There is a carnival feel to Sotheby’s tonight. The entrance is flanked by two stilt-walkers and as I step through the doorway, they lean towards each other, doffing their Liquorice Allsorts hats with exaggerated smiles. My husband is waiting for me inside and together we join the swell of people slowly making their way upstairs to the auction room. After the biting evening air outside it is gratifyingly warm and I feel my limbs begin to relax.
Trays of champagne and hot canapés circulate the buzzing room where huge merry-go-round horses make for centre pieces alongside the more formal arrangement of oil paintings on the walls. It is the twelve rocking horses designed and decorated by an A list of celebrities, however, that we have come to see. The horses, donated by the renowned Stevenson Brothers, are gorgeous. I’m tempted to take one home but with an average price tag of £3,000 – and that’s before the celebrities have got their hands on them – they’re beyond my price range.
I only know a few people here so decide that I’m going to talk to as many of the celebrities as I can. Not all of them have turned up, namely Joanna Lumley and Judy Dench, but I spot Maureen Lipman standing by her African punk horse. The first thing that strikes me is how glamourous she is. She’s got to be in her late 60’s but I am so used to seeing her as downtrodden characters on TV that this youthful transformation catches me by surprise. She’s feeding a real carrot to her horse for the benefit of a photographer and tells me that she cannot bear the idea of being parted with it (the horse not the carrot).
‘Before I’d embarked on this project I’d never done more than stick a postage stamp on an envelope,’ she confides, stroking the horse with genuine affection, ‘and now I’m doing decoupage in my sleep.’
‘How did you come up with the name Orson?’ I ask.
‘Ors’n cart,’ she says, looking mischievous.
My husband’s buying raffle tickets and I cast a brief eye at the prizes. I say brief because I don’t expect to win anything (I never do), but note that they are ones worth having; Versace watch, private sitting with an artist, dinner for 4 at The Arts Club; family trip to Lapland and a bottle of the world’s most expensive perfume, valued at the jaw-dropping price of £1,000.
I recognise Kelly Hoppen hovering by her maharani-inspired horse – she looks a little nervous -and further away, the up and coming street artist, Nick Walker. He is surrounded by people wanting to talk to him.
‘They’re calling him ‘the new Banksy”, my husband informs me. ‘I bet his rocking horse makes the most money.’
Amanda Wakeley is really easy to talk to and tells me she knew right away that she wanted her horse, Zulu, to be a zebra. The result is striking and bold and I decide hers is one of my favourites. She shows me a hidden compartment inside its belly where each of the horses have three things hidden. It’s a nice extra touch.
Nicky Clarke is busy being photographed with two rather glamorous women, one who I am told is his current girlfriend. During a quiet moment I manage to corner him while he fusses with the fringe of Stephen Webster’s horse.
‘Hello Nicky, remember me?’ In my modelling days we often worked together but twenty years is a long interval.
‘Of course I do,’ he grins and I find myself engulfed in a bear hug – I’d forgotten how tall he is. He’s warm and friendly and tells me that it’s been a crazy few days. His ex is here tonight and he really doesn’t want to bump into her. Later, I discover he must have been talking about Kelly Hoppen. Perhaps this explains why she was looking nervous.
Before the auction begins, a representative of Chiva Africa’s Paediatric AIDS programme -the recipient of the evening’s profits – talks about what the rocking horses represent; freedom, fun, the ability to dream; something every child has the right to experience. Maureen Lipman then takes command of the room and makes everyone laugh, while reminding us why we are all here.
There’s an air of tension as the bidding gets under way. My side of the room apparently has all the wealth as there is much nodding and raising of arms. The other side of the room is curiously motionless. I want the horses to make lots of money for those African children but to my surprise Joanna Lumley’s goes for a paltry £6,000. This seems like a bargain. The auctioneer seems to think so too as she ups her persuasive skills to get more of the audience to bid.
When it comes to the sale of Orson, Maureen Lipman rises from her seat and locks arms with one of the organisers which suggests she’s nervous about what Orson will fetch. A lot of time and effort has gone into each rocking horse. Maureen had told me she had been up until 3am most nights working on hers. When the bidding stalls, she throws in an offer to host a charity evening of the winner’s choosing. This adds another grand to the total which she looks happy about.
Amanda Wakeley’s Zulu follows. I have an urge to put up my hand and bid for it. Madness, I know, but it’s a bit like being in a hushed, darkened theatre watching a dramatic scene and wanting to shout out. Before I can plunge my family into debt, I’m saved by my mobile phone which starts ringing loudly in my bag. My frantic efforts to switch it off go unnoticed as a battle is underway for Amanda’s horse and everyone’s focus is on the two men bidding for it. £13,000 clinches the deal but even that can’t compare with the highest sale of the night and no, it isn’t street artist Walker’s horse as my husband had predicted, but Judy Dench’s white unicorn which, when the gavel comes down, goes for the princely sum of £23,00.
We say our goodbyes and catch a train back home, clutching our ‘goodie bags’ which are enchanting merry-go-round tins stuffed with hand-made chocolates. Later, I will learn that we have won the top raffle prize which happens to be the world’s most expensive perfume. Well, I think, I stand corrected on the never winning front. It’s not that I’m not grateful but I can’t help reflecting on some of the other prizes that would have been more useful; the boys would have jumped at a trip to Lapland. On the other hand we’re really lucky to have won anything at all and while I would have loved one of those dreamy horses, the perfume is a happy if indulgent compromise and let’s face it, I am going to smell really, really nice.