Jumbo joy! He’s auctioned a Ferrari for 14m, but nothing’s given Antiques Road Trip's Charlie Ross more pleasure than selling a china elephant

Some 40 years ago, a little blonde girl stood wide-eyed outside her home on a South African game reserve as a group of elephants grazed on the orange trees in front of her.

As Myrna Schkolne watched in wonderment, a male elephant gorged himself on orange after orange, clearly loving squeezing the sweet juice into his mouth.

Myrna, now a US-based antiques expert and author, has never forgotten the moment, and her love of elephants is still as strong.

Charlie Ross with the record-breaking elephant originally bought for just 8

Charlie Ross with the record-breaking elephant originally bought for just 8

In particular, since becoming knowledgeable about antiques, she had yearned for her own Staffordshire elephant – an earthenware figure made around 1815, of which there are thought to be only five left in the world.

Fast forward to 2011, and an auction house in Scotland, where Antiques Road Trip presenter Charlie Ross was about to make the biggest sale of the series. And the most extraordinary discovery of his TV career was about to mark the end of Myrna’s 25-year quest for her elephant.

This remarkable story began – as Charlie explains – with sheer luck. Faced with the challenge of bagging bargains from antiques shops and selling them on for a profit at auction for the show, he found himself outside an emporium with fellow expert and competitor James Braxton.

Auctioneer Charlie, 61, recalls, ‘The antiques were stored in a converted chapel and an outhouse. James and I tossed a coin to see who should go where, and he got the chapel while I headed for the outhouse.’

Successful bidder: Myrna Schkolne

Successful bidder: Myrna Schkolne

It was there that something caught Charlie’s eye – a Staffordshire elephant, some 9in tall. Charlie says, ‘I knew as soon as I saw him he was something special. I picked him up and looked at the wonderful detail. The price tag was just 12, although I knew this elephant was worth hundreds of pounds. But I wasn’t thinking about the profit I would make; all I could look at was the tiny figure sitting on top of the elephant. He was so charming – he seemed to be calling out to me.’

Charlie still couldn’t resist haggling. ‘The owner of the shop told me he’d found the elephant in a house clearance, sitting at the back of a cupboard. I don’t know who had owned him, but he’d obviously been loved and cared for. At 12, it was a bargain, but I still had to haggle – and I bought him for just 8.’

Next stop was the local auction house, where Charlie’s bargains went under the hammer. ‘I was hoping to raise as much as 500,’ says Charlie. ‘But the auctioneer had put an image of the elephant on the website and suddenly there was an extraordinary explosion of worldwide interest’ – including from Myrna in North Carolina.

‘I saw this elephant on the website, and it was love at first sight,’ she says. Even as an avid collector of Staffordshire pieces, Myrna, 48, had only ever seen two such figures on offer. ‘One had come up for sale but he was albino [the elephants are normally grey], which didn’t do it for me. Another came up at auction a few years ago but had been heavily restored. Then I saw this one and knew we were meant for each other.

‘I placed an email bid, but didn’t want to risk losing it, so, because of the time difference, I got up at 5am to bid over the phone. The bidding took ages, but when it ended he was mine – and the room, to my surprise, broke into applause. “That’s for you,” said the nice lady on the phone, who told me the auction had been filmed for a TV programme.

‘My elephant had cost Charlie 8 and me an awful lot more [2,700]. But it’s possible to have two winners, and both he and I were happy.’
Charlie adds, ‘The auction was the most exciting I’ve experienced. Last year I auctioned a Ferrari for 14 million, but the excitement created by this sweet little elephant beat that. There was a huge buzz in the auction room, and when the hammer went down, there was whooping and hollering – not least from me.

‘The 2,700 paid is an Antiques Road Trip record. Of course, what I didn’t realise until later was the buyer had spent 25 years searching for this item. It wasn’t about me winning the competition, it was about somebody with a real love finding the object she had spent so long looking for.’

Antiques Road Trip, weekdays, BBC2, 5.15pm