Zebra-stripe pouffes and a big bronze vagina: Channel 4’s The Auction House

I loathed pretty much every buyer we saw but I was able to keep my disgust in check by thinking of them as upmarket recyclers. 

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The Auction House
Channel 4


The people in factual at Channel 4 are billing Lots Road Auctions in Chelsea, subject of their silly new documentary series (Tuesdays, 9pm), as the strangest such establishment in Britain. This is clearly an exaggeration. All auction houses are strange, for there’s nothing so peculiar as other people’s tat: posh, antique or otherwise. Amazing, really, that anyone should want to rehouse it. Among the items we saw the loaded denizens of Britain’s richest borough lusting over in the first film, for instance, were a pair of “mosaic” panthers (think concrete with a few bits of broken mirror stuck into it); a three-foot model of a vagina set in bronze (yours for £800-£1,200); and a collection of cheap-looking furniture that had been “customised” (translation: covered in mindless graffiti) by a “local artist”.

Lili, a Lots Road regular who works as a songwriter and psychotherapist and has just bought a seven-bedroom mansion that stands in its own park, seriously considered buying the vagina, on the grounds that if she saw such a thing in a friend’s house, she would be hot with envy. However, having given it a lustful stroke, in the end she plumped for a more practical purchase, snapping up a dining table on which our nameless artist had helpfully scrawled in black marker pen the legend: “Everything can be art, nothing can be everything”. Such was her excitement, she even claimed this table had special powers. “I have a feeling it will make us happier,” she said, her suede cowboy hat quite possibly vibrating with joy. This, I felt, was incautious. Any fool could see it was going to look absolutely terrible in her “alpine-surgical”-themed kitchen.

Lots Road Auctions has been owned for the past 35 years by a millionaire called Roger Ross who describes his management style as “antiquated, dictatorial . . . offensive”. It used to be a nice little earner, but business is down 30 per cent, the bottom having fallen out of “brown furniture”; these days, only his “modern” department is a hit with the City boys and their womenfolk. What to do? So far, he’s all out of ideas, after his plan to muddle up his departments roundly failed (the crusty types in search of Edwardian card tables and 19th-century copies of Old Masters were unimpressed to see a sofa shaped like a pair of lips in the antique showroom, while the Belgravia housewives who frequent the modern department downstairs were still not tempted to take a look at all the gleaming mahogany above). Even his most loyal customers are in danger of drifting away. Michael and Craig, a couple of more than 30 years whose home is themed “the Grand Tour gone mad”, would love to refresh their collection of antiques. But while the market is so flat, they’re unable to sell anything, and as a result have no room. A pair of Chinese porcelain rabbits they reluctantly plucked from a crowded tabletop went for just £400, which seemed a lot given that they strongly resembled Thumper and Miss Bunny from Bambi. But Michael’s disappointment was palpable. “You’ve got your new teeth,” he said to Craig, who is currently somewhat lacking in the incisor department. “But that’s all.”

The Auction House is madly derivative: it’s Posh Pawn meets The Office, the influence of which lingers whiffily on in the world of fly-on-the-wall. But its combination of melancholy (all that abandoned, once-loved furniture) and vulgarity (the too-fat wallets, the zebra-stripe pouffes) makes, I must admit, for weirdly consoling television. I loathed pretty much every buyer we saw but I was able to keep my disgust in check by thinking of them as upmarket recyclers. If a life-size fake bronze gorilla has to exist at all, better that it ends up in some banker’s ghastly penthouse than in landfill.

Meanwhile, the Kirstie Allsopp in me – I refer to her fondness for upcycling rather than her “passionate feminism” – quietly wondered if I shouldn’t nip down to Lots Road myself to snap up the lovely Victorian daybed no one else seemed to want. Reupholstered, it would come in useful for those afternoons on which, sickened by the sight of yet another perfectly good kitchen being ripped out by my neighbours, I find myself in urgent need of a good, long lie-down.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart