Every summer the cultural axis on which my life spins tilts a bit upon the arrival of my Mum's cousin Dutchy from across the pond. The fridge suddenly contains English ales, jars of incendiary Coleman's Mustard appear on my counter, I tend to play Blue Note jazz more than Blur and my minimal television-viewing shifts from things like "Jeopardy" and Anthony Bourdain to British s taples such as Gordon Ramsay's "F-Word" and "The Avengers."
A favorite series of Dutchy's is one of several wildly popular shows on the telly about estate sales and auctions called "Cash In the Attic," which brings camera crews and bubbly hosts into the cluttered homes of average Brits, revealing everything from a great auntie's fondness for cast-iron Victorian dragons to granddad's hidden talent for needlepoint.
Every show is anchored on the drama of discovery and sometimes the revelation that a modest fortune has been lurking in some forgotten cupboard for decades. Who knew a powder compact could be worth $15,000 or a chipped teacup a c-note?
"Flog It!" may have a crass title, but it's real-life, hasn't-been-dusted-in-three-decades candor can be captivating. Not exactly an anti-"Antiques Roadshow" but it definitely has its own pleasantly pedestrian patina.
My favorite tale of unwitting wealth was a pair of Irish peat buckets that had sat untouched in an English garden for decades, which were valued at $600,000 for the pair.
If television is any gauge, the trend toward searching for hidden treasures in one's own musty attic or mossy potting shed is on a steep trajectory. Here in New England, auctions satisfy a large part of that impulse, particularly when they showcase extensive, esoteric estates that represent an entire lifetime of possessions.
On Saturday, Southern Vermont Auctions offers the perfect opportunity for a hands-on, live-action peek into the thrill of domestic discoveries and retail reminiscing when illustrious Dorset auctioneer Mary Anne Lukas opens bidding on paintings, pottery, furniture, ephemera and, as they say in the business, "country smalls" from two fascinating local estates.
Though items slated for the gavel are compelling in and of themselves — including
everything from antique postcards and general store receipts to a Chinoiserie mah-jongg table and Fornasetti dinner plates — during a lively conversation with Lukas, I was just as intrigued by the zeal she possesses for her career and her community, as well as what led her to take on a role rarely assumed by women.
After starting out in New York as a vice president of marketing for a global corporation, Lukas' love of collecting motivated her to explore the business of selling. She cut her auction block chops during 11 years at a Connecticut auction house, where she worked 70- to 80-hour weeks, sometimes selling 1,500 items in one day, so the woman knows her stuff.
Noting her refreshingly vivid sense of humor, I think it's also safe to say that — even in a sea of Tiffanies, Nippons and Steubens — Lukas commands the room and not just because of her professionalism.
"I'm a 5-foot, 10-inch spaz in heels, so I'm basically a big, tall spaz with a microphone," she chuckles. "Everyone tells me I'm funny, but I'm not trying to be. I just try to keep it light."
Considering the circumstances that bring the average linen set, chair or vase to auction, that lightness of bid-taking must also be duly anchored by a significant amount of resilience, not to mention sensitivity.
Often dealing directly with families in the early stages of mourning, Lukas seems well aware that emotions are usually running high. "I know not to take it personally," she says, "but I can be perceived as the bad guy."
The rawness of her client's grief depends on the particular situation and how long it's been since a loved one passed. "I've had phone calls the day after someone's died or it can be years before the family's ready to sell."
Either way, Lukas handles every aspect of the process, from creating a catalogue, publicizing the event and wielding the gavel to coordinating shipping and facilitating charitable donations of unsold or unauctionable items.
"So I basically have no life," she jokes, albeit adding gratefully, "I have a great auction staff."
A good part of what she does is a labor of love, as evidenced by her commitment to helping nonprofits in the course of her work, which fuels much of the verve she infuses into everything at Southern Vermont Auctions.
"It's really important to me to support organizations like Vermont Reading Partners or the Battered Women's Shelter in Rutland," Lukas asserts. She also encourages families to donate smaller, less sellable items to their favorite local charities and she frequently volunteers to run the show for various fund-raising auctions in the region.
With all the furnishings, collections and objets d'art that have passed under her eyes through the years, the most pressing question on my mind, however, was what her personal collection must be like.
"Being in the business cured me of the desire to acquire," she declared with an almost wistful resignation.
When I asked if she would name the weirdest item that she ever bought at auction, without hesitation she exclaimed, "That would be the wild boar's head hanging in my kitchen. Oh, and it's wearing a tiara."
The princess bling, it turns out, did not come with the taxidermy. Upon announcing that she was moving to Vermont, a friend gave it to her because, he declared, "someone's gotta be glamorous." Seeing the pearls and smart execuwear in which Lukas conducts her proceedings, that boar's got some competition in the glamour department.
But let's get back to that all-important gavel. Having seen more episodes of auction shows than I care to admit, I know that an auctioneer's calling skills are a key element of the entertainment factor, particularly how they signal the end of bidding.
"I've dropped the gavel or I've forgotten about it completely and I've also been known to fall off the podium — while sober, of course!" she bemusedly explains.
Lukas has clearly turned her auctioneering acumen into an endearing, dynamic and fruitful style that adds as much character to estate sale proceedings as any history-steeped, eclectic collectibles that might be up for bid.
Curious to know if she herself deigned to take in a TV auction show on occasion, I gingerly ventured onto the topic, not wanting to offend her long-cultivated sensibilities and being well aware of the in-depth research she puts into every object she sells, in what is truly a scholarly industry.
"I wish everyone would watch 'Cash In the Attic,'" she blurted. "It's the thrill of the hunt!"
Contact Anne Lawrence Guyon at [email protected]