Who’ll Bid To Run An Auction?

by Alastair Hamilton -

To the list of job opportunities currently on offer in Shetland, it looks as though we can add that of auctioneer. The tradition of general auctions in Shetland, stretching back many decades, is – temporarily, at least – broken.

My first memories, from the 1970s, are of auctioneer Willie Peterson’s quickfire style, peppered with dry humour, at the then Shetland Marts, though he had been in action long before that at premises in the centre of the town. Another auctioneer, the late Harry Hay, left an equally strong impression.

I recall large crowds, but most of all I was struck by the number of women who combined watching the sale, and sometimes bidding, with knitting. Not infrequently, the armchairs and sofas they occupied were sold underneath them as they wielded their needles. My impression is that there seems to have been something of a shift over the years, with fewer larger items of furniture offered these days. I particularly recall Formica-topped tables achieving what seemed to me to be staggeringly high prices in the 70s, but there were bargains too, like a large Victorian four-drawer chest that I picked up for just £10.

the armchairs and sofas they occupied were sold underneath them

The Marts these days focus exclusively on livestock and have long since moved to the edge of Lerwick, to make room for one of the town’s supermarkets. After a spell at a former garage in Market Street, general auctions have most recently been held in a former school gym hall. But that building is also scheduled to disappear, to make room for housing, and the last auctions – one a general sale and one focusing on books and art – were held in July.

The folk running the auctions have decided to call it a day, after nearly eight years, and there was a reflective mood among the 120 or so people who attended the last general auction, with many people emphasising the continuing need for an auction house. What, they wondered, was to happen to all this stuff if there were no auctions? As another pointed out, this form of recycling is a public service.

There was a huge variety of items at the last of the general sales, the more unusual of which included a complete army field kitchen, a battered desk (complete with hole for inkwell) from Cunningsburgh School (which went for £60) and a set of three oars, which the auctioneer’s floor manager suggested would be good for a three-person team with two weaker rowers. She also did her best to attract a bid for a fur coat, but none was forthcoming and she decided to buy it herself.

Among the more conventional offerings, there were, as usual, several old photographs by the celebrated Shetland photographer, J D Ratter. A couple of wooden model yachts, of the type sailed by enthusiasts on Shetland’s lochs, attracted a lot of interest; and there were many boxes, sold as mixed lots, containing eclectic assortments of kitchen equipment, tools, electronic bits and pieces, DVDs, CDs and 78rpm records.

eclectic assortments

The last auction of all, held a few days later, was devoted to hundreds of books and a number of paintings. The books were mostly offered individually, with just a few sold in lots of two or three. A smaller audience of around 40 peered intently at their catalogues and bidding was generally brisk. Prices ranged up to £100 for rarer editions but many lots went for between £10 and £30. The catalogue, which featured scores of celebrated titles, was a reminder of the very many books that have appeared about Shetland, or have been written by Shetland-based authors.

In the absence of regular auction sales, Shetland folk will need to find other ways of disposing of what they don’t need. That generally means social media; but, whereas in most parts of the UK the default outlets would be Gumtree or eBay, these are much less used in Shetland than local sales sites, typically the classifieds section of the Shetlink website or the various local sales pages on Facebook.

Efficient and well-organised as these are, nothing beats the genuinely social ambience, fascination and frisson of a real, live auction. It’s very much to be hoped that someone will take up the reins and maintain the auction tradition.

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