The sale, earlier this month, of the late Professor Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair is the perfect example of how auction values are often all about an item’s associations or symbolism rather than any specific intrinsic value.
At just under £300,000 including buyer’s premium, the specially kitted out motorised wheelchair may be a rare piece of machinery in itself, but it is the genius who sat in it that makes it unique.
Other Hawking items, including his Albert Einstein Award, also made huge sums, but without the man himself they are just so many pieces of wood, glass, metal and plastic… aren’t they?
Clearly not. The war memorials we all stood in front of on November 11 to honour the sacrifices of the Fallen on the centenary of the end of WWI are emblems of those who are no longer there, but we felt their presence strongly as the bugler played the Last Post. They provide a material focus to our interest and attention.
Just so museum exhibits, tokens of affection, mementoes, religious relics and, indeed, the personal effects of historic figures like Professor Hawking. As tangible reminders, they help concentrate the mind on the spirit and character of those with whom they are associated. And it is our continuing fascination with these individuals that means we never tire of attempting to connect with them via these objects – and that’s what gives them their value.
How healthy is the future of the antiques and auctions market looking? Some seem to think that the young have no interest in antiques or the traditional auction process and that our days are numbered. Not so. As far as I can see, the evidence points to the reverse.
Look at all of the websites and apps set up to recycle second-hand clothing and fashion items. I know teenagers who have effectively set themselves up as dealers as they market this gear, while others are already well versed in the online auction process as they chase the rarities and bargains.
Think, too, of all the new antiques dealers out there. They may be purveyors of retro furniture and design, 1970s jewellery and suchlike; they may be selling out of pop-up shops in trendy markets like Spitalfields; and it may not have occurred to them at all that they have anything to do with our wonderful world. But you know what? They are no different in their passions, approach and ambitions from all of the other antiques dealers over the years; they simply specialise in something different.
And that’s they key: as time passes, so antiques change as well. Few may seek out Victorian sideboards now, but they compete fiercely for their replacements: early and mid 20th century artist-craftsman pieces and post-war Scandinavian design.
So, yes, I am confident that our ever-evolving industry will prosper.
If you want to find out more about how the art and antiques market works these days, you can sign up to innumerable email newsletters giving you the inside information on the latest trends.
That’s fine if all you are interested in is Contemporary and Modern art sales in London and New York that make millions, or what’s happening with blockchain and bitcoin and how they may help change the way the market works.
Try looking for news on the sort of art, antiques and collectables that interest you, me and most of the rest of the world, however, and your eyes will ache from too much screen time as you search in vain. Ok, top-end prices may make better headlines, but it astonishes me how the media tends to ignore 95 per cent of what is changing hands day to day.
Let’s face it, if you are interested in collecting and want to know about any given field, you need to know the ins and outs, what to look for, what to avoid and what factors affect values. That’s where collecting clubs come into their own. So next time the idea of chasing the rarest piece of Clarice Cliff strikes you, forget the trendy newsletters and head for the collectors’ club website and immerse yourself in knowledge.
Have you ever wondered what it must be like to stand (or sit) at the rostrum and shout out the lots? How much of a skill is it to tease bids from those ranged before you or, come to that, from the phone or internet?
Having done this for decades, I suppose it comes as second nature these days, although creating the same atmosphere to excite those viewing remotely on screen has proved to be an altogether different challenge over the past few years, and you need to be on top of your game if you are not to let down your consignors.
In a way, an auctioneer on the rostrum is rather like a conductor leading an orchestra through a concert. The mood changes with the music; at some points you need to create a loud noise, waving your arms about to the crashing cymbals of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, while at others you need to slow the room down to a more sedate waltz as you try to get those paddles waving.
The really skilful auctioneer is the one who can almost reach out and tickle bidders as a conductor might gently wave his baton at the strings section just below him, squeezing those last few bids to ensure a picture or piece of porcelain realises its maximum potential.
There is both an art and a craft to this most unusual of skills.