Five Go on a Treasure Hunt: A day of panic, a haggle and the cash box is mine

In a quiet little shop in the corner of the Merchant’s Market warehouse, the owners take my €100 and assure me I am getting a good deal. I believe them

Conor Pope with his ‘old but perfectly functioning cash box, which would have been common before cash registers’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Conor Pope with his ‘old but perfectly functioning cash box, which would have been common before cash registers’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


We gave five treasure hunters €100 each and sent them off to bag bargains. At the end of the series, James O’Halloran of Adam’s Auctioneers will value the items and the winner will get €500 for the charity of his or her choice. Conor Pope’s chosen charity is Médecins Sans Frontières.

It’s late on a sunny Sunday evening and my head is frazzled. I’ve an hour left to find my fortune and I’m all over the shop or, to be more precise, I’m all over the shops.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. What seems like months ago I was given the simple-sounding task of unearthing a wondrous gem sitting lost and unloved on the shelves of Dublin’s higgledy-piggledy antique shops or in one of the shabby, sprawling markets or car boot sales that pop up randomly around the city every weekend.

My deadline was so far into the future that I did what I always do in such situations and completely forgot about it. This was a mistake. If I had approached my challenge in a timely fashion, I would be watching the telly right now, casting the occasional pride-filled glance at something that would surely elicit murmurs of approval on The Antiques Roadshow and cause a bidding frenzy when I eventually agreed to put it up for sale.

But instead, I am panicking as the deadline looms and my treasure chest is still bare. Yesterday was spent fretfully wandering up and down Francis Street failing to find inspiration. The antique shops in Dublin 8 are lovely places to pass the time and are filled with old-world charms and pleasingly musty and dusty smells.

But the chances of me finding a Ming teapot selling for the price of a Rialto batter burger are always going to be remote, although not as remote as the likelihood of me recognising anything Ming-related unless it has a pointy beard, a hemp coat and is on its way to Brussels via an Amsterdam coffee shop.

After my fruitless adventures in the fancy-dan antique shops, I go downmarket and rub shoulders with northside pawn brokers in an effort to profit from the misery of others. These shops are too depressing and too dear.

And so I frantically look through the bric-a-brac in the sprawling Dublin Flea Market, also in Dublin 8. I fall in love with a set of chipped cups and saucers ringed in various shades of horrible brown, but only because they are identical to the ones my parents had when I was a child. Their resale value will not be much, I decide, so I let them go.

I flirt with a beautiful-looking but weather-beaten barometer that is out of my price range and leave a second-hand bookshop ashen-faced after seeing the prices pencilled on some of the early editions of books by difficult Irish authors from the early part of the last century.


Another change of scene

In desperation I hop on the Luas and find myself in the Merchant’s Market, behind the O2. It seems like a wasted journey. A man is selling a drum kit with no cymbals and a broken stool for €150. The people at the stall next to him want the same for some drawers that appear to have been painted pink by a small – and not particularly skilled – child.

I fear there is nothing here that will endear me to the auctioneer. I wander into the warehouse and am confronted by more furniture, a mountain of electronic equipment that was cutting edge when the Bay City Rollers sang bye bye to their baby and a lot of brass fixtures and fittings that someone somewhere could probably find a use for.

There are stalls selling hipster-chic clothes that will not fit me or my purpose. And if VHS copies of Only Fools and Horses are worth anything, then this time next year I’d be a millionaire. I talk briefly to a girl selling fancy bags and pore over a mountain of old coins from the era of the pound – and even the punt. I feel a pang of regret for having thieved my dad’s collection of millennium 50p pieces to buy cigarettes back when I was young and foolish and thought smoking made me look like James Dean.

I am about to leave in despair when my eye is drawn to a quiet little shop in the corner of the warehouse. It is the Yellow Brick Room. I am drawn in by all manner of shiny things and quickly get lost in another century.

Sandwiched between a long-playing mono record player and some 1940s delph is a rectangular box covered in an ugly brown laminated plastic sheet. It has a rusty metal plate on the top. The lid lifts to reveal a yellowing till roll. There is a drawer under the lid. I gently open it and a bell rings out. It is the bell that seals the deal.

It is an old but perfectly functioning cash box, the like of which would have been commonly found in shops and public houses all over the world back in the 19th century before cash registers, which could do fancy things such as adding and storing numbers, took over.

I am immediately smitten. After a gentle haggle, the charming shop owners take my €100 and tell me they had it valued at €180 not long ago. They assure me I am getting a good deal. I believe them.


Mysterious numbers

I take my treasure chest home and slowly peel off the brown plastic sheeting to reveal an immaculate dovetailed oak box. I can find no identifying markings anywhere save for a sticker on the underside of the lid with instructions on how to use the till roll and two scribbled sets of numbers in red and black ink beside it. The first reads “1-12-6” While the second reads “4-12-6”. Dates from the early part of the 20th century, maybe? Or maybe even the 19th century?

I start to lose the run of myself about the age of my acquisition until I notice the markings have been made in ballpoint. Biro didn’t make his mark until the late 1930s and his pens didn’t make it to Ireland until many years later, so the scribble can’t be anything but pounds, shillings and pence scribbled by some postwar clerk too lazy to find paper to do his totting on.

I take to the web to find out more about my box; eBay is awash with such drawers but the messages are mixed: some lots are withdrawn from auction after failing to meet reserve prices of less than €30 and others soar beyond €400.

I turn to a colleague whose parents are in the trade. He looks unimpressed with my purchase and takes pictures of it from various angles, which he sends to his father. I wait anxiously for a response. Days pass and then it comes. “I think it might be worth €50,” my remote expert says. I hope he’s wrong.

Next week: Catherine Cleary digs up an old typewriter

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