Saturday, 14 November 2009

When Auctioneers had bodyguards...

MEN with Uzi machine guns, blackmail from terrorists/criminals and empty auction rooms -- Irish auctioneers have faced them all down through the years. But how will they deal with the fall-out from the credit crunch?

With Finance Minister Brian Lenihan now finally admitting that the Government is facing its toughest economic test in 20 years, watch out for the repercussions.
Auctioneers are going to be up against it to clinch sales under the hammer in the weeks ahead. But don't despair -- the profession has a long track record of battling against the odds.

Our auctioneering professionals are unlikely to come up against anything worse than they have confronted before.

Auctioneering dates back to the earliest times. The Babylonians, for example, held marriage markets at which women were sold by auction.

Commenting on this in 1931, L V Bennett, president of the Irish Auctioneers' and Estate Agents' Association (fore-runner of the IAVI) observed wryly: "No information is given as to the disposal of the unattractive and, consequently, unsold lots, nor are we told if the auctioneer received his commission in kind".

By Roman times, the process of selling by auction had come to be recognised as the most convenient and equitable method of disposing of property in the best interests of buyer and seller.

During this period, the auctioneer was always a soldier who, as a signal of commencing the auction, stuck a spear in the ground -- hence the sale being described as "sub hasta" (under the spear).

As related in the book Under The Hammer: Property in Ireland, the history of the IAVI, auctioneering can indeed be a pretty hazardous business, even nowadays.
Repossessions or bank sales can be particularly tricky. A case in point was related by leading auctioneer Patrick Stephenson of James H North & Co, who described a gruelling experience when trying to sell a farm on the instructions of the High Court and on behalf of the Northern Bank.

The auction was preceded by a number of threatening phone calls to the auctioneer, who then applied to the court for an injunction to stop the owners "watching and besetting". He even received a mass card in the post. The auction was ultimately held with two detectives at the back of the room concealing Uzi machine guns beneath their coats. Happily, there were no actual fireworks.

Other auctioneers have had similar hair-raising experiences over the years (some involving threats from terrorists).

Auctions have always been a pretty hard-nosed business, however -- though much better regulated now than in days of yore.

Selling by an inch of a candle is mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his famous 1660 diary. During the bidding, a small piece of candle was burned and the last bidder before the candle went out was declared the buyer. In the mid-1920s, an auction held some 50 years earlier, during which the auctioneer remained silent is described in the IAA yearbook: "It is only right to mention he was not a Dublin auctioneer -- but, when anyone bid, he gave him a glass of brandy and the person who got the last glass of brandy was declared the purchaser of the lot offered for sale."
Now maybe that's the kind of spirited approach needed to perk up things in the auction rooms over the coming weeks ...
From the Irish Independent.

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