It’s National Short Story week, so here’s our contribution:
“Next up, lot 38. Oil on canvas.”
As the auctioneer recited the description a porter held a painting aloft. The weekly sale had attracted the usual small crowd of dealers and locals sheltering from the rain. They looked at the picture and someone from the back wolf whistled. Most of the others sniggered and returned to their conversations.
“Reclining nude. Unknown artist.” he continued and then, more in hope than expectation, “Shall we say fifty pounds ?”
At the back of the room, David steeled himself. This was what he’d come for.
“Thirty pounds ?”
Looking around, he could see that most people weren’t interested.
He couldn’t wait any longer and raised his hand. Was it too quick ? Had he given away his enthusiasm ?
The man on the rostrum looked relieved. “Twenty Pounds. Who has twenty five ?”
For a moment no one had. David’s heart was in his mouth. Could he get it on a maiden bid ?
From the front, one of the regulars lazily waved a catalogue without even looking up.
“Twenty five. Who has thirty ?”
David nodded. Mustn’t look too keen.
“Thirty. Thirty five ?”
“Thirty five. Forty ?”
He nodded again. What was that idiot bidding for ?
“Forty. Forty five ?”
There was a pause and then the catalogue moved.
“Forty five. Fifty ?”
Wondering if his opponent was wavering, David responded quickly. From the next seat, his daughter looked at him with alarm.
“I have fifty. Sixty ?”
Another pause. Slightly longer this time. Then a wave.
“Sixty. Seventy ?”
“Dad, what are you doing ?” she hissed.
“It’s all right. I know what I’m up to.” he whispered, signalling acceptance at the same time.
“Seventy. Eighty ?”
No delay this time.
“Eighty. Ninety ?”
“Dad. Stop it. You can’t afford that much for a picture.”
She was right. Twenty years ago, the family business had collapsed. David had sold everything to pay off the creditors. Two decades later, he still lived in a one room flat. The thought caused him to pause before nodding again.
“Ninety. One hundred ?”
At the front, the other bidder turned to see who he was up against. He weighed his enemy up for a moment before wafting the catalogue again.
“No Dad. You can’t.”
“Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.”
“What do you mean, you know what you’re doing. You’re bidding on a mucky picture that’s not even by a proper artist.”
“I know who painted it.” he replied looking her in the eye.
He’d not wanted to join the family firm. They were all engineers and had never approved of him studying art history at university. Despite this, he’d done his best but it hadn’t worked out. For years his parents had barely talked to him. Even when his small gallery opened they had refused to visit. There was no money in art apparently.
“You know ?”
“Yes I do.”
The auctioneer interrupted “Are you bidding sir”
“One hundred pounds. Do I see one ten ?”
Sensing victory, there was an immediate response from the front.
“One ten. One twenty ?”
“Are you sure Dad ?”
David nodded at both her and the auctioneer. He thought of his wife. She would approve. A shared love of art had kept them going through the tough times.
“One twenty. Do I have one thirty ?”
The room had fallen silent. Most lots were little more than junk went after a couple of bids.
“One thirty. One forty sir ?”
“Well, I hope you’re right.” she smiled. David nodded again. They had visited galleries just to keep warm when money for heating was short. After a few years they knew more than the curators.
“One forty. One fifty ?”
A scowl from the front followed by a wave.
“One fifty. One sixty ?”
Everyone turned to look at the back of the room. David blushed and then nodded. Time to concentrate.
“One sixty. One seventy ?”
The man paused. Was he having second thoughts ?
“One seventy. One eighty ?”
In his ear, David heard the whisper “What do you reckon it’s worth ?”. He looked to his side and gave his daughter a knowing wink.
“One eighty. One ninety ?”
Another scowl but also a nod.
“One ninety. Two hundred ?”
This time, David received a smile from his daughter. He raised his hand.
“Two hundred. Two twenty ?”
This was getting serious now the bids were going up in twenties. To David, the pause before the bid seemed to last forever.
“Two twenty. Two forty ?”
The crowd were swivelling their heads like people at a tennis match. David nodded and all eyes turned back to the front.
“Two forty. Two sixty ?”
Another long pause.
“I can do two fifty if it helps.” the auctioneer offered.
“We’ve got him Dad.”
One more wave. Weaker this time.
“Two fifty. Two sixty sir ?”
“Bugger. I thought he was beaten.”
David looked the auctioneer straight in the eyes and nodded firmly.
“Two Sixty. Two seventy ?”
This time the pause seemed eternal. Then the man looked down glumly and shook his head.
“Two hundred and sixty pounds. Two sixty going once.”
Another paused. David looked around the room to see if anyone else fancied a go.
“Two sixty. Going twice.”
Why doesn’t he just get the gavel down ?
“Sold for two hundred and sixty pounds.”
Relief swept over David like a wave. He brandished his bidder number towards the rostrum weakly.
“Well done Dad.”
“Next up, lot 39. A German art pottery vase…”
Two hours later they stood in the car park examining the picture.
“Well Dad, who do you think it’s by ? It looks like some of those I’ve seen in your art books. A Leighton perhaps ? Or a Godward ?”
David smiled. His daughter had always shown an interesting in art. She was more practical than he was but still, a little bit had rubbed off on her. Since his wife had died he wondered if she was humouring him a little but hoped the interest was genuine.
“Go on. Tell me who you think it’s is. Have we discovered an old master ? Is it worth a fortune ?”
“Take a close look. I think you can work it out.”
She paused and returned to her examination, holding the canvas inches away from her nose.
“I don’t know. It’s not signed. The frame is old. I can’t help feeling the model looks familiar though. Is she famous ?”
“Not famous but very special.”
She looked at him quizzically.
David smiled again and took the painting from her. Holding it at arms length and examining it again.
“You mother was always a beautiful woman. She was younger than you when I painted this. And to me, it’s priceless.”
6 responses to “Lot 38”
This is brilliant – truly brilliant. An auction is a brilliant tension device, and carefully interspersing character history between the bids works really well. The pay off is beautifully done too, very clever and poignant. I would love to hear more about these characters.
Christian – Thank you very much!
No problem – forgot to say but you both have really tightened up the prose since I last read your work. Everything is well phrased and relevant.
What Christian said. Very good: the tension is teriffic and the ending is priceless.
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