Celebrity auctioneer Philip Serrell tells Sally Hoban why he has the best job in the world ... most of the time.
I've watched Philip Serrell on BBC’s Bargain Hunt, Flog It and other antiques programmes many times. He’s smart-suited and silver-haired with a warm, amiable smile and twinkling eyes.
Anybody who has spent any amount of time with people who work in the antiques trade (whether they are auctioneers or dealers) will know that they are very good at telling stories and have quite a lot to say.
Phillip is no exception to this rule.
He was born in Worcestershire in 1954 and nothing so far, he says, has tempted him to move away from the county. Since 1995 he has been in charge of a thriving auction business in the somewhat idyllic surroundings of the Malvern Hills.
"I think I have the best job in the world," he explains. "I spend my time driving around really beautiful countryside meeting predominantly interesting people and I get paid for doing it. It’s wonderful."
After attending the Royal Grammar School in Worcester, where he was a schoolmate of the Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan, Philip took a teacher training course at Loughborough College of Physical Education. It wasn’t a complete success.
"As soon as I qualified I began to think I was the worst teacher in the whole world. So I only did the job for eight weeks. I think I saved a whole generation of children from a terrible fate when I made my decision not to be a teacher.
"So I just played rugby and cricket for a while after that. I guess I was inventing the concept of having a gap year before anyone else had heard of it. But eventually I started getting huge amounts of pressure from my parents to go and get a job."
So why did he decide to become an auctioneer?
"I actually come from a farming family, so in the end I told my parents that I’d go and train to be an auctioneer. So I started working at an old firm of Midlands’ auctioneers and estate agents.
"The company was founded in 1791 and sold livestock, farming supplies and antiques from some of the country houses they put up for sale. I’d been to farm sales and I quite liked estate agents, so I thought it might be a good idea.
"I started in November 1976 as a general practice trainee. I quickly found myself immersed in a whole new world of farm equipment sales, sheep and tractors. There would also be first period Worcester china and the odd stuffed owl when we cleared country houses.
"I turned up for my very first day dressed in a smart, pin-striped suit. I was asked to go to Worcester market and I quickly realised that the dress code I’d been given was very wrong when I found myself surrounded by people dressed in wellies and Barbours. I had to help herd animals in my pin-stripes. The other people in the firm took the mickey out of me for years about that.
"I still laugh out loud when I think about what happened to me on one of my first days in the job. Although I grew up in a farming family, there is what you might call a big wall between me, horses and cattle.
"I was helping herd a cow onto the back of a lorry one morning when what can only be described as a substantial deposit from it landed on my head. I guess I realised at that point that one of the joys of auctioneering for a living is that you never know what’s going to happen next."
So did he have any interest in antiques before he started training as an auctioneer?
"Not really," he explains. "I did love Worcester porcelain though. I used to spend hours in the Worcester Museum as a child, which was curated at the time by the lovely Henry Sandon.
"He’s now one of the best-loved experts on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. Henry would always have time to answer my questions when I went on a visit to the museum.
"Whenever I go back there today I play the same game I used to when I went there when I was 11. I used to ask myself (and still do) that if I had to choose a piece to take home with me, something that I really loved, what would it be?"
Philip likes to explore the social history of antiques as well as putting values on them. This is a viewpoint which I very much share. To me, looking through a box of old photographs of long forgotten people has its own historical value which is worth looking after for the future. Antiques are not always just about the money.
"Absolutely," he agrees. "If I hold a Worcester tea bowl dating from say 1770 in my hand I can almost sense the people who might have been around when it was made. Perhaps one of them even designed it.
"Worcester from this early period is so beautiful and it’s highly collectable today. I like to think about what people’s everyday lives were like. They might have been living in slum conditions. It would have taken them 30 or 40 hours to travel to London and they may have had a child up a chimney somewhere, but still they made these beautiful bowls."
Some of Philip’s most valuable antique finds have turned up in the most unlikely places. From what he tells me, it seems that some of the steady stream of stories I hear about antiques lurking in the woodshed are true.
"I think one of the best pieces I’ve ever sold was a table which we put up for auction about five years ago. It was originally designed by a gentleman called Benjamin Goodison in 1729. When I found it, the piece was essentially not much more than four legs of a table hidden away in a potting shed. I guess it was what you might call ‘shabby chic’ today. But this sorry old table turned out to be a really important piece of furniture.
"I did some research and it turned out that Goodison was the cabinet maker to the then Prince of Wales. So I took our table to meet the other half of its pair at Hampton Court Palace. It was such a lovely experience to find such a treasure and later sell it. A local vendor from the Midlands (although I can’t say exactly where) consigned it to sale with us. It went on to make £20,000."
Whilst recording a regular antiques slot on local BBC radio, a television producer suggested that Philip might like to appear on screen. So he became a resident expert on several BBC antiques programmes, including Bargain Hunt, Flog It! and the 20th Century Roadshow, where he presented a feature on classic cars. More recently, he has appeared on The Alan Titchmarsh Show on ITV.
"I was quite shy at first when I began to do television," he confesses, ‘but I really enjoy doing it now. It’s given me the chance to make friends with people in the antiques trade who I would perhaps never have met had it not been for the TV. It’s still strange though when people queue up to get my autograph!"
Philip travels the country with his An Evening With… theatre shows and also supports charity valuation events and roadshows. From the glowing review that I read, he is also a firm favourite with members of his local Women’s Institute.
Philip has published two books about his experiences as an auctioneer. The first, An Auctioneers’ Lot, came out in 1995 and is essentially a book of anecdotes about his career.
"I still can’t quite get used to being called an author," he confesses.
The second instalment of his adventures, Sold to the Man with the Tin Leg is bursting with tales of dodgy cars, fakes in the saleroom, angry livestock (a recurring theme), mangled silverware and tortuous, often muddy experiences in local markets and farm sales. It’s a book full of strange tales and unusual people (and again, if you’ve spent any time in the antiques trade, you’ll know that there are usually plenty of eccentrics wondering about at antiques fairs and auctions).
The book also stars Philip’s very first boss, the admirably named Major Ernest Edward Foley Rayer, who came complete with a string of letters after his name which Philip tells me are too long to list here.
"He was just a wonderful, cantankerous, miserable, grumpy and thoroughly professional guy," he explains. "He gave me a wonderful grounding in the business but was completely pedantic. To give you an idea what he was like, he once sent me to measure the same hedge in the Cotswolds three times on the same day because he didn’t believe I’d written the measurements down properly. I guess our relationship was a bit like that of Siegfried Farnham and James Herriott."
So what about Philip’s plans for the future?
Serrell Auctioneers are about to launch a new service which offers free sales valuations on the first Monday of each month. Philip will look after the porcelain, toys, glass and objets d’art. I think that valuation days at auction houses can be even more exciting than sale days. You never know what’s going to come through the door next, hidden away in a box or wrapped up carefully in an old blanket. This must be one of the most exciting parts of Philip’s job, never knowing what’s going to appear and how much is might be worth.
"That’s absolutely true," he agrees. "If anyone were to ask me what’s the best thing I’ve ever handled or found while being an auctioneer, I think the answer would be ‘the next piece I see’.
"When you’re an auctioneer, antiques find their way to you and become part of your extended collection for a while before you sell them. It’s fascinating."