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The hidden trove of the many auction houses of Nairobi

Saturday March 7 2020

Bedroom decor

Bedroom decor with antique Oriental furniture. Antique furniture in the country can be expensive, unless you know where to look. PHOTO | POOL| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

BETT KINYATTI
By BETT KINYATTI
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I am drawn to old things. I like used furniture and old houses. Like those you would find tucked in a nondescript corner of Upper Hill, Nairobi.

I like those that have fishbone parquet floors, and washrooms with a sink so large you can wash a baby in it.

I like the red-brick fireplaces in these houses, the distinctive whiff of burnt firewood that clings onto it like a hopeless lover.

Wrought iron and heavy brass fittings — you reach for a doorknob and if you cock you ear right, you will hear the distant whispers of the souls your hand awakens.

WOODEN FURNITURE

Then there is the old handcrafted wooden furniture and decor accessories that match these relics.

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It does not have to be the stylish type of furniture, just something that was made by hand before the early 90s.

Such furniture posses a certain allure and texture that you cannot replicate with new age furniture, they somehow tell their own story of the atmospheric domesticity of human living. It is beautiful.

Maybe one day we will be able to translate that language of old furniture into the language of man.

I sometimes go to second-hand markets and while away at the sections for crockery and cutlery. I caress chipped ceramic bowls and ornately curved stainless steel teaspoons, orphaned pieces that once belonged to a family of sets, and are now looking for a new home in my home.

You can get antique furniture locally but it costs about as a much as a kilo of cocaine.

Restoring this antique furniture also requires a special skill set, a skill set your fundi on the side of the road likely does not possess.

This restoration process is alchemy. I am aware of a company that imports such furniture from UK and abroad, and restores them here for resale. (Note to self: Reach out to them for an interview for this column.)

HOME FURNITURE

Anyway, it is just this week that I learnt you can purchase used hotel, office and home furniture, accessories and electronics from auctioneers peppered across the city. Did you know that? I didn’t. Well, technically I knew you can purchase repossessed items at an auction but I did not join the dots to figure that you can score antique treasures at these auctions.

The public sales for auctions take place in Westlands, Industrial Area, Pangani … just about anywhere you Google for an auctioneer in this town. Some of the auctions are held every Saturday, others every day of the week. Some auction houses do not have a regular schedule, the auction dates are haphazard and announced through their websites. For example, there is one happening in Industrial Area on March 25.

These auctions go down like any other auction: you buy yourself a bidding number, buy the catalogue and get to the auction house before the auction begins so you can view the items for sale. Viewing is crucial because you need to assess the condition of the items being sold.

There are those gently used items that are almost as good as a shop-bought item, then there are those bordering on junk. I mean, how else would you explain a bedside table with one leg shaking loose like a milk tooth?

CATALOGUE
Then the auction begins not a minute later than planned. The auctioneer announces an item on the catalogue and opens the floor for bids.

You place your bid along every other bidder on the floor. He bellows from a microphone, spittle flying all around him, his face perspiring: “Sh15,000 for the carpets. Sh18,000 … Sh20,000! Do I hear Sh25,000? Sh25,000. Sh27,000? Sh27,000? Sh27,000? Going? Carpets sold for Sh27,000 to bidder 45!”

The auctioneer’s final hammer hits the gavel (well, not quite literally) and the item is sold to the highest bidder. There is no back-pedalling or second-guessing yourself. No room for ‘Uhms …’, ‘Errs’ and ‘I’m not sure I …’ Once the auctioneer calls it, the item is sold, as is where is.

STORAGE

A sale translates to you moving your item out of the auction house to your location. They charge you a daily flat rate for storage for every extra day your items sits at the house.

The bidders ultimately determine how much an item will sell for. So the pendulum can swing either way — you can get a vintage mahogany chest of drawers for as little as Sh15,000, or you can get a pair of faux leather arm chairs for close to the regular retail price of Sh80,000.

The floor calls it.
As I mentioned, I have never attended a public sale before. But for the sake of my odd love for old things — and for this story — I will someday soon. How about we exchange notes after?

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