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Success as a seller at auction means being realistic about your prospects

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 went on the market for around 30 per cent more than I would think is reasonable. This is because it was 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 would be added on top. After a few months, no one has shown any interest – the price may reflect the developer’s needs, but it doesn’t reflect the market.

Soon, I expect market reality to 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.

Protecting oneself as a seller can be done through setting a reserve below which the item may not be sold. In the UK, at least, it is illegal to set the lower estimate below the level of the reserve, because that would be fraudulent: effectively offering an item at a price that you already know you wouldn’t sell it at.

However, the clever seller will build in flexibility to their reserve, usually allowing the auctioneer a ten per cent leeway on it, if it is clear that they will secure a sale that way on the day. Even if it isn’t quite as much as the seller hoped to get in the first place, it gives them certainty and a quick return.

The least successful sellers at auction tend to be those who have an unrealistically high view of the value of their consignment and refuse to budge. They may be able to force their point of view on a reluctant auctioneer, but they won’t be able to force it on the bidder.

Getting back to basics helps us judge the future

After decades in the business, new developments continue to amaze me. Following the emergence of NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens) as a traded digital collectable, we now have the rise of Artificial Intelligence. That hit the headlines recently when German artist Boris Eldagsen turned down the Sony world photography award after admitting that his entry had been generated using AI. Meanwhile love letters, poems, songs, greetings cards messages and other missives can now all be created using AI instead of having to engage one’s own brain. To top it all, AI generated artwork is also selling at auction.

It’s not often that I dwell on the philosophical, but I do wonder whether anything created by a computer programme, without the input of the spark of life and spiritual inspiration, can be classified as art. I’m not expecting an answer to that one in the next five minutes – after all, the human race has been creating art for at least tens of thousands of years and no one has yet been able to pin down a catch-all precise definition of what art actually is, and in many ways I hope they never do, because that would break art’s magic spell.

This calls to mind the late great Kenneth Clark, whose ground-breaking TV series Civilisation put the cultural cap on the 1960s.

In his introduction to the first episode, entitled The Skin of our Teeth, Clark famously opined: “What is civilisation? I don’t know; I can’t define it in abstract terms, but I think I can recognise it when I see it.” Of all the emblems of civilisation across the world, what did he decide to use as his backdrop to illustrate this point? Notre Dame in Paris, now rising from the ashes after is catastrophic fire in 2019.

It’s reassuring to know that great treasures of the past, the results of creative genius, still mean so much… and that traditional art and antiques can still get the heart racing at auction.

For auction newbies, why not start by looking at Coronation collectables?

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.

A topical way of looking at antiques and collectables for the first time is to study Coronation memorabilia. May 12, 1937 – 86 years ago now – marked the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Coronation mugs from that event are still changing hands, as is memorabilia from the late Queen’s Coronation in 1953 and all the jubilees since.

While a Queen Victoria 1837 Coronation mug in good condition might now fetch £700-800, her successors’ Coronation mugs can generally be had for less than £50, even that for Edward VIII who was never crowned.

In modern times, though, the one to look for is the alternative 1953 Coronation mug, modelled by Wedgwood on a design by the artist Eric Ravilious. For that you can expect at least £250 and probably more.

How you can identify the valuable collectables of the future now

A collector I know has proved very successful in identifying trends – perhaps even creating them himself – by taking calculated risks as a pioneering force. Describing 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… but not become so rare that not enough of it is left to sustain a collecting base? 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?

One of the best ways of doing that is to see what is coming into fashion now.

A superb example is memorabilia and particularly photographs linked to the Apollo missions of the 1960s. At the most important art and antiques fair in the world a few years ago, one dealer devoted his entire stand to photos from the Apollo missions. Not only was it a stunning display, but it was also able to capitalize on the fact that it was building up to the half century since man first landed on the Moon in 1969. Momentum always accelerates as you get closer to a significant anniversary.

First generation iPhones only date to 2007 – only 15 years ago. Yet in February, one of these, still factory sealed in its box, took $63,000. And that’s the key with items like this: condition is everything. In mint condition is good; still in its original box is better; factory sealed is best!