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.
July 29 marked the fortieth anniversary of the wedding of the (20th) century, that between Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana. The intervening years have recorded the ups and downs and controversies of the marriage in endless detail, but for those lining The Mall, Fleet Street and the streets around St Paul’s Cathedral at the time, this was a fairytale occasion.
Such landmark events give rise to a plethora of collectables – in this case everything from commemorative mugs and plates to photographs. Significant anniversaries also lead to the appearance of such items at auction, and that is just what has happened now. A slice of the Royal wedding cake that had been given to a member of the Queen Mother’s staff, who put it carefully away for posterity, has been put up for auction with an estimate of £200-300.
A surprisingly large number of slices from the Royal Wedding cake have appeared for sale over the years – surprising, that is, until one learns that there were actually 23 official cakes made, while the main cake, which they cut, had five layers, was five feet tall and weighed 225 pounds.
This column has often remarked on the importance of anniversaries for creating renewed interest in a subject, leading to asscoiated items being flushed out of collections for auction. With the UK’s ongoing success at the current Tokyo Olympics, can we expect to see a flurry of medals and other Olympian items appear on the market before long?