Going for a song

Those who have had a taste of auction or garage sales and flea markets in the old country can never quite resist the excitement of the bid, rummaging through the stalls in a noisy crowded street.

The London office of Sotheby’s, the world-famous auction house. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The London office of Sotheby’s, the world-famous auction house.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Readers who follow The Antiques Road Show on BBC Entertainment are intrigued by amazing stories of artwork, silver or pottery that have been hiding in a dusty attic, neglected and tarnished.
Most of us in Israel don’t have an attic in which to store family heirlooms, and as we get older and downsize we tend to de-clutter. But those who have had a taste of auction or garage sales and flea markets in the old country can never quite resist the excitement of the bid, rummaging through the stalls in a noisy crowded street or climbing up a ladder to the top shelf of an old book shop.
My fascination with bargain hunting started in England when we moved into an Edwardian house. My husband’s job had been relocated to a small country town and the disadvantages of living far from family and the Jewish community were outweighed by the rural surroundings, the forests and nature reserves to walk with the children and the dogs, as well as the availability of affordable spacious old family homes.
Next door lived a single middle-aged woman who had converted her home into bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
With little money, she had filled the beautiful house with practical and elegant old furniture, with an eclectic addition of copper fire-irons, decorative door handles and useful vases and bowls. It was Elsa who taught me the art of buying at auction sales.
In the High Street was a real-estate agency with a large barn for monthly auction sales. The better items were inside, and outside in the yard was ostensibly the junk – but worth rummaging for a bicycle that could be repaired and repainted or an old urn for planting flowers on the doorstep.
Elsa had many tips. Those pictures might be hideous, but look at the gorgeous frames, she would say. Or you might not want that chipped old kitchen dresser, but look in the drawers. There is a beautiful lace tablecloth and 12 napkins.
A true antique is 100 years old or more. As homes were getting smaller also in Britain, the heirs to family estates preferred to sell at auctions and use the money for their smaller more modern apartments.
With great jubilation I came home from my first auction with a genuine Victorian chaise longue, bought for £20. My husband nearly threw me out with it, for the old tapestry upholstery was torn, revealing bunches of straw and broken springs – and he detected some woodworm activity. For another £20 I got it restored and it still has pride of place in my Haifa living room.
In contrast to the odd chairs and tables that I picked up over the years, I raised a laugh in the yard when bidding for a twin stroller. My four children are close in age, and apart from the huge Silver Cross pram for the little ones, I needed wheels I could bring in the car. I had spotted in the yard a nice twin stroller in quite good condition. On this occasion I had to take the two older children with me and I was rather concerned as they explored the yard and tried to activate the mangle of a washing machine. So not concentrating enough on the auctioneer, I just raised my hand to compete with the bidding. Amid laughter, the auctioneer told me that I had been bidding against myself.
Fortunately he let me have it at the lower price and we took it home for disinfection and adjustment of brakes.
Knowing that we would have a much smaller home in Israel, we reluctantly put much of that precious collection back into the auction sale, but the few items we could bring with us bring back happy memories.
On The Antiques Road Show, we watch a team of experts who can estimate the age almost down to a decade of items from the 17th and 18th centuries, simply by their knowledge of the craftsmen and their methods.
The marking on silver, for example, can determine not just the date but also the place of its origin.
Auctioneering is not a new sales method. Called augeo in Latin, it was also a Babylonian custom. Herodotus writes of selling young maidens in marriage to the highest bidder as far back as 500 BCE. The Romans made it popular with auction rooms called atria auctionaria, and it became a leading way of selling land and livestock.
The first auction house as we know it today dealing with arts and crafts was opened in Stockholm in 1674, and Sotheby’s world-famous house opened in London in 1744.
Although most Israeli apartments are modern and small, one or two items of furniture or artifacts picked up at a flea market can transform a standard Israeli home into something special. But proceed with caution. There are many stores advertising antiques, but examinings the dovetails on the drawers or looking for markings on the silver often determines that they are reproductions. An aged item cannot be in pristine condition, although extreme damage to woodwork or actual cracks in china do reduce the value. Beware of that popular “Provence” furniture that is simply an old cracked white wood cupboard that was more likely thrown out of a 1950s Kupat Holim clinic than shipped in from France.
“Retro” seems to be a buzz word in the bargain hunting world, and in Britain, as well as in Israel, one sees overpriced postwar items (known as utility furniture in the UK) into the 1960s – one of the ugliest periods in design and architecture.
To find a truly eclectic selection of items, the English-speaking members of the Haifa Oren chapter of Hadassah Israel enthusiastically flock to the annual auction sale. Items are donated and the proceeds are kept by the charity, so while there is no personal gain, one can get rid of those unwanted gifts, make room on the bookshelves and maybe pick up a pretty china object or piece of jewelery. Margot Calacluda, who by day works as a real estate agent, obviously studies the TV shows and has a steady humorous patter to encourage buyers to bid. In a recent sale, she picked up a small blue bowl, repeated the adage that china should always be turned upside down to check its origins, and without turning a hair announced that it was “Fox Home.” No Limoges or Clarice Cliff at this Hadassah sale, but the tables emptied and unwanted gifts will no doubt be passed on.
True bargains can be found in Israel if one knows where to look. As the older generation of European immigrants passes away and their heirs want to empty their old flats stuffed with large furniture, mirrors and china used for more formal occasions, these items are often sold very cheaply to dealers and end up in flea markets.
Jaffa is still an Aladdin’s cave of curios, but it has gone a bit too upmarket with minimalistic artistically arranged displays, air conditioning and laminated wooden floors – and with that, the charm has gone and the prices soared.
There are still bargains to be had in some of the original stores. My children bought an antique piano stool for my birthday. Judging by its legs and shape, it is probably Edwardian and the upholstered seat lifts up to provide storage for sheet music. It originated in England and inside the seat, curiously, we found a business card belonging to a music teacher in Manchester.
The Haifa flea market has also been expanded and prices are far lower, as it is less trendy. With limited opening hours, Saturday is the main sales day, a disappointment for the Shabbat observant.
There are many family items that one would never sell – such as old letters, naturalization documents, wartime memorabilia, photographs and medals – but it is nice to know more about their history and value.
We all have religious items in our homes. Judaica items and very old books are often brought in for evaluation to the British TV shows and it is particularly moving when the owners say that they or their parents brought these precious items into Britain as refugees and managed to keep them. One can often find information on the Internet about the silver markings and origins of that kiddush cup or havdala spice container or hanukkia; books usually have their date and place of publication on the flyleaf.
Unfortunately, there are not many places in Israel to get items fairly valued. One who takes a family heirloom – a picture that has been on the wall of the family home since childhood, a collection of old books – to a commercial dealer will usually be offered a price well below its real value.
It would be nice to have a source or a serious TV show where the owners of precious items could learn about their history and find out about the value. Although as so often happens on the Antiques Road Show, the owner says: “It will never be for sale.”