"We're all put to the test... but it never comes in the form or at the point we would prefer, does it?" says Anthony Hopkins at the end of David Mamet's excellent adventure movie The Edge.
Now I confess that, unlike Tony's character, I have never had to cope with a faithless partner, a bird strike, a plane crash, a ravenous bear, frostbite-inducing cold or a homicidal nutcase - although I once went out with a girl who, looking back, seems to have been a combination of all of the above. On the plus side, the way she snacked on frozen burgers straight from the freezer was really something to see.
Not unnaturally, many of the day-to-day tests that I am put to involve auctions and antiques.
I have passed many of them, both real time and online, the Burne-Jones drawing for £5 (worth £1,000-£1,500), the Charles Frac‚ oil bought for £100 and sold for £3,000, the 'manner of David Cox' eBay watercolour that is an important original worth perhaps £10,000... But none of these successes really signifies. It is the mistakes that come most readily to mind - those times when, for whatever reason, you blink and look away...
My sins are generally sins of omission. Yes, I have bought lots that I should have left alone (see last month's cover story), but everyone will do that from time to time and, oddly, these instances aren't the ones that keep me awake at night.
It is the lots that I should have bought but didn't that return to plague me: the packet of Russell Flint drawings at Christie's that I chased up to £3,000 (estimated £500-£700) and then let go - despite having calculated before the sale that if sold individually they would have a had an eventual resale value of at least £10,000-£15,000; the small etching of Thames lightermen dedicated in pencil "to Mrs Russell from James Whistler", which I noticed but failed to buy at Gaze's in Diss, despite its modest reserve of £180. What would that be worth? £2,000? £5,000? More? I try to tell myself that it was a fake and that my unconscious recognised that fact and forbade me to bid... but I'm not entirely convinced. The test came and, that time at least, I wasn't ready for it.
Rare and wonderful things may confront you at any moment and you have to be able to spot them and be smart enough, quick enough (and at times wealthy enough) to act if they do.
I was put to the test most recently about a month ago at the Antiques Fair being held at the Royal Norfolk Showground. Compared to some of the larger venues like Swinderby or Newark, this is a modest affair. For every full-time dealer who is selling Hannah Barlow-decorated Doulton or genuine Bergman cold-painted bronzes, there are probably two part-timers selling Wade Whimsies or fresh-from-the-container Chinese brass sextants. I normally buy and sell pictures but I have rarely found them here in any numbers, so when I go it is with the knowledge that it is more likely to be for a pleasant stroll in the morning sunshine rather than as an opportunity to discover an unrecognised gem.
But as with spectres, owls and new loves, so with sleepers: if you go out hoping to find them you will probably be disappointed. If you wander abroad without expectation of anything very much, you never know what you may bump into.
In this instance what my wife and I bumped into, in a dealer's bijouterie cabinet, next to a silver Humpty Dumpty teething ring and a pig pincushion, was a silver pepperette in the form of a stylised cat. It was early C20th, and the base and the inner neck ring of the removable head were hallmarked, both bearing a stamp for Birmingham 1905 (two matching hallmarks is always a good sign, indicating both quality and original condition).
Silver prices have recently been at an all-time high, but that wasn't a factor in this case, because on holding it in my hand I discovered that - to use the Archbishop of Canterbury's ringing phrase - it weighed less than the ghost of a wren's fart. The base metal content was nothing; the design was everything. And the design was, as far as I could tell, by Louis Wain, the famed illustrator whose drawings of cats have been popular for over a hundred years. The dealer didn't know this. He said that he had been told it was based on a sketch by someone famous but he couldn't remember who. He wasn't bluffing and I decided not to enlighten him. Instead, I asked the price, expecting to hear a figure so high that I would have to sit down, or possibly ask to borrow a defibrillator. "£225," he replied. My wife asked if £180 would buy it. "I'll take £185," said the dealer, "but not a penny less."
I hadn't been expecting it but there it was: the test.
And what did I do?
I walked away.
The figure that he had quoted was far, far less than I thought it was going to be, but I still walked away. On numerous occasions, when Tim Wonnacott holds up the undiscovered gem he has found while wandering through a fair on Bargain Hunt and announces the modest price that the dealer is asking, I yell at the TV (it's an age thing) "I'd have it for that!" This was just such a piece. And I blinked. On television, I'd have bought; in real life, when I really did have the chance to buy... I bottled it. I walked away.
Then, thankfully, before it was too late, I walked back.
So now when I wake up in a sweat, it isn't because I didn't buy the Louis Wain silver cat; what worries me is the fact that I was almost foolish enough to leave it behind. Given how easily I can get Russell Flint and Whistler to beat me up, the last thing I need is to add a third sparring partner to the melee.
The cat sits on proudly on the mantelpiece. I think he's worth about £400-£600 but I won't be selling him any time soon.
In the end, mercifully, I passed the test.
Mind you, it did involve a retake.