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Chinese bonanza brings rising turnovers for provincial rooms

17 January 2011Written by ATG Reporter

LARGELY thanks to the voracity of Chinese buyers, four of the UK’s heavyweight regional auctioneers enjoyed record sales figures in 2010.

Dukes', Tennants and Sworders joined Woolley & Wallis (who last week posted unprecedented hammer sales of £23.36m) in declaring 2010 their highest-grossing year to date.

Duke's of Dorchester more than doubled their turnover in 2010. During the January to December period hammer sales rose to a shade under £10m, well up on the £4.5m achieved in the previous 12 months. Their former record year was 2007, when the auctioneers posted sales of £7.5m, aided by the £1.7m from two rediscovered panels from Fra Angelico's San Marco altarpiece.

Sales last year were boosted by the £3.35m sale at Melplash Court in West Dorset (the highest-grossing 'on the premises' sale held by a provincial saleroom) and the sale of the Robert Ball collection of classic cars conducted under canvas in the grounds of Athelhampton House.

On its own the collection of Chinese works of art from Melplash contributed £2.5m to the year's total in September, with individual highlights elsewhere including a Qianlong lantern vase (£625,000) and pair of Qianlong altar vases or benbaping (£400,000). Duke's also reported sales up 30% at their secondary operation, Grove Auctions.

Sworders of Stansted Mountfitchet enjoyed their best year to date with sales of £5.9m, up from just shy of £5m in 2009. They estimate that close to 20% of their turnover came from Chinese clients (it was, perhaps, two per cent three years ago), who also bought heavily at the firm's wine sales and at country house sales whenever mounted rhino horns were sold. But, again, it was also a good year for the firm's weekly interiors sales that yielded £1.25m, up 25% on previous years.

Tennants of Leyburn, North Yorkshire, achieved January to December sales of £12.15m. Their previous record years, with sales of £10m, were 2007 and 2009. Specialist Adam Schoon pointed to a better market and the time-honoured ability of auctioneers to attract vendors during a recession. While furniture remains the problem area, compensations have been seen in the high melt values that have boosted jewellery and silver, and in the "significantly better" general sales supplemented in Leyburn by specialist sections in strong collecting areas such as militaria and toys.

Again Chinese buyers were a key factor: Far Eastern bidders have driven the market for the rhinoceros horn trophies that these rooms have sold in number. Despite the recent efforts to limit trade in antique rhino horn, Tennants sold natural history specimens totalling close to £2m in 2010.

The Fine Art Auction Group Ltd (trading as Dreweatts) saw turnover in 2010 rise to a premium-inclusive £17.8m, up 11.5% over 2009 (£15.9m). Their equivalent figure in 2008 was £16.5m, and £18.3m in 2007. Hammer values are difficult to calculate as the auctioneers' buyer's premium increased from 20 to 22% during the year.

All salerooms within the group saw growth over the period, with the flagship premises at Donnington Priory posting record sales of £11.55m up from £9.7m in 2009. The group's general and commercial assets business in Bristol also saw strong growth, with turnover up 20% on 2009 to £4.9m. Noteworthy expansion was achieved by a silver, jewellery and watches department that fulfilled a calendar of almost 20 sales, although, like many auctioneers in the UK, their highest price of the year was registered for a Chinese work of art, a jade brushwasher sold at £200,000 in October.

Dreweatts enter 2011 continuing a co-marketing arrangement with Bloomsbury Auctions, and the two firms continue to present their specialisations and salerooms jointly. Bloomsbury's 2010 London sales increased by around 10% over 2009 at a premium-inclusive £9.95m (taking the two businesses' UK turnover to a cumulative £27.7m), although news from the auctioneers' US operation is not so positive. The New York rooms have been mothballed, with no sales scheduled for this year.

This year Bonhams – whose regional sales are now conducted at salerooms in Knowle, Oxford, Chester and Edinburgh and at the Athenaeum in Bury St Edmunds – declined to give specific details of regional sales.

As previously reported, Salisbury auctioneer Woolley & Wallis posted total hammer sales in 2010 of £23.36m. The January to December aggregate represents a 97% increase on the £11.65m that made them the highest-grossing regional auctioneer in 2009 and is a multiple of previous years (£6.7m in 2008 and £8.15m in 2007).

Much of the landmark total was the result of two sales of Asian works of art that totalled just shy of £16m (£7.3m in May and £8.6m in November) and specifically the consignment of Chinese Imperial jades from Crichel House in Dorset that alone brought £9m.

Spectacular individual consignments are frequently the difference between a satisfactory and a good year for many of the UK's smaller auctioneers – the record-breaking £43m (£51.6m including premium) Qianlong vase sold by Bainbridges of West Ruislip in November being a case in point. Click here for full story.

However, on a more general note, many auctioneers remain optimistic that the market for better quality traditional chattels is relatively well placed to survive the economic gloom forecast for 2011.

The results of the latest Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors Art and Antiques Survey (which, like the RICS property index, is a survey of sentiment rather than statistics) finds "the art and antiques market remains a strong performer for buyers looking to invest in more tangible assets to guard against the uncertain economic picture". Despite the sluggish market for furniture, European ceramics, traditional oils and watercolours, the All Lot price balance, which provides a snapshot of the overall health of the market, stood at +24 and has now grown consecutively for the past two years.

RICS spokesman Chris Ewbank, principal of Ewbank Clarke Gammon Wellers auctioneers of Send, Surrey told ATG that despite what were generally difficult trading conditions, his own operation enjoyed a good 2010. Turnover rose by 55% from £974,000 in 2009 to £1,512,000 during the firm's first full period of trading after the merger of Ewbank and the fine art and antiques division of Surrey estate agents Clarke Gammon Wellers and the strategic trading alliance with South Coast auctioneers Riddetts of Bournemouth. The total number of lots sold over the period rose from 7778 in 2009 to 9549 last year.

Meanwhile in Ireland, Adam's auctioneers of Dublin saw an annual hammer turnover of €7.5m (£6.7m) for 2010. Helped by the Bank of Ireland sale which made a premium-inclusive €1.5m (£1.34m) in November, the figures were an improvement on a difficult year in 2009.

With their Irish art sales totalling £4.8m (up from £3.2m last year), Adam's top lot for the year was the €140,000 (£124,780) seen for Jack Yeats' Lingering Sun, O'Connell Bridge, Dublin that sold in Dublin on December 6.

By Roland Arkell

Links:

Chinese boom sees Salisbury rooms post sales of £23m

Sensational £43m record for Chinese work of art in Ruislip

Auctions see increases in live bidding

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ATG Reporter

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