31 March 2012

    Everyone should have a hobby. It might be golf, stamp-collecting, painting, building model aircraft or beekeeping. Mine is auctioneering.
    I have been a charity auctioneer for more than 30 years, and it all came about by accident, as so many things do.

    Norma Major, the wife of one of our local MPs, was holding an opera evening (her hobby) in aid of Mencap, in her husband’s constituency. Mary and I were among the guests, and Norma joined our table during dinner to tell me that the local auctioneer had cried off at the last moment, and John thought I’d be the ideal person to take his place. Thus began a hobby I would never otherwise have considered.

    For the next couple of years, I limited myself to local charities — Addenbrooke’s Hospital was one — and a few university events, while I carried out my apprenticeship. At the same time, I attended auctions at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, in order to watch the professionals go about their business.

    My first big break came in 1981 when the Red Cross invited me to conduct the auction at their annual dinner at the Dorchester, where the guest of honour would be Princess Diana. The auction raised just over £100,000, and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.

    Since then, I’ve conducted more than 1,000 auctions that have raised anything from £1,400 (Christian Aid at Lambeth Palace) to £600,000 (Sir Magdi Yacoub’s Chain of Hope at the Natural History Museum).

    For the past decade, I have insisted that the organisers of any event visit me several weeks before the auction is due to take place. Why? Because the preparation put in before a dinner or ball will ultimately decide how successful the auction will be. I always explain to the organisers that there are three ingredients that will decide the success or failure of any charity auction: a) the venue, b) the lots, c) the punters.

    The venue is the least important of the three, as Lambeth Palace proved, because only a mile away, a few weeks later, Lawrence Dallaglio held a function in a tent in Battersea, and raised more than half a million pounds in aid of his foundation. But to be fair, the Bishops of Lambeth were replaced by the World Cup-winning rugby team.

    The lots are more important than the venue, and I am often asked what constitutes a good lot or a bad lot. The most popular lots over the years have proved to be exotic holidays such as a stint at a five-star hotel in Barbados, a safari in Kenya or a villa in the South of France — but make sure flights are included. A yacht that will sail you round the Greek islands is another winner, as long as you don’t have to pay for the fuel. An Eric Clapton guitar, a piece of Paul McCartney’s sheet music, tickets for the cup final (any) or finals at Wimbledon or Twickenham also never fail. But among the most popular is a dinner for ten, cooked in your own home by a celebrity chef. Unbelievably, a trip for two down a Welsh coalmine raised £21,000 for Save the Children at the Mansion House.

    The two most successful items I’ve ever had come under the hammer were the stopwatch that timed Roger Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile (£100,000) and a Mini Cooper with a roof signed by England’s 2003 World Cup-winning rugby side (£92,000).

    Among the lots that often end up unsold are paintings by unknown artists, any trip to Russia on Aeroflot and signed football shirts from Watford or Leyton Orient. But all of the above pale into insignificance when it comes to who’s sitting in the room.

    Give me a second-hand car dealer from Essex ahead of an aristocrat; invite the Irish and the Indians before you consider the English or the Scottish; seek out new money before you approach old. And if you’re invited to conduct an auction for a Jewish charity, you can’t fail, no matter how bad an auctioneer you are or how awful the lots are, because it is always the punters who decide the outcome of any auction, never the venue or the lots.

    As I enter my fourth decade as an auctioneer, my enthusiasm to yet again mount the rostrum has not dulled. In fact, I’mlike an out-of-work actor who can’t waitfor the phone to ring and be offered my next assignment.

    So thank you, Dame Norma, for inviting me to fill in all those years ago, because it has allowed me to stumble across a hobby that has given me so much pleasure over the years while adding a few pennies to the coffers of so many worthwhile causes. But then, as Marcel Proust reminded us, we all end up doing the thing we’re second best at.

    Jeffrey Archer’s new novel, The Sins of the Father, is out now (Macmillan, £18.99)