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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.

The secret to auctions’ enduring appeal is the ability of auctioneers to adapt to change

Go to most art, antique and design fairs and you will see stands set out like shop windows or room sets. Many of the fairs have ditched the word antique in favour of decorative, design or modern – or they use a completely different word to emphasise exclusivity and luxury.

All this reflects the fact that most people have moved away from the notion of collecting and towards that of decorating and lifestyle enhancement. That means those who sell desirable items must package them in different ways.

Take accessories like scarves, costume jewellery and vintage handbags. They used to be tail-end offerings at general auctions where you would be lucky to scrape together a few pounds from them. Now, though, they enjoy dedicated sales, which bring in new, younger buyers eager to get the look and pick up a rarity usually available only as a modern re-issue. Some of these things remain antiques but have just been re-labeled. It’s a great marketing lesson and shows that whatever you call them, some antiques never really go out of fashion.

It’s a lesson the leading luxury brands themselves have learnt, going as far as to set up their own pre-loved divisions, buying up and reselling their own vintage products.

With social media, pop-ups, drop sales and drop shipping all new phenomena competing for business these days, our industry is obsessed with staying relevant in attracting the next generation of buyers and sellers. 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, close to 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.

A lesson in how to identify the antiques of the future

One of the most interesting aspects of working in the art, antiques and collectables world today is just how few people realise that they are part of it. Antiques may be things of the past, but it’s an ever-changing world, which means there is a constant supply of ‘new’ antiques, objects that have just become more than 100 years old.

In the end, it is a fairly arbitrary measure; what really matters is the quality of the piece in question. Values can change depending on a range of factors, such as rarity and condition – and, indeed, age – but perhaps the two factors that most alter the general cycle of buying and selling are changing tastes and habits.

Take dining room furniture. Personally, I think a return to having a special room for dinner parties and the like is long overdue, but while larger homes may still accommodate this if they choose, the average new-build house simply does not have the space.

A collector who has proved very successful in identifying trends – perhaps even creating them himself – describes himself as a ‘homesteader’, he has acted like one of the great pioneers of the West in the 19th century, heading out and staking his claim before seeing if it yields anything of value.

The thing about people like this is they accept that a lot of the time their efforts will yield very little, but it’s all worth it because here and there they hit paydirt.

So, look about you and ask yourself a few questions. What do you see that will stand the test of the time? Does it have mass appeal? In time, will items associated with this field decline sufficiently to create that vital rarity factor– especially for examples in mint or near new condition? Does it have the potential to create a strong sense of nostalgia? Perhaps have retro or kitsch value? Is it the sort of thing that could be a future design icon or simply a fascinating piece of history? If you want to test your ‘eye’, this is a good way to go about it.



The secret to auctions’ longevity? They are endlessly adaptable

The most obvious change in auctions since the millennium has been the influence of the internet, first with websites that allowed people to view auction lots prior to sale and gave even quite parochial auctioneers a global audience; then live online bidding, which has been the biggest game changer of all. But go back even earlier and you will find other significant developments.

If you attended an auction in the 1960s, you would rarely have found a detailed catalogue outside the London rooms. Where catalogues were available, estimates were not.

Dealers, I’m sure, would love it if that were still the case, but times have moved on, auction houses have learnt the value of the private buyer, there are more niche specialists than generalists, and quality of service for the private punter has become the watchword. Clear guides to everything from how to bid to what fees are involved make the auction process much simpler for the novice to bidder or seller to understand … and rightly so.

Such changes bring their own challenges, but they show how adaptable auctions have been over the years.

This also extends to what people buy. Time was when the industry was dominated by generalists holding weekly sales of antique furniture, silver, ceramics and glass, together with a selection of Victorian and Edwardian pictures. Today it’s a very different prospect. Auctioneers tend to divide up sales by discipline to create specialist niche offerings in everything from 20th century design to jewellery and accessories.

Trainers used to be restricted to sport; now they have moved beyond fashion items to become expensive collectables, with the likes of Sotheby’s holding specialist sales of them.

Heavy, dark furniture may have hit the buffers, but good solid oak and other, lighter woods transformed into stunning early 20th century pieces at the hands of a well-known master craftsman still command a premium. Antiques are far from over; like everything else, they simply evolve along with people’s taste.


    We are inviting you to bring in your jewellery, watches, clocks, pictures, oriental works of art, antiques, vases, porcelain, etc for valuation on any Friday starting on Friday 19 January from 9am-5pm. We will have specialists on hand to assist you. If you have a car or van load or just one piece, do bring it along. Appointments not necessary.