Atlanta 40 minutes late ... but, the London bound flight was also late. We even had time for a Crown Room refresher.

Delta #12 to London was on an L-1011. The flight was uneventful. That is the best thing that can be said about a commercial flight.

Sunday, May 11

It was sunny and cool at Gatwick when we arrived. After one hell of a long walk to the luggage carousel via immigration we boarded the Gatwick Express for the 35 minute journey to Victoria station. And, a short taxi ride thereafter took us to the Four Seasons Hotel. Jean likes this hotel: You can tell by her smile.

Incidentally, the Four Seasons group also operates the Regent chain of hotels. The latter is largely in the Orient. However, both names are really top drawer addresses. This particular location is sandwiched very close to several of our favorite restaurants. That's the next choice ... where for lunch?

Hours later I write:

We wandered down Piccadilly, on the top side of Green Park, until we came across an old favorite: Fakhreldine. This is a Lebanese restaurant that has a magnificent second floor view over the park. It was a sunny afternoon and there was lots of family activity in the park; ball games, picnics, lovers on blankets, dogs romping ... all the good things. Incidentally, Jean and I discovered this restaurant by accident about four years ago. But, back to now: since it was still too early for dinner we pretended that we were having a very late lunch. I don't think the waiter believed us; he figured us for those Americans who like to eat early so they can glue themselves to the TV after dinner. The service here at Fakhreldine's is always very formal (I think the waiters must go to sleep at night wearing their ties), and the Lebanese plonk is barely swallowable, but the food is what we like ... lots of fresh raw vegetables ... steaming hot humus ... pita bread ... and kebabs of all types. By the time we finished "lunch" it was just about time for a pub crawl.

Since we were very close to Mayfair we visited a couple of real ale houses that pride themselves on serving beer and ale made and served in the traditional way. These are free houses (as opposed to tied houses) and they can offer the brews of any brewery. They are not owned (or tied) by a particular brewery. The original Hard Rock Cafe is a main line tourist stop for those who shun tradition. It's only a couple of blocks away from the "real" ale houses. It is to be despised by clever folks.

For the single traveler, London's phone booths are the starting point of a major nocturnal weakness of the flesh. It is in these little red chambers that the local prostitutes offer their wares and cares. Well, what they really do is that they advertise their services on 3 by 5 cards, cards that are wedged between the glass and the frame or stuck by tape to a surface. One phone booth might hold 20-30 such advertisements. And, it is all very local. The girls employ a service that refreshes their cards only in the phone booths of their immediate neighborhood. Apparently there is a high degree of specialization among the world's oldest profession. Their combined menus, so to speak, would make a food court in a major mall look bland and look-a-like.

Monday, May 12

The alarm went off at 7AM but we ignored it and slept until a more respectable hour.

Every Monday morning there is a "market" at the Apple Market in Covent Garden. We finally made it there at about 10AM. I was looking for corkscrews (what else?). Did I have any luck? No!

After three hours of pouring over stuff I did not want we repaired to the Marquis of Granby for a pint of Guinness (which, by then, I really wanted).

Next to the pub there is a Thai restaurant (Thai Pot) that looked really good from the menu. It was! Now I was ready for the Watney collection.

We took a cab Christie's, South Kensington. For the next two hours I poked through and examined several hundred corkscrews. This was really a lot of fun. Today there were only three or four of us picking though the jewels. Tomorrow it will be different as I expect that most of the "addicts" will arrive in London some time today. This year there are two back to back corkscrew auctions at Christie's: one on the 14th and one on the 15th. This augurs for a high turn out….and, unfortunately, HIGH prices. It was ominous that one of the "addicts" that I bumped into today at Christie's was the fellow who out bid me last year on a Shrapnel corkscrew.

Now I am back in my hotel room pouring through the sales catalogs and deciding where I should put my money.

I think I'll go on the Internet and relax for a bit.

Enough relaxation! Jean and I are back on the streets of London again ... albeit in a black London cabby. We are off to Chungs: a Chinese restaurant right across from the Miss Selfridges branch that is just off Oxford Street. We have known the owner of this restaurant for about 12 years ... yet ,we still don't know his name ... perhaps it IS Mister Chung. We usually sit at the same table and we normally order the same dishes. Gosh, we are boring people ... maybe we are ripe to be characters in a Monty Python skit rerun. Tonight was no exception: we did the usual boring thing. The crispy seaweed is so good. But, you have to check the mirror before being seen again in public after eating that dish. I don't know what he does to the steamed dumplings, but they always require a reorder. Which we did. The spare ribs come from either tiny British pigs or from very fat cats snatched from the alleys of the East End. Three helpings are in order here.

After dinner we wound our way back to the hotel and had a night cap(s) at the hotel bar. At the bar was the most beautiful woman that Jean and I had ever seen. She must have been ... but, that way madness lies ...

Tuesday, May 13

It's morning!

Like a lark I darted over to Christie's. Lots of my corkscrew addict friends were there. Don Bull and Michael Sharp were sitting on a couch thinking about lunch. Joe Paradi was poking around the corkscrew piles while a "smokers paraphernalia" auction was in progress in the same room. Ron Maclean was pondering the authenticity of some of the pieces. Others were just musing ... I guess.

After more note taking, and drawing absolute limits of what I plan to pay for pieces, I became absorbed in the mechanics of how the video camera/playback person was displaying the lots on the block. I guess I was overdosed on corkscrews.

Thank God, time for lunch.

Jean and I nipped next store to the Café Lazeez for a bit of Indian fare. It is a modern place on the Old Brompton Road. Well, it is sort of Indian, though it is on the Old Brompton Road. It is more like a Brit homogenized version of what you would find in Bombay. The lunch took two hours due to a shortage of staff.

When we got back to the Hanger showrooms of Christie's we found Bertie and Barbara inspecting the stuff for the May 15th auction. The Harks were browsing through the Watney gold while Monica was relaxing and waiting for Joe to come back from a beer.

Tonight we are going to a reception at Christie's. The reception is for the Watney auction, which is just hours away.

There were about a hundred people at the Watney reception, including the host, Bernard Watney. There was a little music, lots of wine and piles of assorted snacky things. Also present were some last minute arriving corkscrew collectors. We mingled, exchanged histories and speculated on what the "market" would do tomorrow.

At about 8:30 people started drifting away. Jean and I must have been feeling very peckish for Indian food today. Without considering any alternatives we took a cab to the Montana Hotel on Gloucester Road for a second attack at stuff from the tandoori ovens. This was rather more traditional cooking from the subcontinent ... lots of oil, loads of spice.

If Laurie F. Jones is reading this: Laurie this restaurant is about a block away from where I formed THE SCREWY TUSKERS.

Anyway, after dinner we returned to the hotel. As, tomorrow starts the two day festival of corkscrews. God! I can't wait. I want to be fresh for the battle of the bids.

Wednesday, May 14

Well, dear reader, today set some records for corkscrew auctions.

But, first things first. I woke up at 2AM thinking that it was 7AM. If I'd known it was so early I would have just gone back to sleep. But, my eyes played tricks with my watch and I just laid in bed waiting for the alarm to scream at me. When it didn't, I turned on the light and saw it was just a few hours after I had gone to bed the night before. Right ... OK ... the cure for this must lay in the mini-bar: a double Cognac and a dowse the lights movement with the hand. Of course, when the real 7AM arrived I was not feeling all that chipper. But, my duty was ahead of me.

Jean and I arrived at Christie's about and hour before the bidding started. The first step is to register as a bidder. That entails filling out a form giving them your necessaries (name, address, astrological sign, etc.). The computer then sweeps its hard drive to see if you have been an honest bidder in the past. I think the computer puts a star next to your name if you have also been guilty of paying foolishly high prices in the past. If so, you don't have to fill out the second part of the form in which Christie's gets curious about method of payment and passport details. Once this is done you get a 5 by 7 card with a large scale bidder number on it. In my case, for today, it was 275. This identifies you to the auctioneer. The card cautions you not to lose it; otherwise, a perverse finder may run up a huge auction bill for you and cause you no end of headaches.

Within half an hour the auction room was fairly well filled. About a dozen of my friends were there. The auctioneer was in a pulpit like elevated thing at the end of the room with a small lump of wood in hand (no gavels here at Christie's). By the way, each side of the room has three television monitors so that anyone in the room can get a good view of the lot up for sale.

Today's sale had 479 lots and the auction lasted 3 hours and 55 minutes, non-stop. As you can calculate, it is conducted at a fairly brisk pace.

Lot #33 set the record for the highest price ever for a single corkscrew at Christie's. The auction house estimate had a range of 4,000 to 6,000 pounds Sterling. Within 2 minutes of very fast bidding it reached the sold price of 16,000 pounds Sterling. So, what is this piece, you may well ask? To quote from the catalog it is:

"An English early to mid 18th century silver pocket corkscrew with double scroll swivel handle and silver intaglio monogrammed seal. Engraved on the handle, 'E*H,1st Nov 1743'. The sheath engraved with later monogram and presentation inscription, 'A.R.' for Alexandra Regina, 'From The Queen Jan 1910'. Small dents on sheath, maker's punch on sheath, 'I.R.', in a fitted velvet lined fish skin case."

You can see a photograph of it on the cover of the Christie's May 14th catalog. It is right in the center ... you can't miss it.

Jesus, I wouldn't pay 16,000 pounds Sterling for it ... but, someone did ... and, the under bidder was willing to pay just shy of that amount.

Forty five other lots of individual corkscrews went for in excess of 1,000 pounds Sterling each. That is a lot!

However, your reporter limited himself to buying just two very modest pieces. For tomorrow is another day and another corkscrew auction.

This evening about 20 of us are going to meet at a local Italian restaurant and try to give some exercise to the corkscrews that we bought today. That means that the contents of at least 20 bottles of wine have to be liberated by our little engines. We should be in sad shape tomorrow morning. God, I'm glad that the Thursday auction does not start until after lunch.

We didn't make it to that dinner after all. Sorry! After coming back to the hotel and fiddling with my two new corkscrews we took a nap that pushed us deep into the above scheduled dinner time. So, with time honored monotony we returned to the house of Chung for crispy duck. It was for the best, as otherwise, we would have probably wound up drinking 10 shots of Grappa and getting into an arm wrestling contest with strangers ... as did one of our prestigious members on the night of the 13th. He shall go unnamed ... but, we do have links to each other's pages, so it is not to hard to figure out who is this collector from Connecticut. I should say that this bit of gossip was supplied by Michael Sharp and I have not attempted to verify it with any other source.

Thursday, May 15

Incidentally, today is the last day that that I shall do this journal from London. After you have read the final bits and pieces on this page you are very welcome to click on the link to the Irish balloon journey. I'll operate the pen the first day; then I shall thankfully turn over the task to Stephani Weaver on the 17th.

Whatever, Jean and I are going out for a spot of lunch before our last pilgrimage to Christie's South Kensington.

The spot of lunch turned out to be a very quick snack of chicken and french fries washed down with mineral water. Have to keep that head clear when bidding! Or, maybe it is a far better idea to down a few glasses of claret accompanied by an ample meal ... I mean that might put one in a more "generous to ones self " mood. I've done both before. I prefer the latter.

We arrived at the sale room at 2PM, and after gathering up my #887 bidding card we found poor seats in the front. All the best seats are in the back for a very good reason: you can see who is bidding for what, while those in front of you do not have that advantage. Unless they crane their necks around and look silly.

This sale was quite a bit smaller than the one held yesterday. It contained 257 lots (remember, 459 lots went the day before). The most keenly sought after item on today's menu went for 5,500 pounds Sterling. It was lot #94. The catalog described it as "An unusual small iron cage corkscrew, with bevelled fold-over extracting handle, unmarked, possible French, Archimedian screw." Today only 12 individual corkscrews each exceeded the 1,000 pound Sterling price. Again, your reporter only bought two modest pieces.

After the final clunk from the auctioneer's wood everyone made their way to the cashier's desks ... the sums were done ... the sale price (plus the buyer's commission ... plus VAT) was paid ... and we picked up our items and did the final goodbyes. Well, final only until August when most of us will be again at the Cathedral of Saint Christie's at South Kensington.

Tonight Jean and I have to do some creative packing before taking our flight to Dublin tomorrow. Though my four acquired corkscrews take up very little room in my carry on, Jean has a couple of shopping bags that she has to worry about ... over and above her already well stocked suitcases.

Lord only knows where tradition and ennui will take us for dinner tonight ... Indian, Chinese????

Tomorrow, May 16, marks the 186 anniversary of the Battle of Albuera.

On to Ireland!

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