Buying the Sunbeam, 2 : The Auction

I have an anxiety about auctions which probably originates in the comics of my youth: it was a staple of The Dandy and The Beano that some character attending an auction as a mere spectator would – through the application of itching or sneezing powder, perhaps, or simply by waving to attract someone’s attention – make gestures that the auctioneer would mistake for bids, and so end up buying something at great cost that he did not want or could not afford.

There is less likelihood of that happening when you are bidding live online, though I was careful always to keep my cursor well away from the screen button that said ‘bid now’. As a matter of fact I was more worried about being interrupted at the crucial moment, either by a connection failure (given the well-known malice of inanimate objects) or a visitation of furniture-removal men.

The latter was no random fear: we had arranged that a project in town should come to collect an unwanted sofa and table, and of course the day of the auction turned out to be the only practicable date, so I was at pains to emphasise that they must call in the morning (the auction started at 11, and the first lot I was interested in was no 299); but as the morning wore on, they failed to appear.

That was at the back of my mind: the forefront had plenty to occupy it. Another anxiety I have about auctions is getting carried away in the moment, so I was determined to fix my limits. Having decided my target lots – these three Sunbeams, lot 299, advertised as a 1913 Golden 2-speed, though its frame number suggested 1914 0r 15:

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lot 326, a bona fide 1911 or 12 Golden with the Newill 3-speed hub

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finally lot 454, an early 2 speed, perhaps as old as 1905:


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I calculated the actual value of a scale of bids at £50 intervals and wrote them on a sheet of paper. This was important because in addition to the buyer’s premium – 17.5% – there was a further premium of 2% for online bidding then VAT (20%) on top of that – so a hammer price of, say, £500 would be considerably more in total. (Being prone to fantasy, I still entertained the hope that I might be the sole Sunbeam enthusiast and find myself in the position of bidding for all three lots at knockdown prices, so I needed to be clear about what I had to spend).

I discovered that Brightwell’s allow you to set an alarm for any lots you are interested in, which was handy for me with my first lot of interest being so far in to the sale and the appearance of furniture removal men still impending; just to be clear how it worked, I set it for an early lot and was rewarded by the sonorous clanging of a bell some three lots before the one marked was due, along with a warning on the screen.

I also made a note of how long it took for the first hundred lots to go in, just to give a rough idea of when mine might come up. When the auction starts, you get a live sound feed from the auction room accompanied by a picture of the lot on offer. A button on the screen advises you that you can bid and you are also warned that there may be a slight delay on sound; there are various visual signals, such as ‘fair warning – lot about to sell’ before the hammer actually comes down.

Never having bid online before, I was glad of the opportunity to study what went on for a good time before I became involved, though beyond a certain point you just want your lot to come round; but at the same time I was willing the tardy furniture men to appear before they were a nuisance.

It is a well-observed fact that printers will serve you faithfully till you actually need them to print out something important and urgent, at which point they will seize the opportunity to misbehave in an unimaginable range of ways, from running out of ink, chewing up paper, to breaking down altogether. The same suspicion attaches to any audio-visual equipment and indeed to computers generally – they are fine till you actually have to rely on them.

So it was with considerable chagrin but no actual surprise (more a feeling of grim predictability) that I realised – somewhere about lot 250 – that I was no longer hearing anything down the line from Leominster.

My computer is upstairs in my attic aerie with the router in the hall below; I had toyed with the notion of wiring directly, but the only line I had available would have meant moving the computer downstairs, where it would have impeded the late coming of the furniture men (is it only writers who are plagued by plot complications of this sort?) – so on the grounds that wireless failures seemed to occur mainly in the evenings, I took the risk of leaving things as they were.

And now – !

In the initial bout of cursing I failed to notice that it was only the sound I had lost; I could still see the bidding progressing on screen. While I was working out the implications of this, the sound came back, and it was evident that there had simply been a hand-over from one auctioneer to another with some disruption as the new man was wired for sound. All was well.

In the days of my childhood, when computers occupied whole floors of buildings and the notion of online shopping was unimaginable, we had catalogues. Mostly they were concerned with clothes or household articles but there was always a section on toys that I used to pore over; and then there were more specialised ones, such as those my brothers had for Hornby train sets, and one I particularly remember for ‘Frog’ diecast models (which we rather despised, for some reason (or none, perhaps), preferring Dinky and Corgi).

This had a model of an ERF lorry (A KV, I discover:

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which was, I recall, a distinctive shade of pale green. I was enamoured of that lorry, or more precisely, of its picture: I would gaze fondly at it, with yearning I can still recall, though the object of it has become blurred in my memory; it was a species of ownership, I suppose, yet one that served to remind me that I did not actually possess the object. I worshipped it from afar, in my imagination, unbeknownst, much like the mediaeval knights who practised Courtly Love.

I mention that because it seems to me there is a direct line from the emotions induced by the picture of that toy truck half a century ago and the strong feelings arising from the pictures of these Sunbeams in the Brightwell’s catalogue: this falling in love with distant objects is a capacity (or infirmity) I have never lost.

And now – the clock told me – I was within some ten minutes or so (and still no removal men!) of bidding to possess one  – what would that be like? (I never did own the ERF).

I am not one of those who go in for ‘visualisation’, by which I mean imagining the positive outcome to whatever it is you wish to succeed in (such as kicking a conversion in rugby, say). My superstition takes the opposite form: any attempt to imagine successful possession beforehand smacks of hubris and counting chickens; better to affect a conviction that the hoped-for outcome will never come to pass, that such things happen to others but not to you, so that by an outward show of humble undeserving, you might win Fortune’s favour.

(Interesting snippet: it was Dante Alighieri who first installed Fortune as Earth’s presiding spirit)

So instead of telling myself ‘in ten minutes, this will be yours!’ I contented myself with ‘in ten minutes, it will all be over’ (much as one might on a visit to the dentist). The warning bell sounded, though I had no need of it; three lots slipped past and all at once it was the moment.

What you forget, of course, is that there are other online bidders who may be bidding at exactly the same time as you, so the process of bidding has a desperate quality, as you click repeatedly on the button and yet it does not respond; then you are suddenly rewarded by the statement ‘you are winning this item’ only for it to vanish again as quickly when you are outbid. I was within a bid of my limit (and pondering whether I could extend it) when my rival dropped out, leaving me in possession. After a brief frenzy of bidding lasting under a minute, I had my prize.

So, after several weeks’ pondering the possibility, accompanied by many yearning contemplations of the catalogue pictures, I now had what I wanted – how did that feel?

To report honestly, there was no elation: I found myself completely unmoved – perhaps I did not quite believe it; I kept going to another section of the web-page, marked ‘purchases’, where I was reassured that I had indeed secured  ‘lot 299, A 1913 All-Black Golden Sunbeam Gentlemans Bicycle, the celluloid handles with twist ends to reveal tyre repair kit, no.129403’.

Well, I thought, that’s that, then – it was a sensation of quiet satisfaction more than anything.

Though curiously anti-climactic, it was not unlike how reaching the summit of a mountain must be: you’ve achieved your aim, but to savour it properly, you still have to get back down; in my case, my success had committed me to an epic journey south the next day (a 720 mile round trip) to fetch my spoils.

I had already arranged with my brother that I would be at his house in Motherwell for 6 next morning, which entailed leaving Perth before 5. I was conscious of reserving my joy for the moment when I had the Sunbeam home on my own street.

Meantime, there was the rest of the auction to see out: having achieved my No1 target at near my limit, I did not entertain much hope that I could afford anything else, but I might as well look…

As an online bidder, you cannot see your rivals, nor they you, but you can guess at them. After emerging victorious by the skin of my teeth in the contest for lot 299, I reasoned that there must be someone much like me, even to the extent of his (or her) funds; and had I missed out on 299, my next target would be 326, the 1911 or 12 Sunbeam 3-speed, though I would be conscious that a greater prize was still to come, in the form of 454, the early two-speed. With my war-chest still intact, I would have entertained the possibility that with a fair wind I might even net both…

That was not really an option that was open to me, but I did not want to drop out entirely. A large part of what had persuaded me to join the auction in the first place was the thought that I did not want to find myself looking up the results later and thinking ‘O, I could have bought it at that price!’ If it went beyond what I could afford, well and good; but who knows? perhaps my rival’s sole target had been lot 299, which, having failed to win, he or she had now retired, sorrowful but with funds intact.

I did bid on 326, but my heart was not in it: I did not want it badly enough in itself, and I would rather keep alive the slender hope that 454 might somehow be within reach. So 326 went for £260 on the hammer, a real bargain for a Newill 3 speed from 1911 or 12. I wondered if the buyer had been my rival for 299, and whether (had it been me) I would have found the bargain price an adequate consolation for missing out on 299; part of the consolation would certainly have been that I remained well-placed to bid on 454.

In the event, 454 went for £500, the lower end of its predicted price range, and again, in my view, quite a bargain. So had my rival, having missed out on the major prize, succeeded in securing the two next-best for a similar expenditure? I rather hoped it might be so. Had it been me, would I have considered myself adequately compensated, or even perhaps more fortunate, to have secured two interesting bicycles for the cost of one? Who knows: auctions give rise to such imponderable might-have beens.

For my own part, I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had planned a campaign and seen it through to a successful conclusion: I had done what I set out to do. I had myself a pre-1918 Golden Sunbeam.

All I had to do now was go and fetch it.

(But what of the furniture removal men? they came, but not inconveniently; all-in-all, a successful day).