“There are some silver linings – we get to do a lot of other work at the moment while we haven’t got customers in,” he says. “There might be a few teething problems getting people online, but one thing COVID has done is force people who didn’t want to get online, get online. A lot of people who didn’t want to convert for whatever reason have had to find a way, otherwise they’re horribly isolated.
“I’ve got some customers that don’t have a phone, don’t have the internet, don’t even have a Gmail account. They’re a minority, but there are still people out there.”
And despite a relatively smooth shift to the internet, there’s still a level of face-to-face contact that’s hard to avoid. “We were always very open doors, we’re now having to limit that,” he says. “We rely on people being able to walk in with a box of sterling silver to sell, but we’ll work around that.
“But it’s crystal ball; everything we’ve tried to do, some of it has worked, some hasn’t. Some stuff we’ve been right on, a lot of stuff we’ve been wrong.”
Throughout our conversation Harris displays a wry self-awareness that, in the scheme of a global, economy-shaking pandemic, the core trade of the auction house – rehoming expensive antiques, mountains of furniture and weird, obscure ephemera – is not exactly an essential service nor a particularly emotive hard luck story.
“What we sell is luxury items – no one needs this stuff, really,” he shrugs. “You’re buying it because you want that old meat safe – it’s pink, and it’s lovely, and you’re not going to get it at IKEA or the shop down the road,” he says. “No one actually needs this. But for collectors, it’s in their blood and once they start, they can’t get rid of it.”
So, for the time being, he can live with a deserted auction room.
“But I still miss it,” he says. “I miss not having customers here; you get to interact with them, you hear them in the background, it’s a very dynamic place on auction day. The auctioneer’s up there, the sound system’s on. Now, it’s a bit sanitised.”
Auctioneer Tobias Crilly offers a similar sentiment when I tune into the online video feed of one of his auctions.
“Hopefully we can be back in the same room soon,” he says into the camera. “This is… not as fun.”