Beyond the Hammer

We meet Dave Parker, Managing Director at The Canterbury Auction Galleries

Dave Parker sighs just a little. “People see an auctioneer on TV wielding a gavel for a few minutes and they think that’s the job. But, believe me, a lot goes on beyond that hammer,” he says.

The busy surface of a laboratory-style desk in his office at Canterbury Auction Galleries attests to that. It’s weeks until the next auction, but packs of glinting jewellery – rings, pendants, bracelets – are stacked up next to complex diamond and precious-metal testing equipment, ready for authenticating.

These days, man-made diamonds are creeping in and need to be identified, he says, handing over a £15,000, five-carat diamond ring to demonstrate what a brilliant-cut diamond should really look like.

Rare watches, 17th-century duelling pistols and military medals await their turn to be checked and given a price estimate. He must be a gemmologist, scientist, journalist, paralegal, historian, politician and businessman all at the same time.

It’s the same for the rest of the talented team of specialists who work with the public, estimating treasures and ensuring no lost masterpiece goes unfound. Most staff have been at the auction house for decades and are all experts in various subject areas – from ceramics to fine art, clocks to silver, and furniture. Managing director Dave has been here for 15 years, specialising in militaria, jewellery and watches.

The auction house holds six weekend sales a year, but between those dates Dave and the team are flat out. Porters constantly heft items being collected or arriving, phones jangle all day with enquiries and on most Fridays there is a busy free valuation day, when the public can come in with items to be identified, possibly to sell. There’s no ‘average’ day and that’s the way Dave likes it.

“You’ve no idea what you’re going to see from one day to the next. One day you might be visiting a cathedral or stately home, the next meeting a rock star – or going to an ordinary house that turns out to be full of astonishing antiques. You just never know.”

Although an experienced auctioneer, these days he hosts auctions only for charitable, black-tie events. Co-director Cliona Kilroy and colleague Edward Smissen take “showtime”, as he calls the regular auctions, these days – all held online.

“Auction days are exciting. But I prefer the challenge of getting in the items that we sell, meeting people and hearing the histories of their items. Lots of these things have gone on to be the subject of talks, they’re so fascinating.”

It’s the human side of the business that fires Dave up – especially the times when he can help families achieve life-changing sums.

He recalls visiting a family selling the medals of a Royal Military Policeman who served in WW1 and WW2, even protecting Churchill on occasion. The family expected around £400 but the hammer came down at more than £14,000. Through tears, the vendor explained that the windfall couldn’t have come at a better time: her sister had been killed and they had just adopted the children.

“Those moments feel really good: to know you’ve done your best and honoured the memory of a loved one,” he says.

As Dave and many of the team are qualified valuers, a lot of time is spent going to people’s homes to provide a professional valuation of items for probate. “It’s a very sensitive time. There will be much-loved heirlooms holding memories for people and it’s usually very hard to let go. But one cannot keep everything. We’re grateful that families trust us with their heritage.”

The best things about the job? “Handling some of the most beautiful items in the world and finding out their back stories. We’re all avid historians – most of us have been here for decades because we love what we do and enjoy meeting the public.”

Many of those stories have gone on to be the subject of public talks. His office in the historic auction house building has a mantelpiece full of items that tell those tales – enthusiastically related by Dave at the drop of a hat.

They include a print of Shackleton’s ship Endurance trapped in ice; a candle-lighting contraption from the 1700s; and a fragment of a brass porthole from WW1 mine-laying ship Princess Irene, which exploded off the Kent coast with the loss of more than 350 lives.

“I’m just as passionate about the business now as I was when I first joined,” says this energetic, larger-than-life character. “We sell history, plain and simple.”

There’s grind, too. He made the decision early to get ahead of the rapidly-evolving technology and adopted online bidding, which needs constant updating. Then there are ever-changing rules on subjects as wide as money-laundering, exporting and record-keeping which he must stay on top of. It’s not all fun.

Although fun there is… the maddest item he’s sold? “It has to be a ‘haunted’ rocking horse. Every night before I left the building, I’d turn it round, so that when the porters came in they thought it had moved. They got pretty freaked!” he says, laughing. And the best thing he’s sold? “Ah, I haven’t discovered it – yet!”

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