Many remain optimistic that the market for traditional art and antiques, already subject to a decade of seismic change, is relatively well placed to survive the economic gloom forecast for 2009.
Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull were alone among the major provincial sales in seeing their sales figures rise significantly in the period January to December 2008. Their hammer turnover was £14.1m - a substantial stride forward from the £10.8m in 2007 and their previous record year of 2006 when sales hit £11.5m.
In an often cautious marketplace, the firm played some of the bolder moves of 2008: the implementation of a 25 per cent buyer's premium at fine and specialist sales; the launch of Lyon & Turnbull South with new appointments working in the South East of England (a move somewhat curtailed by the autumn) and a number of sales at English venues.
Not all these endeavours were successful - selling rates in some categories have been disappointing - but this enterprise was rewarded with an £850,000 sale of the Deloitte art collection at the Royal Academy in January and, most notably, the £4.6m dispersal of the Chen collection of Russian works of art and English silver at the Caledonian Club in Belgravia in November.
L&T's vice chairman Paul Roberts said he had been delighted by the figures - it had, he said, also been a profitable 12 months - and was encouraged by consignments for 2009.
In the pipeline is a sale in April at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, a prestigious venue that the auctioneers say has proved attractive to vendors. The likelihood is that the second part of the Chen sale, which includes Viennese enamels, rock crystal and Asian works of art, will be offered alongside the Blenheim sale.
But Mr Roberts says he is apprehensive about the coming year and does not expect a repeat performance. "The Chen sales, if you can get them, are fine but the rest of the market is very challenging. We are having to double the refining process."
The hammer turnover for 2008 sales at Woolley & Wallis was £6.7m. This compares to £8.15m in 2007, when the Salisbury firm sold two collections (How and Nolte), which account for the difference. Their top selling lot in 2008 was a pair of 17th century marines by the Dutch artist Abraham Janxz Storck, which sold in October for £135,000.
Despite the fall in turnover, chairman Paul Viney told ATG that profitability had increased - in part a reflection of an increase in buyer's premium to 19.5 per cent from September 1 - and he is quietly confident of a solid forthcoming year.
Already consigned for the spring are two single-owner collections of silver scheduled for the spring as well as the eclectic collection of the late Lord Parmoor, which will be a stand-alone sale in February.
From January to December 2008 Tennants of Leyburn posted total hammer sales of £8.8m, compared to record figures of £10m in 2007. Adam Schoon, in charge of the North Yorkshire saleroom's catalogued events, said the economy is undoubtedly harder, but he also noted that, in a market that rewards the best at the expense of the average, securing spectacular one-off entries can make the difference between an indifferent and a good year.
In 2008 the firm's highest bid was a relatively modest £65,000, taken in November for the taxidermy head of a white rhino.
In 2007 Duke's of Dorchester had posted sales of £7.5m aided by the £1.7m generated by two rediscovered panels from Fra Angelico's celebrated 1438-40 high altarpiece for the Church of San Marco. A repeat of record figures was not expected and partner Guy Schwinge believes comparison between 2008 and 2006 presents a fairer reflection of what one might term "normal operating conditions".
Helped by the collection of Chinese works of art accumulated by East India Company employee John Reeves on his arrival in Canton in 1812 - including a £130,000 Qianlong or Jiaqing white jade altar set - Duke's achieved a total turnover of just over £4.5m and managed to maintain margins. This total includes the private treaty sale of an important piece of English furniture for a substantial six-figure sum.
Mr Schwinge anticipates 2009 will present a challenging operating environment, but remains upbeat. "At times like this people often focus on their homes. Bland minimalism seems to be giving away to a more furnished 'look' and we expect the wider market may come to realise just how reasonably priced 'brown' furniture has become."
Interestingly, in a year when many leading country auctioneers have ceased 'general' sales, Duke's secondary location, which operates from a modern factory building, has seen turnover rise by 40 per cent.
Duke's first auction for 2009 on February 5-6 will include consignments from two of the great West Country houses - Montacute in Somerset and Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire. The sale will include an historically important set of mid 17th century pewter chargers from Newton Surmaville Manor in Somerset, which have not left the house for almost 350 years. They are estimated to fetch up to £50,000.
Gorringes' sales in 2008 stood at £6.7m, down £1.1m on the previous 12 months. This reflected the absence of major consignments sold in Lewes, although Clifford Lansbury said it had been a good year for 'referrals'. The auctioneers still take the view that vendors of merchandise meriting top international exposure are best served in London and have sold close to £2.5m through the metropolitan rooms.
Their plans for a regional 'selling centre' in Cooksbridge, near Lewes, announced at the end of 2006, were abandoned in favour of an overhaul of their existing galleries. The £250,000 refurbishment at Lewes, including the installation of underfloor heating and a new café, is very near completion.
For only the second time, Bonhams have released details of art and antiques sales in the UK regions, posting premium-inclusive sales of £24.7m. They did not release a hammer total, so that can only be estimated.
The figure excludes the value of lots sourced in the regions for the company's salerooms in London and around the world, and also excludes all regional car and motorcycle sales. This compares with a premium-inclusive figure of £27.9m in 2007.
Company chairman Robert Brooks issued the following statement: "The headline figure is slightly down on last year, however when allowance is made for the relocation and extensive redevelopment of saleroom sites in Edinburgh and Oxford in particular - which now offer more space and better client facilities - we are tracking broadly in line with 2007 figures.
"In spite of the anticipated downturn in the economy, we have restructured and invested heavily in our regional network and salerooms throughout 2008, which demonstrates our commitment to this model. Although the disruption brought with it periods when we were unable to hold sales at some of our rooms, the development phase is now complete and we look forward to a full calendar of sales throughout Bonhams' restructured regional saleroom network in 2009 and beyond."
Sales are now held at Knowle, Bath, Bury St Edmunds, Par, Oxford, Chester, Honiton, Edinburgh and Leeds. New premises opened last year on Queen Street in Edinburgh and the auctioneers are currently refurbishing new Oxford premises to the north of the city, a former car showroom in Shipton-on-Cherwell.
Total sales recorded by the Dreweatts group, who sell from permanent salerooms in Nottingham, Donnington Priory, Bristol and occasionally Godalming, were £16.5m, just under ten per cent down on the previous year when sales of £18.3m were recorded. The figure includes private treaty transactions of £150,000.
Dreweatt's executive chairman Stephan Ludwig conceded the downturn in the global economy had a negative impact on turnover in the latter months of 2008, but the group's continued focus on increasing the quality of merchandise saw 54,000 lots sold across the year, representing an average lot value of £305 and an unsold rate of 22.9 per cent. These compared with £287 and 23.5 per cent in 2007.
Dreweatt's newly formed Urban Art department conducted two auctions in Shoreditch in 2008: one lively £667,500 event in June and one more muted affair in October as the market became more nervous. In February the firm will hold the first ever sale of artwork relating to 21 years of the 'free party' and 'rave' culture entitled ArtCore.
The more general feeling across Britain's auctioneers is that the various facets of the contemporary market will lose momentum in 2008. But most expect the traditional antiques market upon which regional salerooms largely rely to be more stable - primarily because so many categories have already experienced major price readjustment.
A stagnant property market is also helping to support prices by curtailing the supply of stock chattels at auction, while there is some optimism that a period of belt tightening in the general economy could be a shot in the arm for the secondhand furniture market that is the bread and butter of many local salerooms.
Other positives include increased footfall at many sales and the continued strength of specialist events.
Dreweatts posted two of the highest provincial prices of the year for a Louis XIV boulle commode attributed to Nicolas Sageot (sold for £155,000 in July) and a Fabergé enamel clock (£160,000 in November).
However - not forgetting the extraordinary case of the £2.8m Fatimid rock crystal ewer that appeared at Lawrences of Crewkerne in January and then at Christie's in October - the accolade for the highest-priced work of art sold outside London in 2008 falls to one of the UK's smaller concerns.
Isle of Wight firm Island Auction Rooms established a new record for a clock sold by a provincial auctioneer when a boulle longcase with year-going striking movement by Daniel Quare took £240,000 in August.
By Roland Arkell