With a career in banking looking dull, one Brit upped sticks to Cyprus where he now runs a fortnightly auction. Amid the traces of other people’s lives THEO PANAYIDES meets a man keen on looking forward
It doesn’t look like much, a 500-square-metre warehouse in Latsia, just off the highway. I suppose it isn’t very much, just an empty space filled with “stuff” as Duncan Wills puts it – but the stuff in question is a great eclectic mess, as if someone took a snapshot in a hundred random homes then dumped all the photos in the same mad collage.
There are mugs, beds, a pool table. There are sofas, handbags, trinkets, a “collectible” set of Harrods biscuit tins, a video game from some 80s arcade, a souvenir cake-slicer with ‘Karlovy Vary’ (a town in the Czech Republic) emblazoned on its side. There’s a bag of rock salts. There’s a gold Baume & Mercier wrist-watch. There are paintings, including an original piece by Vasilis Vasiliou (signed ‘Basilio’) which, at €1,800, is the most valuable item in the whole warehouse. This is the Nicosia saleroom of Castle Auctions – they have another, even bigger one in Limassol – and Duncan stands in the middle of it all, looking around at the odds and ends he’s agreed to try and sell. None of these items are new; all had previous owners, and their presence seems to brush against their former possessions, tinting and smudging them. They bear “traces of lives,” he muses.
It might be nice to carry on in this poetic vein – but Duncan isn’t really the type to wax poetic. He’s 46, with a pale, clear face (he has a touch of David Cameron), thinning hair and candid blue eyes. What type of man is the company’s founder and chief auctioneer? Well, take for instance the fact that he walked the Camino de Santiago in 2011, a 600-kilometre pilgrimage route across northern Spain: “A lot of people describe it as spiritual,” notes Duncan – but his own reason for going was simply that he saw The Way, a film starring Martin Sheen that takes place around the Camino, and “it just looked good”. He doesn’t come across as very spiritual; on the other hand he did go on the route, and walked those 600 kilometres (having first trained for six months), and had an unforgettable experience: “You walk through fields of sunflowers one day, you walk above the cloud-line the next, you walk through mediaeval towns…” In a word, he gave it a go.
Duncan is a doer. “I’ve not explored to the North Pole and things like that,” he demurs when I ask if he’s led an adventurous life. “I’m not into wrestling alligators, I’m not expecting to be the first man on Mars” – but he has jumped out of a plane, and he’s recently learned to ride a motorbike, and he plans to dip a toe in the world of stand-up comedy in the next few months. “I do have a little streak in me,” he begins – but doesn’t finish the thought, going off on a tangent. He’s not the most introspective person.
‘What kind of streak?’ I prompt, trying to get him back on track.
He pauses, thinking about it. “It’s not exactly stubbornness,” he replies hesitantly, “but I think it’s a case of remembering to live in the moment, and do some stuff”. One of last week’s victorious All Blacks warned that you can “get a very sore neck” from looking back all the time, says Duncan – “and I agree, I’m not into looking back into the past, but I would like to have those little milestones where you’ve DONE something, you’ve LIVED something. It’s very easy to get to Christmas and look back at your last 12 months, and [find that] you can’t pick too many great highlights”.
Maybe that explains his move to Cyprus in 2009, when he’d just turned 40 and the British economy was in the doldrums. “In a different life, back in the UK, I was a retail manager for a building society,” he recalls. At the time, he was married (he and his wife separated in 2012, though they remain good friends) and had worked in financial services for about 20 years – but was also starting to recognise that the structured life of banks wasn’t what he really wanted, so he made “a conscious decision to have more time to enjoy living”. A project to transform a struggling hotel into a retirement community brought him to Cyprus – a place he already knew, having visited some years earlier to meet his long-lost half-brother – then, when the project stalled, he started the auction house as a Plan B.
Not an obvious choice for a business venture – but in fact it made sense. Business-wise, there was a niche in the market: auctions were rare on the island, the highest-bidder model not being something that comes naturally (Cyprus is a haggling culture, where you start high and slowly come down; the notion of starting an item at its minimum price is surprising to many people). More importantly, auctioneering was a good fit for Duncan – first, because he likes public speaking, and second, because he likes people.
It’s true: the world’s most common phobia – the fear of being tongue-tied in front of total strangers – holds no terrors for him. He’s often been entrusted with wedding speeches and eulogies, and was “often nominated to be the speaker” at corporate events in his old job; he’s also on the committee at the Cyprus chapter of Toastmasters, an organisation devoted to good public speaking (he’s also a member of the Lions Club; he seems to be a joiner in general). Getting up to talk isn’t a problem for Duncan, a handy talent for an auctioneer who sometimes has to talk for four hours straight. (What’s the trick to public speaking? The thing to remember, he quips, is that your audience “aren’t judging you, they’re just pleased someone else is doing it!”.) His upcoming foray into stand-up comedy – he plans to do a course in the UK next year – is just a natural progression.
He’s convivial; he’s also sociable. Again and again, he talks of friendship and camaraderie, whether it’s sharing communal meals with fellow hikers on the Camino de Santiago or organising barbecues and rugby parties with fellow expats in Limassol; he likes to think of his customers as friends, he says earnestly, and swears he’s not being disingenuous. Sociability seems to run in the family. Both of his parents (he grew up in Devon) worked communicative, people-centric jobs – Dad a salesman, Mum a very senior occupational therapist – his sister’s a psychologist with a thriving care-in-the-home network, while his 22-year-old son is training to be a teacher; only the aforementioned half-brother (Dad’s little secret, revealed later in life) is a bit of a black sheep, currently in Equatorial Guinea with a Texas oil company. Duncan was always an extrovert, the kind of boy who acted in school plays and sang in the choir. “Everyone’s always been outgoing,” he recalls of his family. “Pushed in front of people, told to get on with it, yes.”
It helps to be a man who likes people in the auction trade, if only to accept what they give you with a good grace – all the detritus of their lives, sometimes magical, more often moth-eaten. It’s not entirely indiscriminate. On the wall of the saleroom is a list of items Castle won’t normally accept for sale: no clothes or shoes, no curtains or soft furnishings, no old TVs, etc. It’s an auction, after all, not a garage sale. Then again, the most recent auction was a few days before our interview (the next one is this coming Saturday) and that auction featured 1,200 lots; inevitably, they included a lot of tat. A pair of bookends for children’s books (bidding starts at €5); a set of Russian dolls (€30); a pink money box with a “lucky coin” (€10); a figurine of Pope John Paul II (€35); a pair of decorative water features, one not working (€10); a 20-volume Greek encyclopedia (€1); a “collection of items” including vacuum-cleaner bags and a Snakes & Ladders drinking game (€12).
“People think of Sotheby’s and Bonhams, but there’s also your general auctions,” points out Duncan – auctions selling “everything from a washing machine to a Picasso”. The name of the game is inclusivity, the everyday cheek-by-jowl with the unique and amazing. “I’ve held Judge Jeffreys’ ivory gavel. I’ve held Nelson’s personal drinking glass from when he was a prisoner on Elba, things like that,” he marvels. “You can come here because you’re interested in coins and stamps, and go away with a Bo Concept settee.”
Auctions are humanity in microcosm – mostly unexceptional, sometimes incredible. Gems appear out of nowhere. One man, he recalls, brought a bottle of vintage whisky which he’d always planned to open on a special occasion and never did; the bottle, it turned out, was worth nearly €5,000. One lady brought her late husband’s collection of model racing cars, aircraft kits and model soldiers; if you’d set them all up, says Duncan, gesturing around at the vast warehouse, they’d have filled up this entire space. When it comes to something like that, the reflection of a man’s entire life, the selling takes on an emotional hue. “There’s an entrusting,” explains Duncan carefully. “Sometimes you feel very responsible. They’re trusting you to do right with something special.”
Auctions are unpredictable: a lamp in the shape of the ‘Titanic’ (!) didn’t sell at €40, went into the next auction at €30 and ended up selling for €120, “just because two people both really wanted it”. Auctions are also “very social” (he wouldn’t have it any other way); people meet old friends, and make new ones. Auctions are also addictive: there’s a hard core of about 100 regulars who appear almost every fortnight, and call to complain late at night if there’s a delay in uploading the catalogue. Around 60 per cent of customers are Cypriots, calculates Duncan, but expats are inevitably well-represented, given the peripatetic nature of their lives – expats like Duncan Wills himself, a convivial chap who seems to have found his mid-life métier in uniting people with the objects that speak to them. One man’s junk is another man’s bargain.
Like that All Black said, you can get a very sore neck by looking back all the time. Duncan doesn’t give the impression of a man with regrets, or a man who dwells on the past. Instead, he lives in the present – and thrives on thoughts of the future, all the “stuff” he still plans to do with his life. He’s planning a motorbike trip across Europe next year, plus a car-rally treasure hunt in Cyprus that’s being organised by the Lions. He’s also “picked up a guitar for about the fourth time in my life recently”, and is dead set on learning how to play it. Not to mention Stanley, with whom he spends a great deal of time – ‘Stanley’ being a car, an Austin A35 vintage car (“It’s like a Wallace and Gromit car”) whose problems he discusses, endearingly, as if the car were a person. “His bodywork was good, mechanically the poor chap was in a bad way,” reports Duncan with a straight face. “He’d been standing for three or four years, and he was quite clogged up.”
He made his move in life, and doesn’t regret it. “I could’ve slogged on in the UK,” he shrugs, “or, if you like, had a bit of an adventure, and seen if I could make it work. So I went for that option”. His building-society days are behind him; now he stands in a warehouse in Latsia, just off the highway, surrounded by traces of other people’s lives. A box of assorted children’s games and DVD films. An assortment of faux bijoux jewellery. A foldable wooden stand with two matching trays. A stuffed Western capercaillie bird perched on a log. A glass biscuit jar. A porcelain tureen. A bust of Elvis Presley playing guitar.