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Successful art and antiques businesses must work out how to appeal to younger buyers

One of the great obsessions in our industry is how you attract the next generation of buyers and sellers. Forty or fifty years ago, newly married couples tended to go to auction to buy furniture and decorations for their first home. Then the era of mass consumerism, with its disposable, flatpack furnishings, took over, tastes changed, and the local general weekly auction started to look like a thing of the past.

Well, half a century on we’re still here and as relevant today as we have always been. Yes, we have had to adapt, offering more specialist sales, better catalogues, clear costings and, in the advanced technological age, live bidding via the internet.

What hasn’t changed are the twin thrills of finding something special hidden among the day-to-day items and the charged atmosphere of competitive bidding and ultimate victory as the hammer comes down. I’d say they are as attractive characteristics of the auction process for the young as they are for the more mature among us. However, by themselves, they are not enough to sustain a healthy level of business going forward. As auctioneers, we must make sure that the new generation feels as well-informed and comfortable with the process as its predecessors. In modern parlance, it’s known as building a trusted brand.

Dealers face similar challenges. I was chatting to one last week about his recent experiences standing at antiques fairs. When times are uncertain or tough, he said, he adapts the stock he presents on his stand so that it appeals to richer, older people who are less likely to be affected by fluctuating financial fortunes.

However, what he really wants for long-term success are new, younger buyers who are setting off along the road to a life of collecting. They may spend less in the short term, but they will be around longer, graduating to more valuable pieces as life goes on.

The other challenge for both him and auctioneers like me is the changing nature of buyers. When I started in the business, most people who bought at auction were dealers who would turn up every week to restock and spend a reasonable sum. Now more private buyers are raising a hand or clicking a mouse to bid – and very welcome they are too. However, fewer take the form of traditional collectors looking to see what’s on offer, week in, week out. A far greater percentage are those wanting something to decorate their house with, which means they tend to be one-off purchasers. This means we must all be much more proactive than ever before to make a success of this business.



Olympic records at auction – getting in the mood for the Paris Games in July

The Paris Olympic Games start on July 26, and as we build up to the excitement, I am reminded of some of the exceptional prices achieved for collectables linked to this global sporting event.

When the Games were revived in 1896 – the first of modern times – winners received silver medals, with runners-up getting bronze and nothing for third place. One of those silver winner’s medals came up for sale in January this year at RR Auction of Boston where it took $112,000, although RR sold another in 2021 for $180,000.

However, the real money is reserved for the rarest of Olympic torches. In 2015 a Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games torch sold for £420,000 at auction. In this case, the torch was one of three – along with the first torch, introduced at the summer games in Berlin in 1936, and the first winter games torch, from Oslo in 1952 – needed to complete a collection.

The price beat the record set by another Helsinki 1952 torch, which had sold for €290,000 in Paris in early 2011.

The reason the Helsinki torch is so treasured is that very few were made – only 22, in fact, 15 of them with hallmarked silver bowls. To put that in context, London’s 2012 Games produced 8,000 torches, and as many as 15,000 were produced for the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.

That £420,000 is certainly a high price, but only the third highest in terms of Olympic collectables.

The price of £450,000 was paid for a silver cup given to Spyros Louis, who won the marathon at the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896. The winning bid was placed in London in April 2012, just before the capital’s own Games were held – showing just how important timing can be for auctions.

Out in front at a massive $1.47m, though, is one of the four gold medals won by Jesse Owens, perhaps the most famous Olympian of all time, at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Owens won his medals for the 100m, 200m, 400m relay and Long Jump, but it was what he represented above and beyond these feats that have made him such an icon. His triumphs were a direct challenge to Hitler’s belief in the supremacy of the Aryan race, and Owens rubbed his face in it at the very Olympics that Hitler staged to prove his point. Good for him!



Key lessons for attending an auction so that you bid with your eyes open

You would have thought after all these years of antiques TV shows that just about everybody would be at ease with auctions, but we still get a few shy ones coming through the doors in Fernhurst. They’re clearly interested in the whole process, or they wouldn’t be there. If you’re one of them, have no fear, we don’t bite, and I’d be amazed if you couldn’t find anything to spark your interest.

My advice to anyone who hasn’t yet got to grips with auctions but would like to find out more is to come to a viewing before the sale. That way you can wander around and look at everything that’s on offer in a relaxed fashion. At viewings you will find lot numbers attached to each piece on display, and they correspond with the numbers in the catalogues, which are also around the saleroom so you can check out the description and estimate. Staff are on hand to answer any questions or help you get a better look at anything – you’ll find that’s true at any decent auction house.

And if you want to see a great bit of traditional auction drama, come along to the early part of one of our general auctions when the saleroom manager takes bids in the back viewing room rather than from the rostrum. You will find all the bidders standing together among the pieces being sold. There’s nothing quite like it to get you hooked.

If you do decide to bid, here are a couple of tips: firstly, how are you going to get your purchase home? If it’s a small piece of jewellery or a collectable, no problem; but what if it is a sideboard or a sofa? If you won’t be able to transport it yourself, find out how much it would cost to have it shipped to you before you bid. That way you won’t suffer any nasty surprises. Most auction houses will either be able to arrange shipping for you or give you the details of a reliable shipper.

Secondly, running auctions costs money, and some of the costs are passed on to the buyer in the form of fees charged as a percentage of the hammer price. Again, find out what they would be before you bid so that you have a clear understanding of what the final invoice total will be. That way you can bid with confidence.

Sensitive valuations and effective pricing are key elements to success at auction

Watching the Antiques Roadshow recently, I was reminded of the most important question a professional should ask when valuing something: why are you having it valued? This is because valuations will differ depending on the answer.

Let’s consider a diamond ring, for instance. If you want it valued for insurance, you are going to need enough cover to replace it at retail cost. If you want it valued for sale to a dealer, the valuation must consider what a dealer might pay for it, so that they can build in a profit margin for resale. So, the insurance valuation might be as much as four times the resale value to a dealer.

Getting the asking price right is as much a skill at chattels auctions as it is when putting your home on the market: price it too high and you can kill demand but undercook it and you risk giving it away.

Overexposure over a prolonged period tends to raise questions as to the condition of the property on offer. A newly redeveloped house near me has recently gone on the market for around 30 per cent more than I would think is reasonable. This is because it will have been priced according to what the plot cost to buy, what the developer paid to knock it down and create the house that now stands there, and what their projected profit is added on top. No one has shown any interest. After a while, market reality will kick in and it will be re-priced accordingly, but that exposure will cost the owner dear and they may well end up with less than if they had simply pitched it at a more competitive rate in the first place.

It’s the same for chattels auctions. Those prepared to consign items at come-and-get-me estimates very often spark a bidding battle, with lots selling for what they really hoped to get for them, or even higher. Auctioneers will agree a reserve price with you, as a safety net, below which an item cannot be sold, so as a seller you are protected.