Sunday, 27 December 2015

Auction Houses of London (Bookhounds)

So you want to run a Bookhounds of London campaign, and need to arrange an auction scene. Where's this taking place? Your players will want to know. If you're the kind of silver-tongued devil who can make this stuff up on the fly, no problem. However for those of you desperate for some historical examples, consider the following auction houses:

Puttick and Simpson. Not much is left online about this venerable auction house, first opened in 1794, closed in 1971. The scene shown in the engraving is its Leicester Square location, a wide open space, no permanent seating, lined with books of all kinds. At one end, close to the door, there's a podium. One wonders whether its proximity to the only exit was important for the auctioneer. In the middle of the room there's a wide section of boards set on two tables, presumably for display, which could be easily moved if needed. At the far end of the room there's a piano. Puttick and Simpson was famous for its sale of musical scores, so it's possible the piano was there in the spirit of try, before you buy. The internet also tells me that there was a Puttick and Simpson Limited at Montpelier Street London, since dissolved. It might not be the same one, of course, but let's say that it is, for the sake of discussion. That suggests that Puttick and Simpson moved from Leicester Square at some point. Judging by the list of old catalogs available for sale online, it seems to have moved more than once. In 1851 it was at 191 Piccadilly, while in 1897 it was at Leicester Square. My source, The Book-Hunter in London (1895, via Project Gutenberg), says that, after Sothebys, Puttick and Simpson was one of the premier book auction houses in London. It also says that the Leicester Square location was formerly the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds - in fact, he died there - and goes on to proclaim, 'in this age of iconoclasm it is pleasant to wander in the passages and rooms where all the wit, beauty and intellect of the latter part of the last century congregated; where Johnson and Boswell, Burke, Garrick, Goldsmith and Malone met in good fellowship.' Of course, it might have moved before the 1930s, but for the sake of your game it might be more interesting if it stays in Leicester Square.

Hodgson's. The source I have for this auction house is the 1895 book mentioned above, but the internet tells me there's a house clearance specialist operating out of Bristol with the same name, that first opened in 1918. The 1918 Hodgson's says it covers West London, which opens the situation up to all kinds of amusing slapstick scenes. I'm reasonably certain that the auctioneer Hodgson's mentioned by my source no longer exists, but the difficulty with a name like Hodgson is that it's one of the more common surnames in the UK, so searching for it is troublesome. The Book-Hunter in London says that Hodgson's Chancery Lane location 'was specially erected for the peculiar requirements of a book-auction house.' Whatever those may have been. Among other things, Hodgson used to host what were called trade dinner sales, where those in the trade would meet, enjoy a pleasant meal, and sell or buy as they saw fit. Apparently Hodgson used to clear fifty thousand pounds a time at these dinners, but the habit had died out by 1895, so presumably in the 1930s it's a distant memory. It does suggest possibilities, though, rather in the same style as a certain Burnt Auction. In 1895 the head of the firm was the founder's son, but by 1930 this may have changed. Incidentally, in the present day 115 Chancery Lane is occupied by a cocktail bar, Baranis. It describes itself as a Provencal-style cellar bar with a petanque court. It'd be interesting to see how much, if anything, of that Victorian structure 'specially erected' for a book auction house survives. Judging by Google, the frontage looks more or less original, but it's anyone's guess what's inside.

The Dorotheum. This is a Vienna-based auction house rather than a London firm, but it's the oldest in the world, so it deserves mention. The protagonists no doubt dream of one day going to something as prestigious as a Dorotheum auction. First established in 1707 by the Emperor Joseph I, it occupied its current premises in 1777, and has remained there ever since. Impossibly Baroque, immensely expensive; no doubt the protagonists are stealing its catalogs and forging its provenance in hope of boosting the price of their stock.

Phillip's, briefly Phillips de Pury, though that sad chapter in the firm's history post-dates the average Bookhounds game. First established in 1796 by one of Christie's clerks, this auction house puttered along until 1999, when it changed hands several times, engaged in disastrous business decisions, and was bought out by Bonham's. At the time of the average Bookhounds game, Phillip's is known as Phillips, Son and Neale. According to its website, Phillips had a 'reputation for strong regional sales rooms dotted about the British Isles,' which suggests that, if you as Keeper want an excuse for finding some obscure tome in, say, Scotland or Ireland, it could come into the game via Phillips, Son and Neale.

Sotheby's will be a familiar name to anyone who has a copy of the Dracula Dossier. Established in 1744, it began as a bookseller's but has since branched out into every conceivable art form. In the 1930s its principal lines, apart from books, would have been prints, coins, and medals, with a sideline in fine art. Its main rooms are at 34-35 New Bond Street, where it has lived since 1917. Though in the present day it has branches all over the world, in the 1930s its only location would have been London. It often arranges private sales when the seller wants to conduct business with the utmost discretion, as often happens when the seller would prefer the outside world not know how hard up for cash he is. One of its 1930s highlights is the sale of Baron Rothschild's paintings at one of the Rothschild residences in Piccadilly. This 1937 sale reached over £125,000, and was broadcast live by the BBC.

Taverns and Pubs. Many of the businesses mentioned here got their start by running auctions at their local pub.  Though a much less common practice in the 1930s as it would have been in the 18th Century, it's still quite possible, particularly for auctions taking place outside London. Without a dedicated auction house, any large sale taking place in the counties, say, has to locate itself in the largest and most convenient spot, and that will often be the local tavern. 

Book Fairs. The London Book Fair does not exist in the 1930s, but other Fairs do, most notably the Frankfurt Book Fair. The protagonists who operate a small book stall in, say, Spitalfields, probably won't be going to Frankfurt, but any book store owner with a Credit Rating of 3 or better will definitely want to be represented there. The Frankfurt event is a trade fair, where all kinds of innovations, new products, and other things of interest to booksellers are put on display. Exactly the kind of event that a Forger might want to attend, for example. 

That's it for the moment! It's also the last post this year. May 2016 be good to you, and best wishes to you all!

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