Charles Hanson: the Bargain Hunter
Charles Hanson is talking animatedly on the phone while clients wait to see him at his company’s modern showroom at Etwall. At regular intervals people come in and go out of the welcoming building in the hope of finding a bargain or discovering that an item of theirs might sell for a good price at auction.
Eventually Charles introduces himself and we sit down to talk about how a shy schoolboy became one of the finest auctioneers in the country, how people from all over the world bid for lots at one of his auctions and how he promotes Derbyshire whenever possible.
There’s also a serious side to Charles. He talks candidly about the problems he faced in 2012 when he had cancer and his wife gave birth to a stillborn baby.
But before long his sense of mischief returns. And he even owns up to the time when he had what could have been a really expensive accident.
These days many people know Charles not just from visiting Hansons Auctioneers but also from his television appearances on BBC television shows Bargain Hunt, Antiques Roadshow, Flog It! and For What It’s Worth.
He explains that a lucky break led to his television debut: “Back in 2002 my then manager didn’t want to perform on Bargain Hunt and they said to me ‘Charles, do you want to do a live auction?’ I said I’d love to. I did that with the then-presenter David Dickinson and on the back of that they asked me to be an expert. Touch wood, I haven’t looked back and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly.”
Unlike some of today’s reality “stars” who believe television can’t function without them, Charles is under no illusions.
“Once you think you’re a TV star you’re in for a fall. And the bigger you become in the media world the bigger the fall.”
“My future is the business of Hansons Auctioneers because television can be so fickle – it can be here today and gone tomorrow. We see different cookery shows and shows made about gardening come and go. There’s a curiosity in antiques. Long may that continue and certainly for me it’s good PR!
“The business will always come first. Once you think you’re a TV star you’re in for a fall. And the bigger you become in the media world the bigger the fall. So it’s making sure the business comes first, our clients come first, we do a good job and we continue to build on our word of mouth.”
Despite that, Charles admits he enjoys being recognised. “I’m no oil painting. But it’s nice to get that recognition of being that man on television.
“Recently I filmed For What It’s Worth in Salford in Manchester and we filmed next door to (talent show) The Voice. As I walked out with Fern Britton, Boy George said to me: ‘Are you the antiques man?’ I said: ‘Boy George, yes I am. Good to meet you’.”
Charles Hanson was born at Holbrook hospital in 1978. His career wasn’t shaped by his occupational therapist mother nor his father who was an accountant.
They lived on a farm near Kirk Langley and Charles’s father farmed sheep in his spare time. Charles became interested in metal detecting, trying to uncover treasure in the fields.
“My interest really began by unearthing objects which hadn’t been seen for many years and, if they could talk, what could they tell us.”
Charles also went to his mother’s jumble sales – she was a member of Kirk Langley WI. He once bought a Royal Doulton figurine for 50p and sold it for almost £200.
By the age of 14 he knew he wanted to be an auctioneer: “I was a very shy boy at school – I would never speak in class. I was no academic. But I knew from a young age that my interest in objects and history wanted to take me down the auctioneering route.”
He studied history at university in Southampton before becoming an intern and junior valuer in the London office of the international giants Christie’s. He worked there for just over six months “but of course down there you need good contacts. I’m a humble man from Derbyshire. So it was difficult really to motor on in that London life.”
“Sometimes I pinch myself and wonder how I arrived at this career path”
After that he went to work for firms in Cheshire and Nottinghamshire until he set up Hansons in 2005. Initially it was in a spare bedroom; now the company employs more than 20 people at its Etwall premises which includes an auction showroom with 150 seats and parking for up to 200 cars.
Charles dismisses the notion that being an auctioneer is just about talking quickly and banging a gavel: “It’s catching the buyer’s psyche, catching their emotion, tipping them on to that extra bid and very much working a room.
“I watch all those antique shows and I often think ‘come on, auctioneers, we need to wind you up a bit, we need to see some action’.
“Our duty of care to our vendor is to maximise a financial return. As a young boy I was very nervous at school, so to be on that rostrum and to be doing all these exciting auctions – sometimes I pinch myself and wonder how I arrived at this career path.
“I think the thrill of it is living for the moment, living for the history. We sold a letter written by Lord Nelson for £56,000; we sold a lamp that Florence Nightingale owned, we handled the lamp that she had held. So to be so near such important people, a moment in history, is what we crave and I always say auctions are all about theatre, drama and romance.”
Like many businesses, auctioneering has changed enormously over the past decade, largely due to the internet. Now Hansons offers live, online sales.
“While the auction room is still busy, we often might have 500 bidders online bidding live. You might get a buyer in Brazil or Russia. The internet’s really revolutionised things: we now offer all our buyers worldwide a packaging and dispatch service. That’s so important in ensuring that we’re able to rival eBay!”
Charles appears positive, passionate and pleased with his life. But his whole world was shaken four years ago when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and two weeks later he and his wife Rebecca had a stillborn son Tommy.
“That was a very hard time. You can’t beat human companionship and you can’t beat meeting a stranger and sharing a common ill. That’s what makes the human psyche tick and that’s what I’ve learnt more and more following on from that year.
“The following year my cancer came back, I had chemotherapy and met many people on that hospital ward. It certainly opened my eyes to really what life is all about. We’re here for the wink of an eye, aren’t we?”
Now the Hansons support Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity. Last year Charles held a fundraising auction and he supports the organisation whenever possible: “Too many babies are stillborn in what is a very developed country and that really shouldn’t be happening.”
There was good news almost two years ago when Rebecca gave birth to a girl, Matilda.
Before long Charles is talking about business again and recalls one of his more embarrassing moments when as a young intern he was working at another famous auction house, Bonhams.
“I leaned on a Charles II table, the leg broke and the whole thing fell over – on a viewing day! Luckily it was my last day on a two-week placement, so I was off.”
As for 2016, Charles is hoping for a healthy and happy future with Rebecca and Matilda. He’s looking forward to more television shows, including two series of Antiques Road Trip, and he’s hoping that Hansons will continue to thrive.
A three-day auction at Etwall from 17 to 19 March will be filmed by the BBC: “We’re welcoming the Bargain Hunt bandwagon. It’s full of contestants, full of excitement and we’re hoping to send all the contestants away with money in their pockets – at least their bus fare home!”
Bargain Hunt has been running for 15 years, so what’s the attraction? Charles has no doubts.
“It’s the curiosity. What is something worth? What will people pay for those most peculiar things of the 20th century? Fashion, decades and style very much dictate collecting today. I think people enjoy the competitive element and also the chance that a lot on Bargain Hunt which cost £20 might one day make £100,000. I’m sure one day that’ll happen. And hopefully I’ll find it!”
* This article appeared in the March 2016 edition of Country Images magazine