In Which Blood Tells
Pay strict attention now, Archibald,” instructed Lord Gower. “Use that clever brain of yours. Think!” He turned to the table behind him, which was covered by a sheet. “We will try this test again. Are you ready?”
Archie, dark brow furrowed with concentration, nodded. “Ready, my lord.”
The earl whipped away the cloth. “Now, tell me-which among these items are the genuine articles, and which are the imitations?” He indicated a spread of small objects arranged on a rectangle of blue velvet. “Take your time,” he urged. “And concentrate. Remember all I’ve told you.”
Hands folded beneath his chin, the young man stepped forward and gazed at the array of objects on display: a brooch with a cameo surrounded by a ring of tiny sapphires, a cat carved of ebony, a silver owl with jet eyes, a golden ring in the shape of a scarab with a shell inset with lapis and carnelian, an alabaster statue of a crocodile fighting a hippopotamus, and a pair of pendant earrings of blue, green, red, and yellow glass beads. These objects had been pulled from the Earl of Sutherland’s extensive collection of antiquities, and all were fine specimens of their kind.
“You may look, but do not touch,” cautioned the earl. “An expert must be able to tell from the very first glance. Concentrate. Which are the fakes, and which the authentic creations?”
Archie Burley reached a tentative finger towards the cat figurine, then pulled back his hand. He went on to the ring, and then, after havering between the owl and the crocodile statuette, chose the gold ring and earrings instead. “The scarab and the pendant earrings,” he announced. “These are genuine.”
Lord Gower raised his eyebrows questioningly. “The little scarab and the earrings? Are you absolutely certain?”
Archie gave a curt nod.
“Not the owl? Not the brooch?” His Lordship tapped the cameo, making the sapphires sparkle. “This is a valuable piece.” He indicated the alabaster statuette. “Why not the crocodile? It is very beautiful.”
“The question was not which is the most beautiful or costly,” declared Archie. “You asked which were the genuine artefacts and which the fakes. I choose the scarab and the earrings.”
“Well done, Archibald!” The earl began clapping his hands very slowly. “You are correct. Those are genuine Egyptian antiques. You have the talent, lad. You will get on.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“But tell me,” continued Lord Gower, picking up the brooch. “Why did you not choose this pretty bauble, or the hippo and crocodile?”
“The brooch is too…” Archie hesitated, then offered a shrug. “Too shiny. Real gemstones are more subtle. I think the setting is real, but the stones must be imitation. And the hippo is wrong.”
“What do you mean, wrong? Explain.”
“The hippo is too small, and it looks like a pig. I suspect the object was made by someone who had never seen the real animal. Or perhaps the craftsman simply copied this piece from another figurine.” He waved a hand at the cat and owl. “The cat is of good design and workmanship, but the material is not authentic. An Egyptian artist would have used stone. Likewise the owl.”
“What is wrong with the owl?”
“The figure is cast in silver-again, not a material an Egyptian artist of the classical period would have used.” He glanced at his instructor for approval. “Am I right?”
“You are entirely correct.” Gower beamed at his pupil. “My boy, you have learned your lessons well. I think you are ready to accompany me to the sales room.”
“I am honoured, sir.” Archie felt a quiver of excitement at the thought. Although inwardly spinning cartwheels of joy, he maintained a calm and disinterested manner-the way His Lordship had taught him: a shrewd trader never revealed his true emotions. An unguarded gush of enthusiasm could easily drive up the price of a bargain, or worse, ruin an acquisition altogether. “I will do my best not to betray the trust you have placed in me.”
“I am certain you will acquit yourself in a right worthy manner.” The earl began picking up the valuables to return them to their respective cases in the hall. “Tomorrow,” he said, fingering the brooch, “we will begin your education on the floor of Sotheby’s Auction House.”
The next day they rode by carriage along the Strand, disembarking at the end of Wellington Street and proceeding on foot the last few hundred yards so that the earl might view some of his London properties. His holdings in the city were by some measures modest, but provided a steady income that to Archie seemed positively astronomical. Not that the young man was in any position to complain; Lord Gower provided him with a weekly allowance as well as a yearly stipend, a fair portion of which he passed along to his mother.
During his time in Lord Gower’s employ, Archie had risen from the humblest of beginnings as menial dogsbody, ascending rung by rung in the earl’s estimation as greater trust and responsibility were conferred upon him. From odd job and errand boy, Archie had become, in turn, scullion help, groom, assistant footman, footman, second under-butler, assistant valet, and so on, to arrive at what amounted to the role of personal private secretary. When the earl went upcountry, Archie went with him; when the earl travelled on the Continent, Archie was there to help with all and sundry arrangements; when the earl and his entourage decamped for the earl’s northern estate, Archie was sent on ahead to make ready the house and grounds for His Lordship’s arrival. And nowadays, whenever the earl was summoned to Windsor, or attended the House of Lords, Archie went too.
All the while the young man was learning the manners and customs of the elite, biding his time until he could strike out on his own to make his fortune. “A man must have an occupation,” the earl had advised him years ago. “What will be yours, I wonder?”
“Can I not remain in your service, sir?” he had asked. Archie was twelve years old at the time and could conceive of nothing better than being a member of the earl’s household staff.
“As long as you like,” answered Lord Gower. “But, my dear boy, I shall not live forever. Much as I might regret it, when I go, my lands and titles will pass to a cousin whom I have not seen in twenty years. That is a fact of law. In any case, I do not wish to leave you without a way to make a living in the world. You cannot be a servant forever. You are made of finer stuff.”
“I do not care to leave you, sir.”
“Nor I you. But blood tells, Archibald.” The earl smiled and put a fatherly hand on the young boy’s shoulder. “There is aristocratic blood in you, and that cannot be denied.”
The earl had long since discovered the circumstances of Archie’s birth and ancestry. Moreover, through his various connections he had succeeded in orchestrating a reconciliation of sorts between Lord Ashmole and Gemma Burley, extracting a tidy settlement for Archie’s mother. Yet, with a steady eye on the future, Lord Gower was determined to provide Archie with an occupation he could take up in years to come. To this end, he had decided to teach his fosterling the ins and outs of the burgeoning trade in antiques and ancient artefacts that had taken the British aristocracy by storm, and in which vast sums of money were to be made by one who knew the business well.
Gower knew his business. For a man in the earl’s position, his interest in antiquities was merely a glorified hobby; he did not need the swathes of cash that came his way in the trade. Nevertheless, he saw a substantial livelihood in it for a young man, especially one as promising as his protege. By the time his tutelage was finished, His Lordship was in no doubt that Archie Burley would make his way in the world quite well.
Now, as they approached the auction house, Lord Gower rehearsed his pupil on what to expect inside-how the auctions were conducted and the bidding progressed. He concluded, saying, “We will observe today-although if something of interest comes up, I may enter the fray. In any case, I want you to pay attention to those who place bids. One can tell a great deal of their interest or means from the way they hold themselves as the bidding reaches the upper limits. It can be most instructive.”
“In days to come, we will select an object to acquire, and I will have you place the bid. I want you to become accustomed to the feelings associated with the game, as I see it, and learn to control them. In this, as in everything, your best advantage is a cool head and an unclouded mind.”
“I will do my best, sir.”
“I know you will, Archibald.” They came to a halt before the large Regency building that was home to Sotheby’s Auctioners. “Ah! Here we are. Shall we go in?”
The earl led the way through the brass-encrusted doors into the red-carpeted lobby, where he was met by liveried staff who greeted him and conducted him straightaway to the manager who, with much bowing and scraping, made His Lordship welcome.
“Your Lordship, we are honoured. Please make yourself comfortable while I arrange chairs to be placed for you on the floor.”
“Good day to you, Mumphrey,” replied the earl. “There is no need to trouble yourself. We only just called out of idleness and curiosity.”
“Would you care for a soothing libation, my lord? I have some excellent sherry wine just in from Portugal. I would value your opinion, sir. The partners are thinking of taking a consignment to let out at auction.”
“Certainly, Mumphrey, it would be my pleasure,” replied the earl. While the manager scuttled away to fetch the sherry, Lord Gower allowed his attention to roam the room. “There is no one here at present,” he declared, although the grand entrance was, in fact, quite full, and more people were entering. “Let us see what we have on offer today.”
They joined the mingling crowd gathered around the presentation tables lining the lobby. There were also easels set up with broadsheet announcements and descriptions of the various items that would be offered during the day’s session.
“As I expected,” observed the earl after a brief perusal. “There is nothing here of interest to us. Still, that is not our chief concern. We are not here to acquire, we are here to learn. It will be instructive.”
And instructive it certainly was… though not perhaps in the way His Lordship intended, much less approved. For in this first visit, as well as those that were to follow over the next months, what Archie learned first and foremost was: the enormous leverage of an aristocratic title. Allied to this, keen student that he was, Archie also gained an appreciation of the immense usefulness of an auction house as a disinterested purveyor of goods.
As he observed the ebb and flow of the auction’s ritual dance, the young man quickly formed the opinion that while it was all well and good to acquire pieces from places like Sotheby’s to sell at a profit to rich clients, it was a slow and inefficient way to amass a fortune. It seemed to Archie that the best position was that of the originator of the sale. The greater profits were realised by the seller, not the middleman buyer. Rather than being a broker for others-for that, in essence, was the role Lord Gower played-a man with taste, good judgement, and a sense of the market, and who also possessed the means and inclination to travel, could easily acquire the same objects in their native countries, so to speak, and sell them directly to private clients, or simply put them onto the market through the auction houses.
Furthermore, if that man also possessed an aristocratic title, then his future was assured. Archie had seen how doors opened to the earl that were barred to lesser mortals, how men deferred to him, how women fawned over him-and all due to his title, which preceded him wherever he went, smoothing his way through the world. If Archie were to own a title, others, both clients and vendors, would trust him for that reason alone.
Little by little, as his understanding of the antique trade increased, his resolve hardened; a vision of his future began to crystallise in his mind. In the meantime, he was content to add to his store of knowledge. A greedy sponge, he would soak up all Lord Gower had to offer. When the day came for him to part company with the earl, Archie knew what he would do and how he would go about doing it.