There are auctioneers and then there are auctioneers. Even as I wrote that sentence I realised it didn’t make a great deal of sense. What I’m trying to say is that you have some auctioneers who know their trade, work at it for years picking up the tricks and slowly building up a following. I would hold up as an example Yass Tileforth.
On the other had there are auctioneers who try to make money quickly, often using flamboyant techniques that don’t work quite as well as they hoped. Here I ought to mention the bold Master Bullifant.
Bullifant didn’t appear in Port Naain, he burst upon the scene. His accent and mannerisms are those of one born in the city, but he never followed any of the normal routes into the auctioneers’ profession, and nobody seemed to have any real knowledge of what he had done previously. I rather favoured the rumour that he had been one of those who go from door to door trying to convince the householder that they need urgent building work done. Should anybody be so foolish as to fall for this, the work is done by the door-knocker’s own team of men who do a mediocre job at a vastly inflated price.
Still it is not for me to judge, but whilst he was an auctioneer I watched Master Bullifant’s career with interest.
Watching him in action was always interesting. He had the patter, he could weave in the jests and he knew enough people to know just who it was or was not safe to apply a jest to. Indeed he tried to create an atmosphere of convivial geniality. To assist in this he started serving glasses of refreshing fruit punch to those who had purchased something. He obviously noted an improvement in his business after instigating this practice because he extended it to any who looked like they might bid. An innocent enough practice you might have thought, were it not for the fact that he was in the habit of adding a fair proportion of pure spirit to the punch.
The punch certainly did increase the zeal of those who were bidding, but in all candour it did rather encourage the wrong sort to turn up at his auctions, purely for the free drink. He rather lost control of the process and finally at one auction several of the bidders collapsed through drink and on searching them he discovered they hadn’t the wherewithal on them to pay for the items they’d purchased.
He did what any unreasonable person would do and sold them as indentured labourers to recover his investment.
As you can imagine this did not pass without comment, and one family was so incensed that they applied to a magistrate to have the indenture cancelled. Fortunately for them (and consequently unfortunately for Bullifant) the magistrate of the day was Chard Hunit. Chard is a performance poet, mad genius, and a magistrate. They tend not to use him much, as he has been known to treat his court as a piece of performance art. Not only that but he has a habit of passing judgements which somehow both fit within the law and simultaneously set precedents. I suspect it must have been high summer or something, when a lot of people leave the city and there can be a shortage of jurists. No matter, however it happened, Chard it was who heard the case.
His judgement was plain. Bullifant had provided the drink free and gratis to all comers with no notice or sign saying that he expected the drink to be paid for. Thus he could hardly add the cost of the drink onto the indenture.
With regard the bidding, he personally cross-examined the plaintiff. The man, a costermonger by trade, admitted that he remembered entering the sale room because it was raining and he wanted to shelter. He has a vague recollection of being offered a glass of fruit punch which he accepted. The next thing he remembered was being awakened by having buckets of water poured over him. When he was at last conscious he discovered that he had bid an inordinately large amount of money for a chest of drawers with crude carvings on the front.
Chard was incisive. He ruled that Bullifant was not entitled to charge for the buckets of water used to awaken the plaintiff on the grounds the plaintiff had not asked for them. He further ruled that given the plaintiff was witnessed by some others at the auction dancing a very stately gavotte with a hat-stand; before going down on one knee and swearing undying love to it, the plaintiff was obviously not in full control of his faculties. Chard commented as an aside that it was a particularly ugly hat-stand, even by the undemanding standards set by hat-stands. Finally he ceremoniously donned his magistrate’s robe of black samite robe with the stiffened shoulder guards of black leather and pronounced that nobody could be held to something they’d promised whilst so under the influence of drink that they could not remember the promise next day.
The costermonger was exonerated and liberated. Bullifant was cast down and forced to look for some other method of encouraging bidding, and incidentally the legal profession made considerable sums dealing with the rash of ‘breach of promise’ suits which followed hard on the heels of Chard’s judgement.
Bullifant looked round for another way of undermining the entirely unreasonable resolve of bidders to spend as little as possible. Firstly he hired remarkably pretty young ladies to display the items being auctioned. Initial interest soon waned until he started dressing them in more and more revealing costumes. Unfortunately for him all that happened was that wives stopped husbands attending the auctions at all.
Now never let it be said that our hero was short of ideas. Neither was he a man trapped by stereotypes. Bullifant wasn’t bothered who finally went home with whatever it was he was auctioning, provided they paid plenty and thus he got his commission. He didn’t particularly care whether they were male, female or neuter.
So rather than pretty girls displaying items at the auction he started hiring handsome and well muscled young men. He also served plates of nibbles, which featured heavily foodstuffs such as oysters, asparagus, watermelon and celery.
Even here fate played him false. Ladies started asking for ‘home delivery’ and even indicated which personable young gentleman they wished to deliver. From Bullifant’s point of view ‘his’ young men were annoyingly discriminating. Some wouldn’t do home delivery for some clients, some wouldn’t do home delivery for any clients, and some who would apparently be happy to do home delivery for just about anybody, were never asked for. Finally he received a summons to appear before a magistrate. Apparently somebody had complained that the young man who appeared carrying the crate of sphincter clasps, nose rings and antique chamber pots she had purchased was not as handsome as he had appeared when seen at a distance.
Bullifant checked to see which magistrate was on duty for that day, discovered it was Chard Hunit and promptly fled Port Naain, without leaving a forwarding address.
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As a reviewer pointed out “Always entertaining. Reading Tallis Steelyard is like getting a letter from a friend who has moved to a foreign country and comments on the foibles of the local people. Jim has the ability to draw you into his world to be entertained and illuminated by another culture.”