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Jeffrey Archer needs his executive assistant, and he needs her now. “Alison,” he calls up the stairs of his penthouse flat. “Could you read out the Publishers Weekly review from last week? The last three sentences, Alison.” There are authors who read reviews and authors who don’t. Now I realise that Archer is inventing a third category — authors who have their reviews read to you.
The former Conservative politician — whose popular novels have sold 275 million copies worldwide but won no literary prizes in the UK — is sensitive to the charge that his primary skill is selling. “It’s impossible to be considered a good writer if you’re a storyteller,” the life peer sighs, seated on a plump cream armchair.
But once Alison has read the three sentences, he has the contented look of a schoolboy who has just marked his own exam paper. “I think only Le Carré and myself have survived 40 years,” he says.
Nonetheless, selling is the order of today, as Archer has agreed to teach me the art of auctioneering. He claims to have conducted “over one thousand” charity auctions, raising £44m for good causes. “It’s a weird gift,” he admits.
Needless to say, I have mild concerns about learning anything from a convicted perjurer — Archer was jailed in 2001 after lying in a libel trial against a newspaper. But the sprightly, tanned 75-year-old has no time for doubters.
He strides across his apartment to demonstrate. “One thousand, two thousand, three thousand,” he says, gesticulating left and right, marshalling imaginary bids in an imaginary auction. Except he doesn’t say “thousand”; he says “THOUS-and”.
Archer, whom Margaret Thatcher once described as “the extrovert’s extrovert”, has always had a charitable streak. Aged 23, he convinced The Beatles to back an Oxfam campaign; a year later, he arranged for Lyndon Johnson to sign a donated recording of Winston Churchill’s speeches. “At that age you have the nerve to do anything,” he says.
Some observers spy an ulterior motive. In his younger days, Archer charged charities a commission for his auctioneering skills; now he has a reputation to redeem, and books to sell. “Only cynical journalists would say that,” scoffs the author, whose latest novel, Cometh the Hour, is part of a seven-book saga called The Clifton Chronicles. “This is my hobby. I love it. It gives me a kick.”
Auctioneering was a relatively late addition to Archer’s charitable repertoire. It started in the 1980s at a fundraiser for a then little-known Conservative MP called John Major. “It became an art form for me,” says Archer. “I started watching the great auctioneers on earth — in America, in Britain.”
What did he learn, I ask? “I can do things [professional auctioneers] can’t do. The pros can’t say, ‘Sir Philip, [ his friend, retail billionaire Philip Green] are you running out of money?’ Philip loves that.”
So if bringing the gavel down at Sotheby’s is the equivalent of appearing on the West End stage, does that make charity auctioneering the equivalent of pantomime? “Some idiot like you would think that pantomime is easy. Try it!” he says. “I was very flattered when the chairman of Sotheby’s came to watch me.” Then it hits me: it’s not Archer’s sales techniques I need to learn — it’s his ego. And we only have five hours until a British Heart Foundation auction at the Savoy Hotel where I will act as his assistant’s assistant.
“Tonight’s frankly a small one,” says Archer. The prospect of being on stage suddenly seems less daunting — until he tells me that the charity takes a sceptical view of journalists and would probably prefer my not being there at all. “If they think you never came, that’ll be the best thing that ever happened,” he declares.
Though Archer recently shaved £48,000 from his tax bill by donating a statue of Satan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, his flat remains full of art, including paintings by Manet, Sisley and Fernando Botero. Could he auction them, I ask? “Oh, I couldn’t.”
When we meet again that evening at the Savoy, Archer is with his assistant, the gallery owner Chris Beetles. How would Beetles describe Archer’s auctioneering style? “Benign hectoring.” Beetles is the dependable one — ensuring everyone goes home happy. (“Jeffrey tends to forget to thank people,” he says.) The two of them run through the lots on offer. There’s a necklace (“Jewellery always goes for more than it’s worth,” says Archer) and a day’s clay-pigeon shooting (“I don’t understand it but people love it”). A pair of Wimbledon tickets leaves Archer unimpressed: “Quarter-finals women’s isn’t easy.” He rehearses a hard sell — “Many people think quarter-finals is the best match” — but not even he can pull it off with a straight face.
My role will be limited to spotting bidders from the crowd. But in case of emergencies, I ask Archer about the best way to wield the gavel. “A pro holds it like this,” he says, cupping the wooden head in his palm. “I can be more flamboyant.”
“The one thing you don’t do is ‘going, going, gone’ — that’s 100 years out of date,” he says, before revising the figure down to 10 years.
The pre-auction black-tie dinner and entertainment is running late, and Archer has to wait for a boy band to leave the stage.
“The only really important thing is who’s in the room,” he told me earlier. The dream is rich people who hate each other; the nightmare is “a flat audience, with no money and wives who won’t let their husbands bid”.
Archer starts with an icebreaker. “Would everyone point at the richest person on their table?” he says, and the room cracks up in amused accusation. But the bids do not flow. Beetles is worried about the lack of ambient lighting — potential bidders are restrained by the darkness; actual bidders are difficult to see.
The day’s shooting edges up to £2,500. I spot a hand — and excitedly point towards a man on a table. Unfortunately, it’s the man already in the lead. Archer is not impressed. “Will you get this man off the stage?” he mutters into the microphone, gesturing at me.
The Wimbledon tickets attract an offer of £3,000 from the actor Hugh Grant. Shortly after, a weekend at a country home escalates to £10,000. “Are you coming back at £11,000, sir? Don’t consult with your wife! . . . It’s not the wife, I do apologise.”
The next lot is a heart-shaped handbag donated by Pippa Middleton. Archer is frustrated by noise from the audience. “If the lady won’t bid, perhaps she will help me by keeping quiet,” he chides one guest.
Archer starts the bidding for the handbag. “One THOUS-and, do I have one THOUS-and?” The audience is silent now — in a way that signals they do not agree with a four-figure valuation for a used novelty accessory. “One thousand?” Middleton herself is seated metres away. “One THOUS-and?” Eventually a lone bidder puts the room out of its misery.
Archer rattles through the remaining items, until he comes to a portrait of David Bowie that the singer himself donated after suffering a heart attack in 2004. “Don’t worry — this is the penultimate one,” says Archer. The lot is the most successful of the night, fetching £12,000.
Beetles does the tally — the auction has raised £45,000 for the British Heart Foundation. As the guests return to their conversation, Archer purrs with satisfaction. Self-promotion, a few mistakes and a good amount of money — this wasn’t his guide to auctioneering, it was his guide to life.
Henry Mance is an FT political correspondent
Photographs: Benjamin McMahon
‘Cometh the Hour’ by Jeffrey Archer is out now, published by Macmillan, priced £20.