With the Polo at Cowdray, the South Downs on the horizon and racing at Goodwood, there’s no doubting we live in horse country, which may explain why equine pictures do so well in our auctions.
Nearly everyone has heard of George Stubbs, recognised as the finest painter of horses in the artistic canon. Other great names among British artists include John Frederick Herring Senior, Alfred Munnings, Cecil Alden and John Skeaping.
Equal talents in this discipline may be found across Europe and further afield. Of the great animal painters, few compare with John James Audubon and his famous and eye-wateringly expensive The Birds of America. However, news of a remarkable set of paintings to be sold in October sheds the spotlight on the remarkable art of Indian painters commissioned to paint animals, birds, plants and architecture by the East India Company in the 18th and 19th centuries.
For a long time, what are known as the Company School paintings were credited to the officials who commissioned them rather than the artists, but the record is now slowly being set straight, first by an exhibition at the Wallace Collection and soon by the auction itself.
My favourite work is a painting of a Great Indian Fruit Bat in full flight. It was painted by an artists called Bhawani Das.
It is heartening to see that the public interest surrounding these works that has arisen from the auction is helping the real artists to get due recognition at last.
It used to be that someone consigned something for auction, it got a brief description in a catalogue (if there was one), a dealer or private buyer would bid for it successfully and then they would take it away. That was some decades ago.
Nowadays, for auctioneers worth their salt, it’s a much more complex business. Quite apart from all the compliance paperwork, we take much better care of the items consigned, study and catalogue them clearly, make sure they are stored safely and do our best to present them well for the view.
Add to this all the online commitment, from numerous photographs to condition reports, maintaining a website, social media and marketing auctions far and wide – especially now bidders at any sale can come from dozens of countries – and it is easy to see where the time and money goes.
The blessings of a much wider customer base bring with them greater logistical challenges; items often need to be carefully packed and dispatched abroad, with all the relevant customs declarations and so on. This means that we create business for logistics firms, as well as other ancillary businesses that support the nation’s art and antiques market, now third only to the United and States and China in size and importance globally.
So every time you either decide to consign something like a picture or piece of jewellery to auction, or indeed buy the same, you are setting off a positive chain of activity that supports the economy in a myriad ways. That’s a cheering thought.
Last issue I wrote about changing tastes and how that has led to an developing roster of sales and departments at auction houses now.
That’s no bad thing; nostalgia and tradition are wonderful concepts, but in business they should not get in the way of progress. Thirty years ago, most fine art and antique auctions were trade affairs. Those bidding were largely dealers, with the odd well-informed collector competing against them for lots. Catalogues, if they existed at all, tended to be cursory, with little detail about what was being sold – you really had to attend the view and know what to look for if you wanted to dig out the treasures.
That all changed when auctioneers realised that if they did a good enough job and made things as clear as possible, including the whole process of buying, then they could sell direct to the public too and business would grow.
In recent years, and especially now as most sales have gone almost completely online, clarity matters all the more. Technology has allowed auction houses to provide more and better pictures of each lot, online or email condition reports and easy access to bidding live or via timed auction over the internet.
What they have also been able to do is market sales better. So what might simply have been promoted as a furniture auction decades ago can now become more focused as, say, a post-war design or interiors sale. By putting more thought into the way lots are grouped and presented, they can make them more attractive to the right bidders and increase demand and prices.
This is a vital part of our expertise today, whether you are selling high-end jewellery and pictures or simple collectables.
Changing tastes in art, antiques and collectables are reflected in what makes the headlines these days and also how auction houses and dealers have altered the way in which they present items for sale.
If you consider that the strict definition of antique is something over 100 years old, it is easy to appreciate how this presents us with an ever-changing selection of pieces that fall into this category.
When the first antiques fairs started at Olympia in London, back in the late 1920s, the cut-off dateline determining what was and what was not allowed to be offered excluded anything Victorian because they would not yet have been antiques.
Today, anything from the First World War or Edwardian period is easily antique, while Art Deco, long accepted as a venerable collecting category to stand alongside older items at antiques fairs and in fine art and antique auctions, is still not antique.
You’d be amazed at how many people have spent huge amounts of time fretting over the distinction; in recent years we have largely neutralised the argument by adopting additional terms like Vintage and Retro, which can have looser definitions and also appeal more directly to younger buyers. No one has yet come up with an all-encompassing term that covers all eras and still has the power to appeal to all ages of buyers.
Language does matter though. How you market your wares can make a huge difference to whose attention you grab: Ephemera anyone? How about Love Letters? See what I mean?
People say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but that’s exactly what many of us do all the time, and we would be fools to ignore the fact.