The worldly goods of Deborah Mitford have been bought by mad people
3rd March 2016
I woke up Wednesday morning to discover that the worldly goods of Debo the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the last of my beloved Mitford Sisters were being auctioned off at Sotheby’s and I was beside myself that I wasn’t better prepared.
I am a Mitford fan to my very core. ‘Oh’ you whine, ‘but they were Nazis’. Yah de yah de yah I say. They were so FUNNY.
Their magnificent reign, which began with the birth of Nancy in 1904, came to an end exactly 110 years later with the death of Debo. In that time they’d written several best-selling novels, run away, joined the Spanish Civil War, gone to prison, married Winston Churchill’s nephew (and maybe illegitimate son), divorced the richest man in the country, married Oswald Molsey, fallen in love with Hitler, formed a cowbell and kazoo orchestra that opened for Cyndi Lauper, shot themselves in the head, and, shout out to Pam here, imported a new breed of chicken in to the UK. You go Pam.
Debo, bringing up the rear, went on to marry the Duke of Devonshire and transform Chatsworth House into a successful business. When he died in 2004 she became the Dowager and had to leave the house and go and live at the bottom of the garden. Like how if the khal dies, his khalessi has to go and live in Vaes Dothrak and become a crone, because, you know, the patriarchy.
For the last ten years of her life she lived in the Old Vicarage, a ‘tiny cottage’ which was of course bigger than any house we will collectively ever live in, and now the estate are selling off what is essentially grandma’s tat.
I spent most of the morning eating peanut butter out of the jar, riveted by the online auction. (Which I believe Sotheby’s does for it all its auctions and I really can’t recommend enough).
This was the first item on the list
Is there ever a more glamourous sentence than ‘Her Grace's collection of walking and shooting sticks and a chimney-pot adapted as a holder’
See? What a gal.
By the time Lot 100 (Novelty inkstand in the form of a lobster) came around it occurred to me that maybe I could actually go the auction. Can you just ‘go to an auction’? Can anyone go? At the very least I wanted to buy a catalogue so I put on my smartest art dealer clothes and set off for Sotheby’s.
You know when a place and all its people just smell of class and taste and wealth and everything is calm? When there’s just, really good wood, and pale carpets and everything smells of potential? That’s Sotheby’s
‘Hello’. I said to the beautiful man behind the mahogany desk, ‘would I be allowed to look at the auction please’.
I had exactly zero hope of this working. I thought he would laugh in my face, or say ‘are you a patron?’ or something. ‘You can’t just ‘go to an auction’!’ I imagined him laughing.
Instead he said: ‘Absolutely madame’. And the next thing I knew I was being handed a paddle and a glass of champagne and escorted in to the auction room.
I have only ever been to one other auction in my life. My mum and I once went to the abandoned warehouse where they auction off the unclaimed luggage from Gatwick airport. There was a dog fight going on in the car park.
You had to go single-file into a cage to get a paddle. An enormous women with a tattoo on her face, looked us up and down, put her cigarette out on the wall and said ‘izzahundadpaarndgitapadda’
Eventually it was established that it was a hundred pounds, in cash, to get a paddle, which you got back at the end as long as you hadn’t started a fight.
‘Right, yes, no. Absolutely’ we said, ‘Jolly good.’
And then we did actually get into a fight with a Nigerian lady about a box of sheet music. We came home with a crate of cosmetics from other people’s luggage that we were all forced to use until they ran out, despite everyone in the family suffering varying degrees of allergy to everything that came out of the box. It was a great day.
In addition to this, I had also enjoyed an extended period of unemployment post-graduation which involved a great deal of Bargain Hunt, so I was pretty sure I knew a thing or two about auctions.
The Sotheby’s auction house is something else. Turns out it’s free to go all the time, so if you find yourself in central London, there’s free tea and coffee and snacks and a nice sit down in a warm room where you can’t move too much in case you accidentally buy a chair.
You don’t even have to dress as an art dealer. Which is lucky because I immediately gave myself away by putting all the nice teabags in my pocket.
Along one wall, in a sort of gallery, sit the telephone team, maybe twenty of them, relaying bids into big white 80s telephones, like an incredibly well-bred stock market.
The auctioneers are rakishly good-looking and full of banter. When the bidding got in to the tens of thousands for a bed: ‘Someone has good memories of this bed’, and when it was one-on-one for a drawing of a labrador wearing a hat, and the telephone bid was being repeatedly translated into dollars: ‘If we keep going this slowly the exchange rate will have changed!’
The auctioneers swap throughout the day and we do not, I learnt at my expense, clap them when they change over.
I made several best friends in the crowd, who, as the day wore on were becoming giddy with the astronomical figures things were going for. ‘Replica print of a horse’ the catalogue would say, ‘Estimate: £10-15’. The bidding would open at £800.
A plastic hen sold for £3,000.
A book called ‘Carpet and Rugs’ sold for £5,650
A novelty egg cup went for £7,500
I briefly got involved in the bidding war for a pre-publication signed edition of Brideshead Revisited. It sold for £52,500.
Two plywood hen boxes sold for £10,625. PLYWOOD. HEN BOXES.
If there was one thing the duchess liked it was hens. Item after hen-based item, pictures of hens, paintings of hens, horrible ceramic hens, novelty hens, plates, but with hens on them. And then in amongst all the hens, Elvis.
‘Her grace’s collection of Elvis ephemera’
Which sold, of course, for £4,750.
I waggled my paddle three times. Each time the adrenaline so much I had to go for a brisk walk to the snack table afterwards. Once for the Evelyn Waugh (but just to be involved), once on a painting of a hen, and once on her watch, which I did really like and was prepared to pay, you know, a bit, and pretend I’d inherited from her.
I was last out in the bidding for the watch. The auctioneer motioned to me, ‘it’s with you - in the room - the young lady with the cheesecake, are you quite sure?’
I did a faint little shake of the head like a hardened art dealer. No thank you.
Who were these people buying this nonsense for such outrageous amounts of money? Ex-lovers? People desperate for anything she had ever held? Unless the pages of that copy of Carpets and Rugs are literally made of money what are you going to do with it? Out of this mad room with all the Mitford lovers and the landed gentry crowded in to one place, then that book is just a book. Something to go on the shelf and every time someone comes to the house you’ll have to point it out and say ‘Debo Mitford owned that. Bought it instead of sending our youngest to school’.
In total the auction made £1,777,838. That’s nearly two million pounds from people who want to hold on to some part of her legacy. She hated the suggestion that she was the last relic of a forgotten age, but she probably was. And I suppose when you buy her things, however awful, or ugly, when you hold that rainbow hen that sat on her mantlepiece, you become the sixth point on the six degrees of separation. Through the ugly hen straight to the Duchess of Devonshire and through her to Evelyn Waugh, and Hitler, and Mosley, and her ‘very dear friend’ Lucien Freud, and her five incredible, beautiful, bonkers sisters, who feel so relentlessly alive.
I left before the end and put in an ‘absentee bid on my account’ for a pearl necklace. It had an estimated value of £50 and sold for £8,000. Because she was a Mitford, and when you’re a Mitford, everyone wants a piece.