Peter Ball: auctioneer

Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 6 seconds

Everyone has a story. Criterion Auctions offer the best theatre in London. Fact. Every Essex Road sale is the place to spot anxious sellers and determined buyers. You’ll see bargain hunters muttering prayers to the gods of good luck. There are dealers who know the price of everything. And then there’s the amazing backdrop of leather sofas, Persian rugs, wash stands, black and white photos, wooden Jermyn Street boot trees, mahogany dining room tables and sets of matching china – all overseen by auctioneer Peter Ball. Interview by Nicola Baird

Auctioneer Peter Ball with gavel.

Criterion Auctioneers’ auctioneer, Peter Ball, with gavel.

The show starts every Monday afternoon at 3pm when company director and auctioneer, Peter Ball, picks up his gavel and starts the bidding. The adrenalin is palpable – even when it’s only a small crowd of 30 to 40 looking at the early lots. The atmosphere gets a boost from Peter’s mastery – simultaneously describing what’s for sale, noting the bidders (who hold up a wooden paddle when they want something) and taking the prices up. It’s all so fast that a newbie can find it overwhelming…

“I speak my mind on the rostrum, and will say if something’s good. I might be a bit controversial, it’s just a bit of banter,” explains Peter who jokes the rostrum is his position of power. “Very often the crowd is laughing their head off. It helps keep people interested,” he adds. “I do 750-800 lots so I like to go fast and not to drone on. Buyers can bid on line too, we’ll have people from China, Japan and America, but I’m old school and think that does slow the auction down a little.”

All the world’s a stage
peterball-criterionviewoutsideAt 6pm, the after work crowd arrives ready for the bidding wars for the bigger items. Bids will start around £100 (compare this to Sotheby’s where anything under the hammer is likely to be £5,000 plus).  “Arts and crafts (furniture), 19th century paintings and period furniture are always popular,” explains Peter. “The small items are often bought as gifts or for selling on at antique fairs. I’d say 80 per cent are private people buying for their houses.”

With the rise of eBay most of us know more about buying and selling pre-loved items as a way to clear out the clutter and snap up a bargain. But Peter believes: “There is still a stigma about brown furniture (period pieces made from mahogany or oak). Many people would rather go to Ikea and buy something that they know will fall apart, than buy something solid like a bureau or chest of drawers that will last for the rest of their life.”

A brown furniture stigma? Even in Islington? Even with all those TV antiques shows?  Even at this auction house which often counts celebs in the crowd (over the years Peter’s spotted Chris Huhne and ex-wife Vicky Pryce, Page 3 girl Susan Mitzy, Emma Peel from The Avengers, Kat from Eastenders (Jessie Wallace) and a host of Holby City folk)?  Peter nods his head.

Inspired by my visit to the pre auction viewing I ended up placing a bid for this ebony Solomon Islands ceremonial drum. And lost!

Inspired by my visit to the pre auction viewing I ended up placing a bid for this ebony Solomon Islands ceremonial drum. And lost!

“We used to break up arts and craft furniture and it’s still difficult to sell utility furniture from after the war. But people are mixing antiques with the modern more. We’re always going to get a surprise when two people bid on something for much higher than the estimate. Sometimes you’ll see two ladies digging in their heels and you can’t stop them. And then there are some people who just put their hand up so everyone knows what they want – people could bid them up to a ridiculous amount! What’s good about Antiques Roadshow is that it has made older people more aware of the value of what they have. We’ve had Cash in the Attic here and Sarah Beeny But all those TV cameras are a bit of a deterrent.”

Out and about in Islington

  • “I go up Camden Passage – it’s now a hive of eating places including Fredericks. They still have the antiques markets on Wednesday and the weekend too. I’ve eaten out on Upper Street and Browns is not bad.”
  • “I enjoy doing auctions for St John Evangelist Primary School. It’s not antiques, but last year it raised £500.”
Follow the carpet and be amazed by what's on sale. It's a great way to learn about antiques too.

Follow the carpet and be amazed by what’s on sale. It’s a great way to learn about antiques too.

The collecting bug
Now 64 Peter is planning his retirement. He’s been at Criterion for 20 years, commuting in from Beckenham, but he plans to go back to his roots in Hastings. And he promises to keep on dabbling in antiques, maybe adding to his ironic collection of Sylvac pottery rabbits and Royal Doulton Bunnykins – started because he had “a phobia about rabbits”.

“As a child I wasn’t really into antiques. My interest came about through my ex father-in-law. I was 21 and just married. He helped me get a job as a porter at an auctioneers in Hastings. I didn’t go to college to learn about antiques, I learnt on the job.”

“My first experience auctioneering was when my boss fell ill at Lot 50 and there was no one to take over, so I jumped up. I was 22. There’s a young lad here at Criterion from Hackney who we are going to get up on the rostrum soon,” he adds thinking about his successor.

There’s not much time to chat on an auction Monday. Within moments of Peter finishing this interview he  is busy patrolling the auction house’s aisles, which are piled neatly with items on sale. Here Peter deals with a barrage of friendly hellos, questions about furniture collection, payments and what’s going under the hammer. The days must fly past…

If  you’ve never been to one of these sales,  then you’re missing bargains, bidding triumphs and the theatrical auction atmosphere. If you have been to Criterion Auctioneers, then please share what you enjoyed most about the experience – and any tips on how to bid – in the comment box below.

  • Criterion Auctioneers (for antique and contemporary furnishings), 53 Essex Road, London N1 2SF, tel: 020 7359 5707. Auctions are held every Monday at 3-5pm, then 6-8pm (approx). Collection of larger items can be arranged through Adams Carriage on 07850 115 809.  If you are going to bid yourself, arrive in enough time to collect a paddle so the auctioneer knows you are making a legitimate bid.
  • Camden Passage has bric a brac and antiques stalls on Wednesdays and Saturdays, see info here.

Over to you

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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.