The auctioneer's stage and screen. © Jason Wood
Saturday 9.30 am and there was already a queue snaking down Avenell Road beside the east stand of Arsenal’s Highbury stadium. It felt odd being there so early, odder still as there wasn’t even a football match to watch. The fans weren’t clutching programmes but auction catalogues - this was going to be no ordinary Saturday.
Anticipation had been growing for months. The Highbury auction was one of the most eagerly awaited events on the fixture list of the Gunners' so-called ‘Final Salute’ to their old stadium. The last event, as Managing Director Keith Edelman sadly reminded us in his welcoming address, as "the bulldozers move in on Monday".
Edelman was standing on a covered stage on the pitch surrounded by accoutrements more usually associated with a rock concert – a big screen and loud speakers with stage itself a tangle of wires and computer terminals. This was going to be a different kind of auction.
The view from the Highbury turf on auction day. © Jason Wood
For a start almost 3,000 people were expected to attend, with about half as many again bidding via the internet of telephone against those in the stadium who were peering down from the upper tier of the east stand.
Kick-off was at 10.20am. The first lot, a wooden match day display sign including the text for the first ever game at Highbury in 1913, quickly sold for £5,000. Not unexpected perhaps. But the second lot, a 1998 framed photograph of current manager Arsène Wenger lifting the Premiership trophy, raised an incredible £4,000!
Clearly some Arsenal fans were intent on parting with large amounts of money. Not those sitting around me, however, whose jaws were audibly dropping as yet another photograph of Marc Overmars went for several hundred pounds more than they could afford.
After an hour of this, a second auctioneer was introduced causing one wag in the crowd to shout out, "is he any cheaper?" He was as the next photograph sold for a mere £200 – but it was of an away game at Barnsley!
His and hers - two bidders prepare for the auction. © Jason Wood
Online bids were coming in fast and furious from all corners of the globe – Singapore, Indianapolis, Finsbury Park. Exchanges between the auctioneer and various buyers on the phone kept us amused. Marilyn was after a photograph for her son’s birthday but was outbid on every occasion until finally, some two hours and 100 lots later, her bid was successful and greeted by loud cheers and applause.
The much-hyped red plastic wheelie bins with Arsenal insignia, described by the auctioneer as ‘la crème de la crème of the auction’ and ‘guaranteed to get you an interview on the BBC’ were sold for £600 each.
One went to an online bidder called Judith who also bought two hardboard lifesize cut-outs of players Thierry Henry (£550) and Dennis Bergkamp (couldn’t hear for laughing), adjustable in height, according to the auctioneer, to suit your purposes.
A lifesize cut out of Thierry Henry went for £550. © Jason Wood
Asked what she intended to do with these cut outs, Judith simply replied: "Put them in the wheelie bin of course!"
The open-top double-decker bus (actually only the front half of a bus used during one of Arsenal’s trophy parades) attracted much comment, not all of it sensible, while a waxwork dummy of former manager George Graham, complete with one of his suits, went for £800. Graham was fired for accepting improper payments and the suit pockets and lining, we were assured, had been searched.
Signs proved a popular but expensive investment, especially those for ‘Gents' Toilets’ and ‘No Alcohol Beyond This Point’. Identical sets of shower heads, coat hooks and boot hooks from the home team dressing room went for varying sums indicating the popularity of the players associated with them. Tiles from the toilets sold for over £200 each - there were plenty still on the walls but I resisted the temptation to bypass the auction with a chisel.
Arsenal wheelie bins went for £600 each. © Jason Wood
A very nice meeting table and chairs, complete with 1930s club crest, sold for a staggering £23,000; a tea tray of the same design and period for £4,750...and so it went on.
Billed as an event for true fans with ‘something for everyone’ and the chance to ‘own a piece of Arsenal history’, was the hope realised? Contributors to the Arsenal-mania website suggest not. According to many the prices were ‘ridiculous’, ‘totally crazy’, ‘madness’, ‘absolutely disgraceful’, ‘a joke’, complaining that the type of people buying were ‘Mr Hooray Henry - the once a season visitor’, not genuine supporters.
And this on top of the earlier disappointment of fans not even being able to buy their seat; the club having been forced to abandon sales because of small traces of the toxic metal cadmium.
A meeting table and chairs went for £23,000. © Arsenal FC
Britain is the world hub of football memorabilia, so bargains were always going to be hard to come by. Having said that some items went for silly money – even sillier money considering buyer's premium and VAT added a third to the hammer price. So that’s £800 a wheelie bin then!
Interestingly most of the fans I spoke to were not necessarily there to bid but simply to be part of the experience and ‘to say goodbye to the stadium’. Some had modest intentions...‘I’d like one of the tiles. I’d put it on the mantelpiece where all my important things go along with family photographs, and look at it every day.’ Others were prepared to break the bank (and possibly their marriage!) and bring home large art deco roof signs.
Not everything went under the hammer. The iconic clock from the south stand and the famous bust of Herbert Chapman that adorns the marble halls will be moving to the new Emirates Stadium, as will the trophy cabinet and even the wooden panelling from the boardroom. Some things, Chairman Peter Hill-Wood emphasised in the foreword to the auction catalogue ‘belong to the heart and soul of the club’.
An Arsenal toilet tile - yours for only £200. © Jason Wood
The difficulty, Edelman explained, was striving, "to strike the right balance between selling things on and retaining the club’s heritage". "Yeah right," said one fan. "Arsenal has always been good at achieving the balance between commercialism and tradition, but they’re never afraid to squeeze money out of you!"
By 2008 the first of more than 700 luxury apartments in The Stadium, Highbury Square, will be occupied. The shells of the art deco east and west stands will survive and be sympathetically converted, with the marble halls and grand staircase retained as the entrance to the most exclusive apartments. The pitch will become a communal garden with illuminated water features.
In uniquely seeking to preserve the historic fabric and plan form of the stadium, and to capture the aura and memories of the place, the scheme is in marked contrast to other recent redevelopments of former football grounds which often disappear without trace below housing estates, retail parks or supermarkets.
Signage proved very popular with bidders - a West Stand upper tier sign. © Aresenal FC
When asked about the scheme fans were very positive...‘a master stoke’, ‘a wonderful idea’, ‘people will pay over-the-top prices for a flat on the hallowed ground’.
Some intended still to visit the old stadium on match days ‘to pay homage’ or ‘show their children where dad used to sit’.
This sense of belonging, often bound up with family history, is all part of the Arsenal tradition as exemplified in Nick Hornby’s bestseller Fever Pitch, where his experience of what it is to be an Arsenal fan and of actually being at Highbury are considered just as important as events on the pitch.
The famous exterior of the East Stand is to be preserved when the ground is redeveloped as apartments. © Jason Wood
"I fell in love with the ground and atmosphere as much as the team," one fan told me as he left empty handed. A longing glance at the east stand, a turn of the heels and he was gone. His farewell bid didn’t interest the auctioneer.