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Clement's Corner: A Price To Pay

Owen Clement tells the tale of John Matheson, who lost his reputation for fair trading with one shrewd deal too many.

“Okay, okay, be patient”, John Matheson said crossly moving over to open the passenger door. Bluey, his old Blue Heeler’s bladder obviously needed emptying. Down he jumped and raced off sniffing all his familiar markings checking to see if any other dog had invaded his personal domain while he was away.

Leaving the two-tonner’s lights on, John wearily climbed out and trudged towards his house to light up the backyard.

Slowly climbing back into the truck he drove around to the barn at the rear where he parked his vehicle and stored his purchases. He had done well this trip. Many items had changed hands with only a few left to be stored and dealt with later.

When his marriage failed, John left the city and headed for the country. Arriving at a once prosperous country town where, after much searching, he found and bought, at a bargain, a vacant farming homestead.

Using it as his base, he took up in earnest his interest of attending garage sales, street markets and deceased estate auctions in order to build a business using his acquired talent for bargaining, for buying low and for selling high.

He fell into his first major profitable venture purely by being observant. At a property sale he attended, the farmer had a Massey-Ferguson tractor in near perfect condition for sale. John had earlier seen an advertisement, in a farmer’s gazette’s “Wanted Column”, that another farmer nearby was in the market for one. Acting as a go-between he earned himself a good-sized commission.

Seeing this as providential, he immediately bought himself an alphabetic ledger, which he ruled up for cross-referencing items for sale or exchange, sellers, buyers and traders. He then purchased, through the department of main roads, detailed maps of all the roads in the state of New South Wales. Carefully planning his routes beforehand, on a regular basis he began calling on farms, stations, garages, workshops and any small town operation throughout the state where there was a need for second hand goods and equipment to be traded, bought and sold. Opening a business account at the local bank he began his venture.

It took a few months for his business to take hold and to for him build up a reputation for fairness to his clients.

He decided that his dealings should always be scrupulously honest and fair, as the ‘bush telegraph’ would soon show him up if he breached his own ethical standards. His markup on small items could often be as high as, or even over, 100%, whereas on larger items, at times, his percentage could be as low as 10%. Dealing primarily with business people meant that they understood and accepted his need for making a fair return.

There were occasions when opportunities bordering on the illicit arose where he could have made extraordinarily handsome profits, but by being farseeing he prudently resisted these temptations and soon built up a lucrative business with people anticipating his and Bluey’s arrival when various items or cash invariably changed hands.

Inevitably, a prospect arose that was perfectly legal and yet, it was to prove his undoing.

John’s bid for the contents of the property of a deceased estate was successful despite strong opposition. The property owner had died while his elderly wife was being cared for in a nursing home. Their only child, a son, spent most of his day in an alcoholic haze.

After the auction, the other main contender said to John, that John’s bid had been much too high. John though was satisfied, as he had known about the nineteenth century landscape by the recognized Victorian English painter, Benjamin Wills that the owner had hanging on his wall in his living room. The old varnish had dried and turned dark brown totally obscuring the artist’s delicate brushwork of the beautiful after-sunset country scene where the evening glow contrasted with the shadowed hills. The owner had once pointed it out to John, saying that it was his most valuable asset.

John sorted the trash from the saleable items tossing the unwanted objects into a tip to be collected by the local council. The worthwhile items, including the painting, he loaded into his truck to be dealt with later.

Making a special visit to Sydney, he took the painting to a reputable art restorer who cleaned off the old varnish thus revealing the beautiful work of art. He collected it after its restoration and took it to a major international auction house. He was astounded a few weeks later at the price for which it sold.

This is when his reputation for fairness that he had worked so hard to achieve suffered a fatal blow.

A family member of the previous owner, who was at the auction, recognized the painting. Word got back to the old lady who, feeling she had been betrayed, contacted the local newspaper. The incident was featured in a front-page article on how a ‘crafty dealer’, the readers soon guessing his identity, had cheated a helpless old lady of her most valuable asset by many thousands of dollars. Even though what John had done was perfectly legal, the perception was that his action had been both heartless and shameful.

I learned of this story from John himself as we sat sipping a couple of ales outside a country pub, which he now frequented much too regularly with his old rheumatic companion, Bluey.

John said bitterly to me, that it had taken him months to establish his good reputation and yet this single incident, even an honest one as it was, immediately destroyed his good name and in the process his livelihood.

Some day when the dust settled, he said, he would once again set off on his rounds to try and rebuild his once profitable business.

Looking at this sad dissolute figure, I doubted that he ever would.

© Clement 2006


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