FOR SOME unknown reason, I have only ever attended two book auctions and did not bid at either, so when an important customer asked me over a fortnight ago to attend one in Kells and to bid on his behalf I felt as though I was going out on my first date. The prospect was as fascinating as it was terrifying.
The advice from my more experienced siblings did not do much to ease the tension. “Keep your hands in your pockets” (hardly appropriate for somebody going on something equivalent to his first date ), “Try and not fall asleep”, (not much better ), “Don’t bid on something you haven’t seen”, (Hey! Come on give us a break ) and “Make sure you have a budget and stick to it” (A bit of the kettle calling the pot black ).
The catalogue wasn’t much better. Such lots as “Seven Enid Blytons”, “A shelf of Pelicans”, A box of religious magazines” weren’t exactly going to set my soul on fire. However my customer still felt there were bargains to be got there and so on Monday August 22 auction I set off to view the books of one William Battersby, accountant, local historian, and book collector in the auction rooms of Oliver Usher, Kells, County Meath.
Walking into the said auction rooms was like walking into a cavernous cellar of books. They seemed to be pitched everywhere without rhyme or reason. After being warmly welcomed by various members of the Usher family, I set to work “viewing” the books that were to be auctioned the following day.
It was immediately evident that Battersby had been something of a magpie book collector. He seemed to have bought everything in sight. There was some mention of the fact that the man had to climb over books to get into bed and that the front door had practically been broken down for the auctioneer and his staff to gain entrance.
It also became immediately evident that there was some rhyme and reason to the way the books were set out going numerically from Lot No 1 to Lot No 800 and something. Initially the viewing was unpromising. The initial lots seemed to be nothing more than book bric a brac. The seven Enid Blyton books looked sad, lost, and forlorn on top of a small bay of shelves. The Thames and Hudson edition of the Book of Kells was somewhat soiled and the slipcase was torn.
However as the lots developed, the quality of the books moved from the ridiculous to the sublime probably culminating with the magnificent Swiss 1990s edition of the Book of Kells and there were a number of lots there that would certainly have graced my client’s library if I were lucky enough (or brave enough ) to acquire them.
The next day the place was as much awash with various members of the Usher family as it was with books and punters. Daughters, nephews, sisters, uncles, aunts, in laws, outlaws, any laws abounded and they added tremendously to the intimate and warm atmosphere of the auction.
The teas and sandwiches were provided by a sister who did not know what to charge for them and decided that €3 a sandwich was a fair price. Given that they were made from her free range eggs and homemade mayonnaise made them very good value indeed.
The day was certainly exhausting but also exciting. Oliver Usher’s knowledge of books may not have been exactly salubrious but his continuous flow of talk for close on eight hours was heroic. I was successful in 80 per cent of the bids which was satisfactory.
Towards the end, an old man sat beside and intently watched the proceedings. Later on when I had finally packed the car with my purchases, extremely pleased with myself, I saw him leave the auction rooms reading one book held in his hand, a beaming smile on his face. Passing him, I said: “You look like the happiest man in town. He beamed back at me: “I am.”
Incidentally, the seven Enid Blytons went for €20, the Swiss Book of Kells for €8,000.