A few years ago, I developed an unusual – and fortunately fleeting – habit: I began to look forward to my Sunday night TV appointment with the BBC Antiques roadshow. The show could wrap itself in more layers of cuteness than a Victorian lady in a ruffled petticoat (think plummy presenters with hair as lacquered as a shiny dining table; a bunch of famous country as a backdrop, this musical theme) but what really makes it so watchable is much more delicious stuff than that.
First, there are the unsuspecting people who don’t realize that their ancestors were probably thieves. They arrive with a pair of elaborate silver candle holders and a half-baked story about how their great-grandmother was so loved by the family she worked for that they told her to take whatever she wanted. when she retired. Of course they did, my dear. Then there were all kinds of colonial and military spoils that I don’t think would be allowed on air these days: pinched tiles from the forbidden palace, maharaja’s breeches. But what I used to savor was watching the show blast the air of people’s dreams of untold wealth before your very eyes.
Sometimes the presenter would explain that the said object appeared to be a later imitation, had been glued together, or was rather commonplace, making its owner feel both poorer and publicly belittled. Even if they were enthusiastic about, say, an old grandfather clock, then they would add: ‘At auction it could fetch £ 100. Poor Sap now realized that she had basically wasted her life polishing this nasty bully (clock, not presenter) but was now stuck in front of a TV camera and needed to pretend somehow that she had never been bothered with money. So over and over again they would say the same phrase through clenched teeth, “Oh really, that much.” And then the presenter would use the equally reliable phrase, “The most important thing is that you have fun.”
Value. It sounds like such a solid and reliable word. What we, what things, stand for. How much monetary or personal importance we attach to something. But some days it’s a weird concept to contend with.
This week we gave something to someone we know whose life is not easy and probably not organized the way most of you reading this column would find comfortable. There are no drugs or drinks involved but a few problems for sure. The gift was of modest monetary value, but it was something they had hinted that they wanted and would appreciate. However, on a phone call 24 hours later, they told us that they went to the local pawnshop and sold it – and for a terribly low sum.
Try to sort out the value we tried to place on a gift. The fleeting value he retained for someone whose life is not easy. The value placed on it by a pawnshop. What was he really worth? I do not know. But I found the experience maddening – and unreasonably because, really, once it got out of our hands, it was none of our business whether it was valued.
You will also remember that at the beginning of the year I spoke about the death of my partner’s aunt and all that it involved. Selling a house after someone has passed away in the UK can be time consuming. First, you need to get probate (my partner’s job as executor) to disperse the estate. Then you “trade” on the sale with your buyer – it finally happened on Monday – and this is the time when no one can back down. And then you “finish”. This date is set for October 25. The keys will be handed over.
While most of the property has long been scattered, now is the time to get rid of the furniture and this week has been a painful re-enactment of the vengeance of Antiques roadshow. In our post-coronavirus world, you send photos of potentially valuable items to auction houses and a posh-named young man – Archie, James – returns their appraisal verdicts. It turns out that a Georgian cabinet is “of little commercial value”; glassware sets will be accepted but “please remove all sherry glasses as there is no market for these”; even a lot of things they want suggested such low reserves that renting a van to haul them to the auction house carries the risk of losing any potential profit. How can a table that has been enjoyed for centuries be less valuable than a new MDF table from Ikea? But we can’t keep these things; we don’t have space. So we have to hope that someone else will buy them and cherish them.
And maybe that’s all our friend did too. Thought simply, “I hope the gift ends up somewhere where it is treasured; he can’t stay here because right now I need the money. And maybe when the owner of the pawnshop made a paltry offer, the response, delivered with relief, was, “Really, that much? “