Going, going, gone: Buckley Galleries hosts final auction
The hammer fell for the last time in legendary Buckleys of Sandycove this afternoon after 56 years in business and nearly a million lots sold
Brothers Sean and Michael Buckley outside their Sandycove auctioneering business which is due to close shortly after over 56 years in business. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell for the Irish Times
It is a death of sorts: the closure today (July 25th) , after 56 years of weekly auctions, of Buckley Galleries in Sandycove. “We miss you more, our hearts are sore, and as time goes on, we miss you more. Your gentle eyes, your smiling face, for the grumpy Buckley’s transfer now, is going to take place.” Hugo, the porter who has been part of the Buckley experience for about 25 of those years, reels off his own adaptation of the obituary rhyme. “Are your writing that down?”
Many have furnished their homes with items from Buckley’s over five decades, but the place is more than a local auction house; going there is an entertainment, a window on an eccentric world, a one-of-a-kind place with a characterful cast. Plus, you could pick up a highly unusual treasure, or a terrific bargain, or a piece of junk you later regret and might leave back to be auctioned the next week.
Buckley’s lots any given week might include a fine Victorian book case, paintings of indeterminate origin, boxes of junk for €2, naff pine bedside lockers, a grand solid dining table and chairs for a steal, a bike that might or might not work, a TV that might or might not work, a piano, unusual or valuable bric-a-brac, downright ugly ornaments, cut-glass that fashion left behind. There’s no knowing, from week to week, what’ll turn up, and no knowing how much of a bargain you might get.
It’s all on show on Wednesdays and Thursday morning, in a series of rooms, descending from the good stuff at the front, to a hodgepodge out in the yard, with the auction, regular as clockwork on Thursdays at 2.30pm. The auction rattles along, taking about an hour per hundred items.
Described in the trade as having “a quiet consistency”, for those decluttering, and those acquiring, this has been the place to go for decades.
I think of the two Buckley brothers, Michael and Sean, as Grumpy and Grumpier (not necessarily in that order), wondering was it genuine or part of the show. Many’s the auction punctuated by Michael stopping mid-flow, to ask would someone please take that baby outside, or for either brother to berate Hugo, for not being able to locate a lot that was under his nose, all exasperation and throwing his eyes to heaven, to the amusement of the audience.
Hugo gives off about the Buckley’s too, telling me about a woman pointing out to Michael that she nearly tripped over something. “‘Lift your feet,’ he told her.”
Three weeks before the final auction, and it’s glorious outside on Sandycove Road. “We don’t like the good weather,” Michael says in a sort of aside, as it keeps customers away. “Or the wet weather either.”
He and Sean, speaking separately, almost marvel that every week over those 56 years, they have managed to get an auction of 300 to 450 lots together, moving items in, cataloguing them, selling them over a few hours on a Thursday, rain or shine, and shifting them out again with their new owners. It’s a weekly rhythm, that seems ingrained in the blood of the four souls involved.
Michael calculates: 56 years, with, say, 48 weekly auctions, is 2,688. Taking a minimum of 300 lots, makes that 806,400 items sold over that period – it must be more than a million in reality.
It’s all managed on an antique computer using DOS and an obsolete Bidmaster programme. It works perfectly, Michael says, coding everything, keeping tabs of sellers, their lots, buyers , invoices and payments, and he’s never seen a reason to change it. In 1996, Michael thought a computer was totally unnecessary – he’d catalogued by hand from age 18. “Of course within six weeks we wondered how we had done without it.”
As we chat in the glass-windowed office looking into the auction house’s front room, people stop to ask for an estimate, or pick up a cheque, or show him a picture of something they want to sell (many responses seem to indicate lack of demand, or value, for the treasure on offer).
Michael has conducted most auctions, and his brother Sean, five years his junior, the remainder. The only person other than a Buckley to have taken the rostrum in the galleries was Ryan Tubridy, many many years ago, which was broadcast on radio. Sean Buckley “instructed him in the art of auctioneering and we allowed him do seven or so lots at the weekly auction. He was very good!”
Michael and Sean’s father John James (or JJ, or “John Buckley the Auctioneer”, even on his headstone) started an auction business in 1947 in Sandycove, with his wife Etta, from their front room in Burdett House, just across from the Galleries. His motto was “the southside is our side”, later adding “and outside the southside”. Michael recalls people coming in and out, his father writing cheques, giving estimates.
The property side fizzled out in the 1970s with computerisation, and 'colour pictures in The Irish Times'
The business thrived for years, later including a few furniture lots weekly from their front room. In the early 1950s he bought Byrne’s and Dunne’s, a tailor and a fruit and veg across the road (later adding O’Brien’s yard behind), and by 1963 the current building was up and running as a chattel auction, initially called Casement Galleries, to distinguish it from the property business. (Roger Casement was born next door, and Michael recalls an exhibition at the Galleries for the 1966 anniversary of the Rising, when the captain of the U-boat who dropped Casement on Banna Strand was invited.)
One crazy week, Michael says, Buckleys had five auctions – his father sold two houses, and their contents afterwards, plus the weekly furniture auction. He marvels that people then sold their homes, seemingly walking out leaving all their possessions, with drawers filled with blankets and sheets. “Why would people do that?”
The property side fizzled out in the later 1970s, as the trade changed, with computerisation, and “colour pictures in The Irish Times, and it fell away from him”. He died in 1993, aged 79, working till the end, “flogging houses from the office across the road” says Sean.
Michael, was in school in England from age 12, in line for the priesthood, later the Christian Brothers. “I was an altar boy. They told me I had a vocation.” Five years later, he lost his vocation and was told to leave, stranded without the fare home to Ireland.
Back in Sandycove in 1961, age 17 or 18, there was “nothing else to do” and he got involved in the family business. One day, without training, just from watching his father, Michael got up and conducted the auction. For 10 or 15 years “I had butterflies beforehand every week. After that it was by rote. I lost interest in the actual auction, it was no fun. But getting everything together each week - that was completely different.”
Five years his junior, Sean joined the business later, and from the 1970s the brothers ran the show. Their father didn’t like the furniture side, and didn’t take a day-to-day role in it, but Sean says “he’d wander across the road, regularly, and say we were doing everything wrong”.
Sean can’t remember the first time he auctioned, “though there must have been some element of fear involved. It became second nature, I grew up seeing my father doing it.”
Now semi-retired from Buckley’s, he enjoys charity auctions too. He still uses some of his father’s patter. “You ask: who’ll give me €20? Someone offers €2. Are you buying it madam or renting it?” Or when a bid is too cheap: “Mind yourself crossing the road” – because your luck will run out. His father referenced every picture that came up, When did you Last see your Father?, after a favourite painting.
Their father passed the business on to the brothers in the 1970s, but “he made an error,” observes Michael, “I got 75 per cent of the business, because I was in it longer, and Sean 25 per cent, which still rankles”.
He reckons 40 per cent of their buyers and sellers are not dealers. But in the 1940s and 1950s “the business depended on the dealers. They were always Jewish, from Kenilworth or with shops on Lower Liffey Street. I was disappointed when they went out of the business. Country dealers were the great backbone of the auction, buying thousands worth of goods weekly at one stage, but they mostly fell by the wayside – they died or the trade died.”
He recalls a big auction in Castletown House, when five dealers “ringed” the auction, agreeing to buy items they wanted through one bidder, rather than bidding against each other. “The practice became a civil offence in Britain.” Another ploy was to change the bids to guineas mid way, which confused other bidders.
House clearances yield the oddest things, and treasures. In the mid-1990s “a Royal Doulton character mug, or maybe a Toby jug, an awful thing, from a house clearance in Dundela Park, ” which they expected to make €20 or €30, fetched €3,100 as two bidders, one who had travelled from London, bid on it. Unbeknownst to them, it was one of six that survived a faulty run (with a drum on the wrong side, Michael thinks). He marvels “how did they know? We didn’t know. One day two people just turned up.”
Another clearance from the attic of a big house on Marlborough Road, Glenageary yielded a massive collection of military memorabilia - “Indian civil service documents, incredible swords and pistols” – from a Colonel Oram who had been with the British Raj in India.
Still today house clearances are always surprises – “you go into a home and there’s another magnificent piece”.
He recalls regulars: “a Mrs McDonnell or O’Donnell from Dalkey who bought any old Beleek that came up”, selling other items to pay for it.
For years there was a pattern of older generations selling furniture, and younger generations furnishing their homes from auctions, with the pattern repeated again years later. “That stopped during the Celtic Tiger Years, when some people didn’t want secondhand from Buckley’s. People had huge disposable income and couldn’t wait to spend it. People would spend €4,000 importing a large suite from Hong Kong, then decide quickly, I don’t like it, and send it to me, where it would sell for €400 .”
He mentions someone spending €8,000 on garden furniture in Spain, which sold for €750 a while later at auction.
'You couldn’t give teak furniture away; now they all want it – it’s retro'
It was said “you’ll clean up in the recession”, Sean remarks, because people would want to buy cheap. “But things were very dead in the recession, there was no buzz.” Dealers couldn’t sell on so they weren’t buying. “The present generation has no interest in the previous generations’ furniture”, and the trend is towards “Ikea, and minimalism. Now display cases and dining room furniture, reproduction Regency style and Chippendale suites, are out. People don’t want dark furniture, they want white or grey.”
Sean observes “I’m the Simon Cowell of furniture,” as customers who paid dear for something often find out they’ll get much less at auction, as things don’t hold their value.
Small occasional furniture that can be adapted to modern homes have value. And at one stage 10 or 15 years ago “you couldn’t give teak furniture away; now they all want it – it’s retro”.
He cherishes his own Victorian credenza inlaid cabinet he bought for €5,000 in 2000.
During a mid-auction bomb scare in 2010 the auction house had to be cleared, but “everyone came back” once they got the okay. Sean was non-plussed that, with the explosion risk, he was asked to guide gardaí through the place to check it out for a bomb (there was none).
The auction has given them a good lifestyle, but business has been tough for the past five years. “We don’t get the good stuff anymore.” Michael reckons that “if we were selling €10,000 at one stage, we’re now selling €3,000 - a 70 per cent drop on the value of the weekly take”.
Michael will be 75 on July 26th, the day after the final auction. It took him a long time to decide to wind up the business, but since then he has been dying to go. “It’s not making money. The business is closing, it has no value.” A developer is buying the building and he’s not sure what will happen to it longterm.
And as for Hugo. He is, we discover, Hugo Harkin, from “Inishowen, Malin Head, Co Donegal. I haven’t been up there since 2001.” He came to Dublin in 1967. A previous porter was Bill Costello (“he taught me a lot,” says Michael), then his son Liam. About 25 years ago, Hugo started hanging around the auctions, helping people afterwards.
Sean says “he mooched his way in and became part of the furniture without any say-so”. Both brothers profess to be persecuted by his ways. Michael remarks of him, “Mother of God, we’re like Laurel and Hardy.” Sean says: “I’m unfortunate to live in Hugo’s lifetime. We’ve the same mother but different fathers. Hugo is an enigma, a mini-series in himself.”
But then, Sean also says: “We’d be lost without him. We always said, if Hugo went, we’d have to go. He’s a horse of a man. ”
In his mid-70s too, Hugo is stocky and strong, wears a selection of brightly patterned jumpers and what his colleagues swear is the same woolly hat over all those years. He is a font of knowledge, some of which may be true. He tells me about the merits of particular cars, the technicalities of helicopters, his medical expertise (he cured his diabetes by drinking sea water), how he got the job, how he’s going to renovate his flat – “it’s in bits, I’m going to deco everything. I go like a bang man, I fly to it, I see everything before I even start.”
Susan Stephenson has been there 17 years (before that, “some girls lasted six months,” says Michael). To the visitor, she’s the sane one in this most idiosyncratic of places. She’s staying in auctions, moving to Adams on Stephen’s Green. Buckley’s has been “so much fun, and a great place to work”. She observes little has changed in her time, and the place has sustained three families, four with Hugo. “Customers are very loyal. The Buckleys are tolerant of customers’ oddities. Some retired regulars meet up at the auction every week, have lunch, maybe fall asleep in the chairs.” (Later that afternoon I notice a man having a snooze on a comfy couch during the auction.)
Hugo remarks “I’m supposed to be gone seven years ago. The thing is, who’d remember all the numbers? Who else would do it? Nobody gets on with the Buckley’s, they’re too grumpy. I torment them like hell. I love it.”
Sean remarks, in wild good humour, “Oh, the village will be in great sorrow that the two grumpy brothers have gone. For years they’ve said, ‘those grumpy pair up there, I don’t know how they stay in business’. But once we go they’ll be saying ‘ohhhh, they were a lovely pair, ohhh’,” he mimics.
To echo Hugo’s obituary ditty, we won’t see the like again. Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís, indeed.