Tuesday - 30 September 2014

How long will the House and Gardens slump last?

11 June 2003Written by ATG Reporter

Sotheby’s wait for a change of climate to see prices grow after statuary sale falters: Sotheby's specialist-in-charge of the Sussex garden statuary sales, Rupert van der Werff, believes the most reliable barometer for this area is the housing market. Certainly the well-publicised recession in that overheated area has had a hugely detrimental effect on statuary.

One problem is that statuary itself is something of an anomaly in the antiques trade as, although it is privately led, there are almost no collectors. Buyers tend to be people who have recently moved house and want to fill up their new garden with attractive things. Once their gardens are full, they stop buying. So, if houses aren’t selling and people aren’t moving, the need for sundials, urns, wellheads and fountains disappears.

The buy-in rates at this, the first of two biannual sales at Sotheby’s Sussex outpost (currently in the process of being sold although Sotheby’s will retain an office on the premises) made gloomy reading at 56 per cent by lot and 66 per cent by value. Certainly the housing slowdown was a large contributing factor but others must also be considered.

All the auction houses are now facing the toughest times since 1990 and there has been increased selectivity across the board. Mr van der Werff also feels this sale perhaps had too many good things, because it wasn’t simply a case of just the good pieces selling and the lesser things not – a lot of the very good items failed to get away too.

Bidders simply don’t have the disposable cash now to buy two or three pieces of the same type so buying has become much more concentrated.

Nevertheless, what did sell sold well, so financially the sale was not a disaster. A c.1760 lead figure of Spring attributed to John Cheere – deriving from a late 17th century marble original by Laurent Magnier in the gardens at Versailles – was the star.

Sotheby’s have sold a few similar semi-draped figures in the past, but this privately entered 9ft 1in (2.69cm) tall example had a level of quality lacking in the others and was also on its original Portland stone pedestal. Hence the estimate of £25,000-40,000. Good 18th century lead figures rarely come on the market so interest was high and Spring sold at £64,000 to a UK private buyer.

Unusually for these sales, there were no obvious trends to discern on this occasion. Last year chimneypieces proved incredibly popular but this year interest seemed to have waned. Mr van der Werff was keen to point out that a pair of late 19th/early 20th century fine Georgian-style white and siena marble chimneypieces had no listing issues and were top quality examples in great condition. Each featured an inverted breakfront moulded shelf with dentil and foliate carved mouldings and a table to the centre moulded in high relief with a basket of overflowing fruits and flowers. They were estimated at £40,000-60,000 and a UK private was considered a “very lucky chap” when he took the pair on the bottom estimate, a result Mr van der Werff could only describe as “very disappointing”.

One can never really predict the whims of the private buyer; what is highly fashionable in the smartest of gardens one year may be totally passé the next.

Take, for instance, cast iron garden seats. In May 2000 Sotheby’s took £23,000 from the London trade for a Coalbrookdale Passion Flower seat – reckoned the most desirable of the many patterns turned out by the foundry in the late 19th century. This year the market seemed to have suffered an almost total collapse with only eight of the 15 Coalbrookdale seats on offer getting away and a c.1870 cast iron seat in that supposedly highly desirable Passion Flower pattern was bought in at just £5000 against hopes of up to £10,000.

This year, oddly enough, it was the Lily of the Valley pattern that people were buying and a c.1870 cast iron seat in this rather run-of-the-mill pattern managed an over-estimate £5500.

Mr van der Werff is positive that the downturn in this market is not terminal and that boom times will return. “Even when prices were reaching as high as £23,000 we still tried to be consistent with our estimates and keep them relatively inviting,” he said. “However this year it seems they just weren’t inviting enough.

“I’m sure that if we can just get back to basics and let the market cool a bit, prices will start to creep up again.”

Wellheads and fountains proved to be another previously strong area where interest seems to have fallen away at punchy price levels. A substantial late 19th century rosso Verona marble wellhead carved in relief with ribbon-tied armorial military trophies was bought in at £15,000 against an estimate of £20,000-25,000 and an early 20th century example in the same material was unsold at £7500.

Fountains, essential to the mix of a properly furnished garden, were also proving virtually impossible to shift and a “fantastic” Italian white marble fountain of c.1900 became another of the unsold casualties. That said, the rarity of a mid-19th century Blanchard’s terracotta fountain did result in a sale albeit at its bottom-estimate £10,000.

The base of the 4ft 4in (1.32cm) high fountain was striking and modelled in high relief with lilies and stamped by the London makers Blanchard and Co, Blackfriars Road, London.
Mark Blanchard served as an apprentice with the Coade Company before setting up his own manufactory around 1839 and going on to become the leading manufacturer of terracotta in Britain.

This particular piece was in excellent condition but held more academic than sculptural appeal. That it sold to a US private bidder was seen as a change in buying patterns. One of the major differences between American and UK buyers in the stone figure market is attitude to condition. The British are renowned for their love of history and age is an attraction to buyers who will almost always buy period pieces.

Americans, on the other hand, prefer the clean, unweathered lines of modern pieces and so tend to go for later copies of 18th and 19th century pieces.

This difference in aesthetic kept the bulk of American buyers away from an extremely weathered 19th century composition stone figure of a river god attributed to Austin and Seeley.
However, a few missing fingers and crumbling toes just added the allure of the age-worn for British buyers and the figure got away to the Gillingham, Dorset, dealers Talisman at an over estimate £32,000 and can currently be seen on their stand at Olympia.

One area enjoying a modicum of popularity was carved stone gate piers. Apparently the success of these all boils down to size – the bigger the better. A pair of 19th century carved pineapples more than filled size requirements at 4ft 8in (1.42m) high and were nicely weathered. They appeared to be attractively estimated but
an American private buyer was able to get them at the bottom run of expectations of £10,000-15,000.

A 17th century timber-framed granary was one of the most unusual lots in the sale and certainly one of the few of its kind left in the country still unlisted. The oak and chestnut beams of the pegged 20ft (6.10m) construction still stood on the original staddlestones and estimates for removal from its location in rural Gloucestershire were available.

Competition was strong although the £23,000 the barn eventually took from a UK private buyer was deemed considerably less than the cost of having a new one made. The low £1000-1500 estimate may have suggested that hopes weren’t high for a 1st/2nd century AD Roman white marble frieze fragment but Mr van der Werff said the ‘inviting’ estimate was a ploy to entice buyers. Certainly all the major London antiquities dealers (who often view these sales in the hope of spotting a sleeper) seemed to be among the bidders and one of them was the eventual buyer.

The fragment had been discovered during a routine house clearance and size and weight considerations determined Sussex rather than Bond Street as the sale venue for the 3ft 3in by 2ft 11in (99 x 88cm) piece which was carved in high relief with scrolling acanthus and fruit. As expected, the estimate was totally eclipsed but it was still a pleasant surprise to see the fragment sell at £11,500.

Perhaps the most solid section of the sale was sculpture which included numerous pieces which had been bought at Sotheby’s over the last 15 years by the private Continental vendor.

Included in this consignment was an Italian early 19th century white marble of the Apollo Belvedere which had once resided in the water garden of Copped Hall near Epping in Essex. Resting on top of a square moulded Portland stone pedestal, the whole measured 8ft 1in (2.16m) high and was in pretty decent condition. Estimated at £5000-8000, it sold at £10,000.

The same consignment yielded an impressive 6ft 6in (1.97m) high Italian late 19th century white marble after Thorwaldsen of Mercury shown naked but for his winged helmet and holding a set of Pan pipes. It had been among the contents of St Anne’s Clontarf, Dublin, sold in October 1939 and his time around it took £22,000 against top hopes of £25,000.

The strength of the sculpture section was highlighted by the 16 phone bids left on an Italian white marble group of a Maiden and Cupid. Dating from c.1870, the 4ft 7in (1.40m) statue stood on a 2ft 10in (86cm) pedestal and was nicely weathered. The result was a bid of £16,000 from a private buyer.

Trend spotters might like to consider the attractions of massive artiodactyl mammals. On April 29, Sotheby’s Olympia saleroom took an unexpected £28,000 from a European private buyer for a 3ft 3in (1m) wide José Maria David limited edition animalier bronze Hippopotamus (see Gazette No. 1588 May 10) and in Sussex a similar bronze attracted similar interest.

So are hippos the new ‘in’ thing?
Certainly this 4ft 3in (1.59m) long example naturalistically cast with mottled weathered green and dark brown patination took £21,000 from a UK dealer bidding on behalf of a private client against an estimate of £6000-9000.

Sotheby’s, Sussex
May 20-21
Number of lots: 896
Number of lots sold: 499
Sale total: £1.5m (inc. premium)
Buyer’s premium: 20/12 per cent

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