There can not be many commercial premises where a high-tech cross-trainer sits cheek-by-jowl with a wooden bar featuring functioning beer pumps, with no apparent incongruity.
Yet this is the sight that greeted me upon entering the John Milne Auction House on Aberdeen’s North Silver Street. It was but the merest hint of the eclectic cornucopia of gems – ancient and modern – which awaited within.
John Milne founded the firm of auctioneers and valuators back in 1867. Four generations on, it has grown into the major auction house in the North-East, and is now run by senior partner, Graham Lumsden, along with three of the founder’s great-grandchildren – Sandy, Frances and John – who retain an ongoing interest in the business. The firm values and sells good quality antiques, objets d’art and general goods to a local, national, and increasingly, international market, thanks to the power of the internet.
John Milne originally hailed from Banchory. He started out as a cashier with David Mitchell, an advocate in the Adelphi, becoming a messenger-at-arms before starting as an auctioneer and valuator based in Langstane Place. He moved to numbers 9–11 North Silver Street at the end of the 19th century, which is where the business remains to this day. Initially he used number nine as the saleroom, and number eleven as his home, but as the business grew, he moved home to Whitehall Place and converted number eleven and its garden into a saleroom.
Back in John’s day, roups were held in the homes of those who had moved house or died, or in business premises which were selling up. Fortunately the Milne family possesses an invaluable record of those sales in the form of catalogues, dating back to the late 19th century.
One of these details a sale held at Inchgarth House in Pitfodels in 1897, and even includes a train timetable for Aberdeen to Pitfodels. It lists every item to be sold from the property, and on further inspection I realised that this did in fact comprise every single item therein! This included everything from kitchen utensils, to furniture, works of art, and an entire library of books, not to mention, a “walnut loo table”, whatever that may have been. Another catalogue details the sale of Cartwright and Blacksmith’s stock, including the smith’s tools and bellows. This would have taken place when the business ceased trading or went bankrupt.
John passed the business onto his son, Robert Lamb Milne, who ran it alongside his brother, John. Robert’s son, also Robert Lamb Milne (father of the current generation), took over after he left school, only leaving to serve with the Scots Guards during WW2. The Milnes have a wonderful photo from 1932 which depicts Robert senior conducting a well-attended auction at Lauriston Castle, assisted by his son.
Robert’s son, also named Robert, joined the firm at the age of 18. Following a period of training both in Aberdeen and at Dowell’s in Edinburgh, he went on to become senior partner, until his retirement three years ago. He ran the firm for almost 50 years, managing its transformation from one of several auction houses in the area to the one remaining and well-established auction house in the North-East. He was highly regarded in business circles for his integrity and courteous manner.
Nowadays the business is run by senior partner, Graham Lumsden, who has been with the firm over 30 years, along with Sandy, Frances and John Milne. The siblings also enjoy successful careers outwith the business: Frances is a practising psychotherapist, Sandy is a drilling fluids engineer, while John co-runs a subsea engineering business.
Longevity and loyalty seem to be themes flowing through the heart of this family business. The present team have worked together for around 25 years, and between them have a great many years of valuable experience in auctions, valuations, buying and selling. Office manager, Moira Minty, has been with the firm for 33 years. Head porter Alan Fraser is still at John Milne Auctioneers 32 years after he joined initially for “two to three months”. Having worked both in the van, emptying properties and collecting items for sale, and in the saleroom, Alan has amassed a wealth of experience.
Given the huge variety of items for sale, spanning everything from fine art and collectables, to modern day furniture and household items, I wondered how it is possible to give a reasonably accurate valuation.
“It comes down to experience at the end of the day,” Alan explains. “I generally look at what items have gone for in the past. It used to be that similar items would go up in price each year, but this isn’t the case anymore. Often the final sale price is governed by who is in the room on the day of the auction. So I tell people it’s a guesstimate, rather than an estimate.”
The most expensive lot Alan has been involved with selling was an oil painting of Skye by the famous Deeside artist Joseph Farquarson, which went for £29,000.
Transport co-ordinator and saleroom clerk, John Bloomfield, has seven years experience under his belt and, as you might imagine, has a tale or two to tell about his time with the company. Just in the space of one week recently, he and his colleagues uplifted a grand piano from a very snowy Braemar, removed a wardrobe from a castle via the narrow, spiral turret stairwell, and emptied a flat which was in a less than salubrious condition. It certainly proves the old adage that every object has a tale behind it.
Walking into the saleroom is like taking a trip down memory lane. Probably for the first time I can see why people are drawn to antiques, redolent as they are with an intriguing aura of times and people gone by. A stroll around the saleroom reveals a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of all things weird and wonderful, and everything in between. The walls are adorned with paintings ranging from Victorian landscapes to modern geometric prints. Almost every inch of floor space is occupied by sofas, desks, display cabinets and all manner of bulky items, while ornaments, collectable toys, jewellery, cutlery and china all jostle for space on the tables dotted around the room.
I was drawn to a beautiful old rocking horse, a gorgeous traditional pigskin suitcase, and a very old radio – the kind one imagines people huddling round during the war. By no means, however, are the auctions reserved for highly decorative or valuable items. On the contrary, juxtaposed with these are much more banal everyday items including vacuum cleaners, exercise machines, office chairs and the like. The auction really is a very democratic event, and all the more thrilling for it.
Such diversity is reflected in the clientele. Young and old, male and female, from all walks of life, they cram into the saleroom on auction day to bid for their chosen items. The atmosphere is highly charged – clearly there are regulars and dealers in attendance who know exactly what they want and how much they want to pay for it. It is equally evident that auctioneer, Graham Lumsden, is a master of his craft, conducting proceedings with the breakneck speed and efficiency of a horse-racing pundit, and stage presence worthy of any actor. The counter of the rostrum where he stands is well worn, bearing testament to a century’s worth of gavel banging.
With 371 separate lots for sale at the auction I attended, time is of the essence. Bids are made almost imperceptibly at times, yet Graham misses nothing and rattles through the bidding with great skill. His colleagues are equally efficient, rapidly dispatching the sold items, before progressing seamlessly onto the next sale, without any break in the proceedings. A well-oiled machine, indeed.
Partners Sandy Milne and Frances Milne both spent a number of years working at the auction house during the 1970s, and their enduring enthusiasm for the business is apparent.
Sandy describes how it can often feel like a soap opera, “with the same characters buying and selling on a regular basis. Some are really memorable characters. One of these from days gone by was Cocky Hunter, who ran a second-hand furniture shop which was reminiscent of Steptoe & Son”.
He goes on to describe the relentless schedule of work.
“The working week is punctuated by the sale. Our staff work very hard at each stage of the process. The lead-up involves collecting and documenting all the items, setting up the saleroom and overseeing public viewings. The climax of all this work is the sale itself, which can last for two to three hours. Following that the pressure is on to make sure items are dispatched to the buyers, and that transactions are completed, before it all starts again for the following week’s sale.”
Four generations of hard work have certainly paid off. Frances explained, “An old hardback phone book from 1941 listed over 20 auction houses in Aberdeen, but now we’re the only one”.
Perhaps it is key to the auction house’s continued success that the family has embraced change and moved with the times.
They have a website which showcases their most prestigious sale items. Presently there are a number of highly valuable, collectable malt whiskies, some over 60 years old, which will undoubtedly command a high price at auction.
Sandy explained that the web is playing an increasingly important role in the business.
“We are getting more and more collectors contacting us from abroad, looking for something they have seen on the website. Frequently our staff can be on the phone communicating their bids during the auction.” They have also just completed filming their second series of the TV series Flog it!
In a succinct metaphor for the business’s illustrious past, present and future, two signs are displayed at the base of the rostrum in the saleroom: a traditional, old ‘John Milne Auctioneers’ sign, placed alongside a ‘Find us on Facebook’ sticker. Harnessing the traditions and experience of the past to the opportunities afforded by modern-day technology is clearly a potent formula for success.
‘Going, going, gone’? I very much doubt it.
A Buckie quine, Pauline Smith has a degree in English from the University of Aberdeen. After teaching at Peterhead and Oldmachar Academies, she studied Publishing with Journalism at RGU where she later worked as a Communications Officer. Now she combines motherhood with writing.Tweet
This is an article from the April 2012 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.