Going... Going... Gone

29th March 2008

If you want your home to be distinctly different from everyone else’s, where do you go to find a touch of quirky individuality? The smart money is on the auction house… hundreds of lots that you won’t find anywhere else, and the chance to obtain them for a bargain price. And once you’ve tasted the thrill of the chase in the sale room, you’ll be hooked for life.

Alan Jamieson joined the bidders at some local auction rooms to find out more.

If you’ve an interest in antiques, sufficient to take yourself along to an auctioneer’s saleroom, you may arrive as a fascinated observer, not a buyer. However, the chances are that once you’ve attended a sale and tasted the excitement, the temptation to raise a hand will become irresistible – even if you are one of the millions who watch, and wonder, when television experts smile smugly and declare, “It’s early Coalport – probably worth about £1200,” to an open-mouthed enquirer whose aged aunt uses the plate to serve up her poodle’s dinner.

Sparked off by popular television programmes such as The Antiques Road Show, Flog It! and Dickinson’s Real Deal (compulsive afternoon viewing for some) attics have been searched, cupboards emptied and car boot sales combed for hidden treasures. Television’s antiques expert David Dickinson says that every house can yield at least one unexpected treasure – no, not your granny, but perhaps a Moorcroft vase, a lady’s fob watch or a Victorian oil lamp. You could use it as a display piece, to define your own style and put your personal stamp on a room, or treat it as the basis of a collection that adds a distinctive dimension to your whole house – opt for specialist porcelain perhaps, or for county maps… or silver spoons, or Toby jugs, or snuffboxes or pictures by 19th century non-famous artists. Whatever your choice, if you do get hooked, there are local – and national – antique fairs and auctions to keep you amused, entertained and itching to buy. There’s a huge antiques fair at Hatfield House each November, for example, which attracts thousands of visitors, some to gawp, some to buy.

You don’t have to travel far to experience the thrill of an auction room chase, either. At Amersham, there’s an auction sale of antiques, furniture and ‘collectables’ on the first Thursday of every month (viewings are on the two previous days), and the auction rooms at Tring have furniture and general auction sales every other Saturday (viewings on the previous day). And both Amersham and Tring have specialist fine art sales on selected days throughout the year.

The excitement can be intense. At one recent sale, for 20 minutes nothing went for more than £100. Then, suddenly, the auctioneer held up a painted 18th century fan, its colours still bright, its ivory guard gleaming. Beforehand, the auctioneer had observed, privately, “£100 at most.” But two bidders contested it. You only need two. After a series of rapid £20 jumps, the crash of the gavel came down on £480 – an addition to someone’s treasured collection, probably, or a distinctive display item for hall or cloakroom. Next up, by contrast, someone got a bargain. A beautifully painted Derby beer mug, dated about 1820, was expected to go to £200. It fell for £40. The reason? Experts had seen a fine crack – and porcelain collectors are immensely fussy about ‘condition’. If you’re simply looking for aesthetic effect, though, then the saleroom can be a mine of rich pickings.

Everyone likes a bargain, of course. Dick Ellis, third generation of the founding family auctioneers, Pretty & Ellis, at Amersham, described the variety available, “We sell anything… A Georgian silver cream jug? A silver-plated walking stick? A majolica biscuit box? A William IV rosewood chair?” Pretty and Ellis had all these – and another 384 lots – in a recent sale. For other bargains, car-boot sales or charity shops can be profitable, but you have to know your business. A chip, a crack, a damaged leg and your ‘find’ is in the under-£20 league. But, again, it depends what you want it for, and how it’s going to be seen.

Back to the auction room, the real hunting ground. ‘Antiques’, ‘vintage’, ‘retro’, ‘collectables’? What’s the difference? Tom Voller of Old Cinema Antiques in Chiswick – who must have been asked this a million times – determines that ‘antiques’ are “old”, anything from early civilisations to late 19th century – “Say 100 years old and more,” he qualifies. Edwardian is on the dividing line, whereas Art Deco covers ‘vintage – ie. later – 20th century porcelain, furniture, cars, decorative arts. ‘Retro’ means 1960s to 1980s, while ‘collectables’ are anything you fancy… early editions of the Beano, Spode or Minton china, 1930s advertising posters, mantel clocks, battered teddy bears… whatever. Furniture purchases tend to be one-offs rather than part of a collection. How many Welsh dressers, Wiltshire stickleback chairs, Georgian longcase clocks or rocking horses do you want?

And, of course, auctions are also great for disposing of your own treasures, when they (or you) need a new home. Take your heirloom along to the auctioneer, who will be glad to give you an estimate – or to observe disparagingly, “Why not try a car-boot sale?”

You may want to put a reserve price on your piece. If the final bid is below this figure, you take it home – unsold, but still ‘worth’ what you want for it. Of course, you pay a fee to put it in the sale. On viewing days, estimates are posted in the auction room, indicating the possibility of manoeuvre – £100 to £150, say. Your item is in the catalogue with a few words of apt description. You can attend the sale or not, as you wish, but by your absence you really miss the fun.

On viewing days, watch the experts, the dealers, in action. Out comes a magnifying glass, a little notebook to jot down ‘possibles’ and a mobile phone to check with an expert elsewhere. When it comes to bidding, dealers know their ceiling price and go no further. If you are keen, however, this could be your opportunity. My 12-year old had an eye on a George III officer’s dress sword with decorated grip and engraved blade. When the dealers stopped bidding, we came in - £90, £120. Then we dropped out; it went to a collector for £180. We also had our eye on an infantryman’s sword with a steel scabbard: £120 perhaps? Not likely – it fetched £900. Next time, then.

You can also have the thrill of the saleroom without even leaving home. Via the internet you can bid at local auctions. You use a proxy bidding system where your bid is communicated to the auctioneer who then acts on your behalf. Log on to a specific local saleroom’s website to avoid combing through many more auction rooms’ sites.

Another option, of course, is eBay (eBay.co.uk)… with over 60 million listings. It will take you an hour or two to comb through it! However, useful as these opporrtunities are for the housebound or the time-starved, it really is far more fun to attend a real sale, in a crowded, excited auction room, and follow the frantic bidding. On a busy day at Amersham, Dick Ellis gets through 80 lots in an hour. Fast work. You might be delighted at the price your Victorian Minton china teacup and saucer brings… or you could be tempted to bid, and bid again, for that stylish 1930s Art Deco bronzed coloured mirror. As I found, bidding is addictive.

To find out more, check out www.amershamauctionrooms.co.uk (01494 729292) or www.tringmarketauctions.co.uk (01442 826446).

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