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Downturn fails to dent regional saleroom totals

06 January 2012Written by Roland Arkell

Confirming the time-honoured ability of auctioneers to attract vendors in a recession, the UK’s top tier of regional salerooms enjoyed a largely positive 2011.

Low interest rates, high bullion prices and an influx of consignors needing to liquidate assets helped to provide strong, and sometimes record sales figures across the calendar year for many firms.

The January to December 2011 hammer turnover at Woolley & Wallis of Salisbury was £17.44m. This compares to the £23.36m in the previous year, but £9m of that mighty 2010 figure was provided by just seven stellar jades from Crichel House. It is also well ahead of the £11.65m that made them the highest-grossing regional auctioneer in 2009.

Against the backdrop of a Chinese market that continues to boom, the Asian art department at Salisbury last year posted £10.1m and produced the highest price of the year in the provinces: the £1.75m bid in May for an exceptional Imperial Qing dynasty white jade teapot and cover. However, Woolley & Wallis chairman Paul Viney singled out the jewellery and silver departments as providing equally strong performances in 2011, with £1.59m and £1.78m respectively.

Commenting on the wider marketplace in his capacity as chairman of the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers, Mr Viney said: "Auctioneers often do quite well in times of financial recession and I have been getting pretty positive reports in 2011 from our members. Obviously, all of us have been cashing in on the boom in Asian art, though I thought it was notable in the November sales (both in London and the regions) that the Chinese were a little more circumspect and selective in their bidding.

"Another aspect I have noticed in the last few months is that English furniture has become more sought after, though whether this is merely a blip or represents an encouraging emergence from the doldrums of the last few years, it's difficult to say.

"However, in the coming year we may well be entering uncharted territory and I think it would be a very brave - or foolish - man to start making bullish predictions about 2012. Certainly at Woolley & Wallis we have no great expansion plans and will be aiming to contain our costs while maintaining a first-rate service to our clients."

Helped by the underlying strength of gold and silver prices, hammer sales at Fellows of Birmingham were a fraction over £10m, a 27 per cent growth on the previous year.

Director Stephen Whittaker told ATG that much of the growth had come from the watch department, although all aspects of the business had showed increases on the previous 12 months. The firm has already scheduled a calendar of 65 sales for 2012.

At Tennants of Leyburn, sales were an impressive £12m, matching the record numbers of the previous year and an increase of £2m on equivalent figures in 2007 and 2009, while Sworders posted total sales of £8.4m, up from £7.2m in 2010.

Guy Schooling, managing director at the Stansted Mountfitchet firm, pointed to the introduction of specialist sales and the increase in commodity values as key factors but he also said the benefits of the firm's state-of-the-art premises (opened at the beginning of the economic downturn) have now started to bear fruit with vendors. "Such has been our growth during the three years since the move that we are about to build a new storage area increasing our footprint by about 30 per cent," he said.

The Fine Art Auction Group reported premium-inclusive sales of £27.4m across its three auction houses, Dreweatts, Bloomsbury Auctions and BCVA. The quantum 55 per cent increase from the group's 2010 sales figures is largely due to the acquisition of the Bloomsbury Auctions business in June 2011. Nevertheless, the group experienced solid trading conditions in all four of its saleroom locations, achieving auction sales of £10.3m at its flagship Donnington Priory premises (£11.55m in 2010) and £9.7m at Bloomsbury's Mayfair premises (£9.95m in 2010), where £220,000 was achieved for the Warhol silkscreen print Madonna and Self-Portrait with Skeleton's Arm, after Munch in June.

A further £4.9m was achieved across both of the firm's Bristol premises (the same as in 2010) and £2.5m in Godalming.

Chairman Stephan Ludwig was pleased to report solid results at Donnington for a "commendable calendar of ten sales accommodating the challenging market for 'brown' furniture" where the introduction, in late 2010, of sales dedicated to Old Master and 19th century paintings resulted in the addition of four sales to the 2011 calendar. Mr Ludwig said 40 per cent of all lots across The Fine Art Auction Group were either sold or underbid online.

More figures will be reported in a future issue.

Bonhams, whose regional sales are now conducted at salerooms in Oxford, Chester and Edinburgh, declined to give specific details of provincial sales.

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