Paul Martin delivers a piece to camera

Going... Going... Gone

7th September 2012

Jill Glenn mingles with the crowds and meets the on- and off-screen experts at a valuation day for BBC2’s Flog It! in which members of the public try and make money out of their antiques by taking a risk at auction.

The expectant buzz in the Italianate rooms and gardens at Ashridge House, near Berkhamsted, is undercut with an air of tedium. Flog It! is about the waiting. And the hoping.

The schedule is relentless; this is the penultimate valuation day for series 11 (which will have already started transmission by the time you read this) and then, so Location/Floor Manager Alex Habgood tells me, they’re straight into series 12. They’re making four shows today, to be split over series 11, and the pace reflects the pressure. Nevertheless, the organisation is superb; queues of people filtered in different directions; waiting areas, waiting rooms for waiting areas, and plenty of stewards on hand to assist and anticipate demands. There’s much shuffling from place to place as the people at the front get called forward, but it’s orderly, with refreshments on hand, and – above all – there are seats. “Better than Antiques Roadshow,” says one chap. “I stood for six hours for that.” Filming is taking place inside and out, where the sun, fortunately and unexpectedly, is beating down on an idyllic setting. “This is brilliant,” says Paul Martin. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

It’s certainly popular. People clearly take it very seriously. One chap hobbles in with a large, wheeled suitcase; another has a shopping trolley; everywhere there are Waitrose bags and Tesco boxes, stuffed with the treasures and/or the detritus of people’s lives. That’s what all these artefacts represent, really: histories and memories. Even those that have no intrinsic value in themselves are rich in the stories that they hold.

“I’ve brought my daughter’s teddy,” one woman tells me, in the shuttle bus on the way from the station. “It’s 55 years old, but it’s in good condition; it’s been in the loft. She says I’m not to let it go for less than £50.” She indicates a worn ear protruding from a carrier bag, and adds, confidingly, “she doesn’t value things sentimentally like I do. I offered her my engagement ring but she didn’t want it, so I’ve brought that too.”

The theme of the younger generation not valuing, not wanting, the objects that have sat around their parents home comes across loud and clear in many of today’s conversations. “The world’s changing…” is a repeated refrain.

The low conversations at the valuing tables are fascinating to all, and the people in the front row of the queue lean forward to listen in. It’s all very life-affirming, actually: the expert and the would-be seller bent over a piece together, examining it, looking serious, bursting into laughter. It’s relaxed and relaxing. The experts are never less than polite and charming; it would be churlish to take their “That’s such an interesting piece” at anything more than face value. Most expectations are modest, which is fortunate, because the phrase I hear most often from the on- and off-screen experts is “About a hundred pounds, a hundred to two hundred…”.

Nick Ewing examines a glass vase carefully

I catch Jenelle Harbud as she finishes her session with off-screen expert Nick Ewing. Everyone who takes a piece (indeed, up to three pieces) to a Flog It! day will get it valued, although, of course, not everyone will appear on screen. Jenelle, who’s Californian and an avid Flog It! fan, hasn’t been selected to go any further, but she’s happy nevertheless. “Everyone’s been so nice,” she says, “and I’ve really enjoyed it.” Jenelle has brought along two glass vases, and is delighted to discover that one, a substantial object in a vivid sea green, would be worth £40-£60. She paid £8 for it at a car boot sale, and considers it a pretty good deal. She’s probably not going to sell – “I’ll hold on to it because I love it so much” – but is thrilled to discover that she has notionally made a profit. “We always watch Bargain Hunt, me and my husband,” she laughs, “and say ‘We could do better than that’ – and now I have.” She’s thrilled, too, that valuer Nick Ewing took the time to advise her about her glass collection generally, and what pieces to look out for to improve it. “Signed pieces, and bits that are functional as well as decorative. He’s so knowledgeable…”

Knowledgeability shines through the whole day. Many people express their amazement that the experts have no idea what they’re about to see, but somewhere in the recesses of their brain have a huge fund of information on which to draw.

Waiting patiently to be filmed is 85-year-old Joan Lee, from Wigginton, who has brought along a bright Susie Cooper plate with a floral pattern. She’s had it 55 years “and it wasn’t new then.” Joan’s mother bought it for her off a stall in Hemel Hempstead market for £4. “She said, ‘I’ve bought this and I think you’d like it’… I remember that as if it was only yesterday.” It’s clear that Joan has great fondness for the plate, and that it’s rich in association for her, but she’s ready to let it go. “No-one in the family really wants it – and there are too many people who might have it.” The preliminary valuation has suggested the popular £100-£200, and Joan and granddaughter Carly have the auction date marked in their diaries already.

At an adjacent table, Ann Heaver, from Berkhamsted, is filling in the forms about her polished silver bowl. Ann has no idea about its provenance or use. She inherited it 30 years ago when her mother died “and I know nothing about it”. It has a date – 1928 – and that’s all. One of the on-screen experts, Claire Rawle, has already shown an interest, suggesting that it may have been used for fruit. Silver is apparently coming back up in price, so Ann has been told, and she’s quietly hoping for perhaps £100. It’s a pretty piece, but, like Joan Lee, she’ll be happy to let it go.

Claire Rawle & John Knowles

Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, and there are few complaints about the time it all takes. “It’s so interesting to be behind the scenes,” says Rita Knowles, “and just see how the programme’s put together.” I sit with Rita, 79, while her husband John, 81, is filmed talking to Claire Rawle about a vase inherited 30 years ago from an aunt. It’s a large, elaborate item – “and it stands in our hall and gathers dust” – embossed on the side with the word Cavendish, the family name of the Duke of Devonshire, and the couple have wondered if there might be a connection; John’s aunt lived in Hathersage, not far from the Cavendish family home at Chatsworth. It’s hard to catch all that Claire and John are saying – you’ll have to watch the programme to hear the full story – but the valuation goes well (“Good old Auntie Alice,” remarks Rita), and the vase is whisked away to be prepared for the auction at Tring, on 28 September.

“Will you miss it?” I ask. “No…” Rita says. “It’s interesting, but it’s quite ugly.” As with so many of today’s pieces, it’s the same old story: no-one else in the family has shown any interest. Rita’s right that it probably wouldn’t suit a modern house, but it seems a shame, nonetheless, that the stories that go with the objects should be lost. Perhaps each should have a logbook, so that owners can write down the details and the names who once owned and loved these pieces.

It’s fascinating to watch the filming; fascinating to see how Claire Rawle puts her interviewees at their ease, and has them laughing and smiling and sharing intimate family histories. She’s open about what she thinks. “I like it because of its shape, and it’s well decorated.” It all looks very natural when you see it on screen, and the reason for that is that it’s very natural when it’s happening – although during each filming there are two or three conversational exchanges that need to be repeated for clarity and spliced into the main shots later.

Meanwhile, outside, Paul Martin is striding about delivering pieces to camera and inciting the crowd to raucous applause as he gets a delivery right first time. “Have you done this before?” one joker calls out. “I’ve been doing it for eleven years, does it show?” Martin shoots back, as quick as a flash. It both does and doesn’t. He’s professional and clearly accomplished, but, as he observes, “You try to make it different every time...” and he is consistently courteous as he’s pestered for photographs and autographs. With great good humour he manages to look like he’s enjoying himself all the time. And he loves Ashridge House. “Never heard of it before, and it’s a hidden gem…”

There’s a general predisposition towards china and glass, but Pam Grant from Harpenden has brought along a hand-made wooden toy, an object so personal that I wonder how the experts can possibly place a value on it. It was produced by a 17-year-old German prisoner of war, one of many whom Pam’s father was guarding in Northern Ireland in the 1940s. It’s made from whatever bits of wood the young lad could obtain, and painted in military greens and browns. Pam has no intention of parting with it, but would like an opinion as to its worth. Her fingers stroke it tenderly as she talks, and she looks anxious until it’s safely away out of the light and she can settle back to wait her turn. “There are 169 people ahead of us,” observes her husband, waving ticket 170 at me.

Patricia Charteris, from the little hamlet of Piccotts End, near Hemel Hempstead, has brought along a toy too. In fact, she has a selection of random items – “a bottle of champagne brandy, three pieces of ivory and a mechanical Popeye” – in order to maximise the opportunity. “It’s a long wait,” she says, cheerfully. “You’ve got to be prepared for a long wait.” She’s pinning her hopes on the brandy, which she’s had for 55 years, and which has 1914 on the wax seal. I’d rate the mechanical Popeye, myself, but who am I to say? I’d probably open the brandy. In the next seat, Patricia’s friend Debbie Hackett, also from Hemel, is keen to tell me about ‘Aunt Maud’s pot’, which has been in the family for over a hundred years, Aunt Maud having died around 40 years ago at the age of 99. Debbie has big dreams – she’s longing to buy a caravan, and, following a message from her late father in a session with Psychic Sally in Watford last year, is hopeful that this painted heirloom is the way to do it.

Again and again I’m struck by the optimism and the good humour throughout the house and garden. On-screen expert Claire Rawle is happy. “It’s all going very well ,” she says, when I catch her during her very brief lunch break. “We’ve seen some good stuff… a huge mixture of items, and some marvellous pieces to put through to the auction –?but I do need to find some more…” And with a predatory look, she heads back to the valuation table. Claire particularly likes the collectables, and tells me she’s very excited about the railway ephemera that David Williams has brought in. David, 57, is a train driver – “from a long line of railwaymen, back to my great-grandfather” – and has been collecting rail memorabilia since he was a young man, picking it up in charity shops and at rail fairs etc etc. His earliest piece is a page from the Excess Fare Book at Broad Green station, Liverpool, from January 1855. The selection goes forward to the auction entitled ‘Railway Tickets, paperwork, booklets and ephemera from the 1950s to the 1960s’. It’s the last vestiges of a collection that has absorbed David for much of his life, but he’s ready to let it go. “I’ve had the pleasure of it for 30-odd years,” he declares, “and it’s the right time to move on.” He’s building a model railway now, and the money the collection raises will be very useful. “It’s going to sell well,” Claire Rawle says to camera, as David’s wife Penny and I sit to one side. David comes away clutching a BBC consent form, and bearing a big grin.
Alex Habgood is pleased with the way filming is going, and Paul Martin echoes Claire Rawle’s comments about the day (so much so that I almost suspect there’s a hidden script): “It’s going very well… we’ve seen some great stuff… real quality.”

I press Paul to reveal what’s been the highlight so far, but he’s only viewed three things personally (getting your stuff valued by the man himself is the holygrail of Flog It!) and is reluctant to commit. Eventually he admits that there’s a signed Lowry print that he has a good feeling about, but he rapidly turns the conversation back to the general. “The public have done us proud here. ?Such treasures… I know we’ve seen some good jewellery, some great silver, all the sorts of things you have at home and don’t know the value of…”.

The items selected at the Ashridge Valuation Day will be
sold at Tring Market Auctions on Friday 28 September.
See tringmarketauctions.co.uk for more information.

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