Time Capsules in Suburbia

One of my fondest memories of Auctionland is probably the first house contents valuation I had to attend. It was 25 years ago at Leonard Joel when Graham Joel (the original owner of Leonard Joel) was conducting literally dozens of house valuations every week. It was unusual for him to decline a valuation but perhaps he just had too many on that week and the drive seemed a bit much for him – who knows? Anyway, I was told I could visit a lady in Essendon who had a garage full of “things”. I was excited; probably more because I could escape the arduous work of setting up our large weekly auction of the time. When I arrived she did not take me to her home but rather her garage-shed on a large sprawling property. As we walked she told me that her husband, a chemist, was long gone and that it was very much his space and that she never really concerned herself with it – I was fascinated! She unlocked the door and it revealed a well stocked shed of “things” as she promised. We first found the remnants of her wedding cake in a tin container – she laughed and I was curious. She explained to a young boy that “in those days” they kept the leftovers as a memory. It was my first first-hand social history lesson and I was intrigued.

56But there was more than just the cake. Her husband had clearly been one of those organised men where every object had its place. He had well packed in their mechanical tin robots from the 1950s and also beautiful hand painted chemist vessels from most likely his own chemist. The inventory went on and on and it was made all the more interesting because the contents had been locked up out of sight and out of mind for at least 40 years.

If the Melbourne Museum had got their first they would have had a field day as it truly was a Melbourne time capsule albeit an unintended one. Lucky for me and the auction house I worked for that the widow did not care for the contents and wanted a spring clean – we obliged! The contents were duly removed and we set up the contents at our then Inkerman Street salerooms and catalogued every last little bit right down to the old flour sieves.

We advertised the collection as “The Contents of a Shed” and little did I know at the time but it was probably my first single-owner sale. The media came, the widow came to be filmed (and loved it) and the buyers came in droves to acquire “things” from a time gone by and we realised the staggering sum of about $50,000 for the contents. I’m not sure whether any of the institutions were buying at that auction but I hope so. In 2013 the single-owner sale has taken on much more grand connotations but whether it is the contents of a shed or a mansion I find that the delight comes not so much from the value but more from the intricacies, the personality and history of the collection.

John Albrecht