John Pye Auctions Weekly Story – ‘Brazen ‘Brigadier’’

When it comes to the emptying of houses and the dividing of estates, I have had my share of surprises about how greed overtakes the most surprising of people. On one occasion, a trustee bank asked me to go out to an estate valuation at an ancient manor house in the Vale of Belvoir in the late 1980s. My instructions were: ‘Whatever the two relatives want to take, they can take, and whatever they ask you to do, you must do.’

The estate had been left by a well-to-do woman to her brother and sister who I was to meet the following week. As arranged, I drove out and pulled into the driveway of a beautiful country home before striking the knocker at the grand entrance. The huge oak door was opened by a typical retired Army Brigadier type, sporting an impressive handlebar moustache, who greeted me with a lofty: ‘Good morning Pye; how are you old boy?’

I went down three steps and walked into the dining room where the ‘Brigadier’ showed me a glorious table and chairs, overlooked by wonderful minstrel gallery that took my breath away. In businesslike fashion, the ‘Brigadier’ then said: ‘Right Pye, can we get down to some valuations of this lot then?’

I explained the instructions I had been given from the bank and said I was ready to make the tour with him. First we came to a lovely painting, a WP Frith, which I estimated at £800. ‘Ah,’ came the ‘Brigadier’s’ plummy response, before moving on. Next I was asked to value some silver candlesticks. Immediately, I said that they were not silver and were worth just £60. ‘Ah,’ once again grunted the ‘Brigadier’.

We went through the same process with a succession of items. Each time, I gave my view and the ‘Brigadier’ stroked his whiskers and utterered an inscrutable: ‘Ah.’ The pieces included a supposedly ‘ancient’ clock, which I had to admit was merely late 19th century and worth just £130 to £140.

Then there was a dog grate, a beauty, worth around £250. Another disappointment, however, for the ‘Brigadier’ was what he described as two silver candelabras on the heavy dining table. Unfortunately, once again, I had to inform him that they were simply Sheffield Plate, made by the respected Walker and Hall Company but worth far less than silver. The table, however, was truly beautiful, a genuine early 19th century twin pillar example worth between £800 and £1200. To that, the ‘Brigadier’ licked his lips vigorously – like a Siamese cat after slurping down a bowl of Devon cream – and uttered a far more upbeat: ‘Ahhh.’

The 10 accompanying chairs brought a disappointed ‘Ahhhh,’ however, when I informed him they were only worth between £220 and £250 in total. After a few more good quality paintings and some truly ‘cracking’ porcelain, I was taken to a cabinet filled with some very valuable solid silver pieces.

At this point, the door-pull sounded and the ‘Brigadier’ raised a sneaky eyebrow before uttering: ‘That, my dear Pye, will be my sister Charlotte.’ The ‘Brigadier’ exited sharply and strode back in with Charlotte, a charming woman who talked and looked like the bouncy veteran radio star Joyce Grenfell. After introductions were made, I made myself comfortable in the library whilst the pair talked privately in a nearby room.

Then, in strutted the ‘Brigadier’ once more to announce loftily: ‘Right, we’re ready for you now Pye.’ So off the three of us went, making the same tour that the ‘Brigadier’ and I had made earlier.

They halted at the expensive WP Frith landscape, where the ‘Brigadier’ announced to Charlotte: ‘You know darling, I always loved this painting as a boy.’ Immediately, the charming Charlotte replied: ‘Well you must have it dear.’ ‘Good,’ replied the ‘Brigadier’, smoothing his handlebars and, pointing to the cheap set of candlesticks, he enthused: ‘Well, you must have these.’ ‘I would love them,’ replied innocent Charlotte.

The ‘Brigadier’ then asked her if she wanted the dog grate, but Charlotte declined. Next, the ‘Brigadier’ asked if she would like ‘these beautiful candelabras’ to go with the candlesticks. She was delighted to take them (not realizing they were Sheffield Plate). The ‘Brigadier’ then told her: ‘Well I would like the table, but do you want the chairs dear?’ ‘Oh no,’ replied the grateful Charlotte, ‘you must have them all.’ As we passed through the magnificent house, I was growing increasingly gobsmacked at the ‘Brigadier’s’ deceitful performance.

It was staggering. Anything valuable with a decent price ended up in his hands. Anything else was hers. All the valuable paintings, he claimed to have liked as a child. He got them all. It was unbelievable. Then came the time for Charlotte to be shown out by the ‘Brigadier’, who closed the heavy door before turning to me and barking out his orders: ‘Pye, I want you to take all that is marked with Charlotte’s tags, to her address in Lincolnshire.

The ‘Brigadier’ then uttered something which has stuck in my memory for ever. He said: ‘Get all my lot and take them away and sell them. If you do cash, I’ll call in and pick it up.’ After the sale, the ‘Brigadier’ popped in and pocketed £31,000.

And his ‘dear’ sister? She got just £7000. So much for the upper-crust and high society!

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