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A little piece of heaven for magpies

WESTGATE Walding Auctioneers is as much a part of life in Sandton as conversations about slipping standards, Pajeros, electrified perimeter fences and beef fillets.

For more than 34 years, it has played a role in the lives of northern suburbs newlyweds furnishing their first homes, thirtysomethings upgrading to second homes and empty-nesters down-sizing to townhouses and clusters.

And, of course, its weekly general household - where anything and everything, including the kitchen sink, can be disposed of or picked up - and monthly antique sales are as much about being sociable as they are about buying and selling. That the do- good wives of well-off husbands are on the lawn outside the sprawling Cape Dutch buildings to dispense teas on behalf of Child Welfare adds to its air of ritual, even in the face of socio-political change.

What must also comfort the many dealers in anything from junk to jewellery, interior designers and other magpies who frequent the sales is that succession planning is firmly in place at Westgate Walding. Its founder Donald Martin - he of the Hilton College vowels and fabulous ties - has all but handed the business over to not one but two sons, Brett, 44, and Christopher, 42.

Brett is the antiques expert, dealing in porcelain, silver, objets d'art, jewellery, paintings and rugs, and sharing the auctioning of these with his father. Christopher handles all the Tuesday general household sales and has been known to dispose of more than 200 items in an hour.

I dropped in on Tuesday to listen to Christopher getting rid of old frying pans, treadmills, fridges and rugs and to go green-eyed over a full set of wonderfully ornate and colourful Minton stoneware, which goes on sale on Wednesday and is expected to fetch more than R10 000. I also came away the proud owner of a handsome old parrot cage. This was much to my husband's incredulity, until I told him that I could envisage it painted an antique-green and hanging in a tree in the corner of our garden.

Westgate sales are all about having an eye. An eye for what a battered old chesterfield would be like with fresh upholstery. An eye for what three of these and three of those chairs would look like around a characterful kitchen table. An eye for what an old wooden wardrobe would be like painted blue, stencilled and sanded to make it look as if it had once occupied a corner of a kitchen in Provence. But if your idea of furniture heaven is what's new at Wetherly's or Phil O'Mahoney, stay away.

Monique Lion-Cachet, the former interior designer who now wholesales exquisite imported fabrics, has a table in her Halogen International showroom that is the essence of why people with a good eye for furniture and decorative objects go to Westgate sales week in and out. She describes it as "a 1920s table you'd imagine in an American conservatory designed by a famous decorator of the era such as Billy Baldwin or Nancy Lancaster. When I saw it at Westgate I prayed no one else had noticed it, especially since its top was peeling back and it badly needed restoring."

Unfortunately, Fred Stacey of Parkhurst's Decisions Antiques, a regular at the monthly antique auctions, had also spotted it and Lion-Cachet ended up spending three or four times more than she'd expected to.

"What we're all about," says Don Martin, "is quick sales, because we turn over close on 1 000 lots a week."

Brett says there are times when sellers receive wonderful financial surprises. "We had an old lady come in with an oil with a tear in it in one hand and the frame in the other. At first we thought she'd get about R1 500 for her painting but we discovered it was special and it went for R26 000 to a London dealer."

Unfortunately, since Westgate charges R350 for collection and takes 15% commission, you won't get much for your really grotty old bits and pieces. But then again you never know: a pair such as Lion-Cachet and Stacey might spot potential and the pace of the bidding might speed up. Linda Stafford is a senior editor of the Financial Mail.