THERE must be something satisfying about a sale that performs as expected. Vendor, auctioneer and buyers all have their hopes and desires affirmed and most people come away happy.
Bonhams' (20/12% buyer's premium) latest
single-owner English ceramics auction, the Susi and Ian Sutherland
collection of English blue and white porcelain, held in their Bond
Street rooms, was just such an event.
It ticked all the right boxes and with just enough competition
for a handful of its most popular elements to provide some saleroom
drama. The plain statistics are as follows.
The all-day sale on October 3 saw 342 of the 375 lots sell (91
per cent) for a hammer total of £438,640 (94 per cent by
The second-floor saleroom was full for the event. There were
some commissions left and heavy-hitting phone bids provided the
aforementioned drama, but the bulk of the buying came from the
The Sutherlands were friends of the revered collectors the
Watneys and well known through associations like the English
Ceramic Circle. So the sale drew out the usual trade faces and a
large number of private collectors who are key ingredients to the
overall success of these events.
So much for the bare bones, but what was the distinctive
character of this collection that made it worthy of Bonhams'
single-owner, hardback catalogue treatment and of so much buying
Watney in microcosm
As noted previously, this was a market-fresh collection with the
bonus of a provenance stretching back to the late 1960s and a clear
reason for sale (the death of Ian Sutherland last year a decade
after his wife Susi). The Sutherlands focused on early, academic
blue and white painted wares from the first decades of porcelain
manufacture in England in the 18th century or, as their son
Alastair put it, "the incunabula of English porcelain…. early
experimental pieces brimming with imagination and romance".
This made it a sort of mini Watney collection and the sale a
microcosm of the Watney triple-sale series held in the same rooms
at the turn of the century.
Like Bernard Watney, the Sutherlands didn't have an enormous
budget, which imposed some constraints, notably in condition terms,
but they were tenacious.
Interestingly, although they occasionally bought at auction,
they mainly bought through the trade: from dealers in Portobello,
from the Wests and the Andrades in the West Country and from Simon
Spero in Kensington Church Street, among others.
The one disappointment in an otherwise excellent catalogue is
that, as most auctioneers have a convention of only putting
provenance references to auction purchases in individual catalogue
entries, only a few details of these dealer provenances featured.
They would have added to the catalogue's interest and value as a
record of the collection.
Notwithstanding this quibble, there was enough information in
the individual entries, and Alastair Sutherland's well-conceived
introduction set the collection in context and identified its
creators' tastes. These seemed to combine personal preference with
what was fashionable and academically stimulating at the time.
This meant an emphasis on Bow, Longton Hall, Lowestoft, an
especially good representation of Limehouse and the various
Liverpool outputs. There was also an emphasis on small items like
butter boats, cream jugs and pickle leaves; pieces which chime with
current collecting tastes when space is at a premium.
Above: this rare Limehouse salt of c.1746-48, distorted in
the kiln, was one of the stars of the sale, selling for £15,000 to
the auction's main buyer against bidding from another phone and the
All this material was more readily available when the
Sutherlands first started buying in the late 1960s. Then, shells
and pickle leaves from Vauxhall and Limehouse (while not identified
as such) could be had for around £5 apiece.
Today, of course, following the Museum of London excavations of
1990 and Bernard Watney's scholarship, the exact nature of the
output from those two early factories has been confirmed and they
have risen to assume Holy Grail status with collectors.
From the standpoint of Bonhams and their vendors, the
Sutherlands' sons, this was fortunate as it gave the sale a core of
potentially valuable pieces. But alongside the collection's gems
were a whole run of less rarified fare, like Derby and Worcester
tablewares that are still widely available and whose damaged
condition made them even less commercial.
Estimation was therefore key to a successful dispersal. Bonhams
could be pretty bullish with guidelines on the best Limehouse or
some very good examples of Lowestoft, but they had to set modest
reserves on the less exciting and damaged fare.
The strategy evidently worked, given that only 33 lots failed to
get away, but perhaps more noteworthy was the price
Those things promoted as rarities attracted all the attention
and saw pitched battles that took prices to multiples of the
original estimates, while many of the more standard pieces got away
On the other hand, given the large volume still available from a
factory like Worcester, it probably says something that they were
able to get so much damaged material away at all.
What was noticeable was the premium attached to anything perfect
in the sale, like the 1765 Worcester teabowl and saucer in the
Tambourine pattern estimated at £700-1000 that sold
It has to be said that the presence of one particular telephone
bidder played a major part here in the final big status results.
Whoever was on the other end of Nette Megens' telephone bidding as
paddle 7013 (and the name being bandied around in the trade was
that of the collector Rosalie Sharp), they certainly had deep
pockets, for they only bid on the potential stars and were
virtually always successful.
They secured the six most expensive pieces in the sale,
including the £21,000 Limehouse dish, the £15,000 experimental
period Worcester teapot, the £12,000 Lund's Bristol/ Worcester
early bowl and the £15,000 Limehouse salt.
That said, in every instance there was an underbidder prepared
to go almost as far. The main buyer's competitors included at least
one other phone and dealers Simon Spero and Billy Buck of Steppes
Hill Farm Antiques.
While fashion had a positive influence on the prices for voguish
factories like Limehouse, Isleworth and experimental Worcester, it
had a more negative effect on those deemed less modish.
The Sutherlands assembled a group of Longton Hall, a factory
that was all the rage among the ceramics aficionados in the early
1960s following Dr Watney's revelatory writing on it a few years
earlier. Now though, Longton doesn't carry the same cachet and
there was a larger than usual number of casualties in this
There were also some failures among the more bullishly estimated
potential best-sellers, like the near-perfect Lund's Bristol
creamboat that failed to reach its £7000-9000 estimate or the rare
Limehouse teapot, finely painted but minus the lid, guided at
But overall this was a trademark successful dispersal in the
Bonhams single-owner tradition, as the highlights and more
academically interesting porcelain "incunabula" showed.