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The timeless appeal of clocks

A client who came in the other day was sporting one of those colourful Apple watches we keep hearing about, so I asked him to show me what all the fuss was about. I know the aim these days is to make ever-smaller computers, but if you suffer from fat finger syndrome then this is your average nightmare.

That’s why it will always be a traditional wristwatch for me or, better still, an elegant mantel or table clock.

The glorious range of clocks that you can still buy at auction continues to support one of the strongest established collecting fields. And it’s no surprise that while other disciplines wax and wane in popularity, clocks have never lost their allure.

Just think about it: from longcase to skeleton, these are not just works of art, they are also engineering miracles, offering all qualities that collectors look for. Makers such as Tompion, Quare and Graham from the Golden Age of English clock making in the late 17th century can still cause bidding frenzies, their supreme craftsmanship apparent at every level. Lesser masters also create a stir, and there’s still so much to choose from. The icing on the cake? Speak it softly, but under Treasury rules clocks are deemed wasting assets because of their moving parts… and so are not liable for Capital Gains Tax.

How much is yours worth?

Have TV programmes helped or hindered the antiques industry?

One of the constant debates of the wider art and antiques industry is just how good/bad/useful the daytime TV programmes are that focus on auctions, dealers and fairs.

It’s a close call in many cases. There can be no doubt that the plethora of programmes emerging over the past 20 years or so, many in a gameshow format, have sparked a great deal of interest in what we do. The raised public consciousness can only be a good thing if it means more people coming into the saleroom to see what it’s all about or having a go at bidding online.

I particularly like it when the presenters take a bit of a break from the main proceedings to interview a passionate collector or focus on a specialist area of collecting.

I’m less keen when it comes to the artificial hype introduced to bolster the gameshow experience and onscreen buzz. That’s because it has often come at the price of authenticity. The worst of this is when presenters talk about the profits made from buying and selling, but without taking account of the costs incurred along the way.

Things have generally got better on that front in recent years as formats acknowledge the public’s increasing interest and knowledge around auctions.

The much-maligned BBC – 100 this year – can take a bow here, having fostered the cream of the crop in the Antiques Roadshow for almost half of its lifetime.

Strange, surprising or superb, we are prepared for all comers!

What’s the strangest thing you have ever seen at auction? I was asked the other day. A good question, but difficult to answer after several decades in the job.

Thinking back though, a number of items stand out – not necessarily ones that passed through my hands, but nevertheless memorable. The New Patent Exploding Trench was one. A WW1 toy produced briefly by Britains, it involved a wooden and fabric trench loaded with six lead riflemen of the Gloucestershire Regiment. When hit, a specially placed flagstaff set off a cap, which made a loud report, shaking the trench and “killing” the soldiers. Why a British factory should have put British soldiers rather than the enemy in the trench is anyone’s guess, but is was a marketing disaster and the toy was soon withdrawn. The result? A rare collectable that has made a decent four-figure sum in the two or three times it has appeared at auction over the past 20 years.

Perhaps the most chilling thing I have seen was not at auction but at a restoration firm. What looked like a framed piece of parchment turned out to be a collection of tattoos cut from the bodies of French soldiers in the field of Waterloo. Now who would want to buy that?

Some of the most surprising and superb things appear when people bring things in for valuation. Like the Boys Scouts, we are always prepared for what is presented to us!

Small but perfectly formed – tiny objects with titanic prices

What is the most valuable item sold at auction for its size? One piece that might like to stake a claim is the Pokémon card that has just sold for $420,000. No larger than an ordinary playing card, the rare 1999 Pokémon Base Set Shadowless 1st Edition Holo Charizard card is the holy grail for Pokémon collectors.

“What makes the card so unique is its perfect PSA 10 Gem Mint grading. Even though there are 3,000 copies of the card, only 121 have been given that designation, according to PWCC,” reports CNN.

It may be a large sum for so slight an object, but it comes nowhere near the record. At least two other items beat it hands down.

The first is the rather smaller (around half the Pokémon card’s size) Honus Wagner baseball card that took $6.6 million at an online auction in August last year. Long considered the most desirable of all baseball cards, it passed the $5.2 million paid for a Micky Mantle rookie card just seven months earlier.

However, even this pales into insignificance compared with the price paid for the world’s most valuable stamp: the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, reputedly the only one left. Whether by weight or size (29 x 26mm), at $8.3 million (£6.2 million), its sale to Stanley Gibbons in July 2021 gives it a value of just over £2 million per square inch.

But wait; as far back as December 2007, the 5,000-year-old limestone carving dubbed the Guennol Lioness, a startlingly modern looking 3¼in high figure, took $57.2 million (then £28.9 million) at Sotheby’s. That’s £8.9 million per vertical inch.