Optimism permeated the UK’s regional auction market across much of the last year.
Confirming the time-honoured ability of auctioneers to attract vendors in a recession and buyers at a time of low interest rates, the UK's top tier of regional salerooms enjoyed a largely positive 12 months, with some achieving record sales.
The January to December 2013 hammer total at Woolley & Wallis - for some years now the UK's largest regional saleroom - was £17.42m. This compares to £14.7m in 2012 (an increase of 18.5%) and precisely matches the figure posted in 2011. The high-water mark at the Salisbury Salerooms of £23.36m was seen in 2010 when £9m of a provincial record figure was provided by just seven Chinese jades.
Chairman Paul Viney has done some interesting number-crunching. "Of the 72 lots we sold in 2013 in excess of £25,000, 52 were in the Asian art sales, accurately reflecting the current buoyancy of the Chinese market. Of the remainder, 15 were in the jewellery department (where natural salt water pearls continued to perform very strongly).
"The pattern was repeated at the top end of the market and of the 14 lots we sold in excess of £100,000, nine were Chinese works of art and three were jewellery, while the other two were a 1796 American half-cent coin which realised £185,000 in January and a picture that we sold by private treaty."
W&W's top price of the year was the £230,000 for a jade incense burner and cover sold in May - a contrast to 2012 when a pair of pearl earrings sold for £1.4m. "While it is always great fun to sell the headline-grabbing £1m-plus lots [the auctioneers have sold nine of them], I find it encouraging that this year our growth has been more organic and across the departments, rather than being based on one or two mega lots," said Mr Viney.
The seven-figure barrier has been passed 12 times by Britain's provincial salerooms since 2005 (when the very first £1m-plus price was recorded in the UK regions), but not in 2013.
Dreweatts, part of The Fine Art Auction Group (TFAAG), posted their highest price for some years, and their highest to date in the Asian art market, when an 18th century Sino-Tibetan thangka took £450,000 at the firm's sale marking their participation in the Asian Art in London initiative in November (proof that the Chinese market - now more circumspect and selective - continues to thrive given the right conditions).
Two days later at Donnington Priory Dreweatts achieved the top furniture price of the year outside London when they sold a George II Irish mahogany side table for £185,000.
These two lots late in the year took trading across all four of Dreweatts' saleroom locations (Donnington Priory, Bristol, Godalming and select events at the Mayfair premises of Bloomsbury Auctions) to £12.9m. Equivalent sales in 2012 were £13.7m.
A further £9.4m in sales at London books and works-on-paper specialists Bloomsbury (who in 2012 posted sales of £8.8m) brought the aggregate figure to £22.3m - on a par with the previous year.
Internationally, TFAAG have reopened a franchise in Rome and have been heavily involved with two ground-breaking sales held by the 21 members of the Association of Accredited Auctioneers on Chinese soil.
But the major change in 2013 was, again, a new parent company. Acquired by Noble Investments in 2012 (whose stable includes Baldwin's and stamp specialists Apex) Noble themselves were acquired by the Stanley Gibbons group in November.
How Stanley Gibbons will capitalise on their enhanced business network, which stretches from the UK to Hong Kong, Singapore and US, remains to be seen.
Hammer sales at Tennants reached just over £12m - an impressive result the Leyburn firm achieved in both 2010 and 2011. Sales had reached a record £14.1m in 2012 when a Yongzheng blue and white bottle vase sold for £2.6m.
Managing director Jeremy Pattison pointed to the strength in specialist markets - departments such as coins, stamps, militaria, toys etc are performing very well - and to a mood of confidence in the market among clients who see value for money and "realise items purchased in the last five years are a good investment".
While technology is playing an important role, said Mr Pattison, "it is worth mentioning we still have a huge number of clients visiting the saleroom on view days but checking catalogue descriptions and estimates on a smart phone or tablet".
To that end, building work on a new extension continues apace (a topping out ceremony was held just before Christmas) with plans to open in time for Le Grand Départ - the opening stage of the Tour de France that visits the north of England for the first time. The route takes the riders within 200 yards of The Auction Centre.
Meanwhile it is business as usual with the New Year already setting a stern pace - January 4's 'paper catalogue' Country House sale bringing a record £330,000 from 1300 lots.
The three names that traditionally compete for the position of the UK's highest-grossing regional auctioneer - Woolley & Wallis, Tennants and Dreweatts - were joined in 2013 by jewellery and watch specialists Fellows of Birmingham where sales again grew significantly.
Hammer sales were £12.1m, an increase of 11% on 2012 when sales were £10.9m. Despite falling bullion prices - from elevated positions gold was down roughly 70% and silver down 60% across the 12 months - year-on-year gains were seen across all Fellows' departments with internet sales up by approximately 50%.
Director Stephen Whittaker told ATG the firm's decade-long commitment to new technology is bearing fruit. "This year's growth in turnover, over 20% above forecast, confirms Fellows' position as a major force in the watch auction market. Our investment in creating a rich online experience and our collaboration with partner websites worldwide gives a global reach in a company still small enough to care about the individual client."
Fellows' Vintage & Modern Wrist Watches sale on January 20 will see the introduction of 360-degree photographs to the firm's online catalogue descriptions. The photos allow potential buyers to zoom in and spin the lot, examining the dial, crown and case back of all watches in exceptional detail. This new functionality should be rolled out for all Fellows' specialist auctions later in the year.
Record at Sworders
January to December hammer sales at Sworders of Stansted Mountfitchet in 2013 were £7.15m, record figures that better previous highs of £6.51m and £6.54m posted in 2012 and 2011.
Sworders' state-of-the-art premises - the largest straw-bale structure in Europe - increased its footprint by 30% in 2013, allowing for some exceptional single-owner sales, including the contents of Saling Hall and Debden Manor.
Managing director Guy Schooling told ATG the focus would be on increasing the average lot price that (with the regular weekly sales) was just over £255 from 28,000 lots in 2013. "In 2014, we look forward to a more focused calendar with fewer but higher quality sales - concentrating on delivering a high quality service for all our clients."
The hammer total for 2013 at Adam's of Dublin was €8.28m (£7.33m), up from €7.2m the previous year. With around 60% of the total coming from Irish art (the category registered an improvement of 12.5%), managing director James O'Halloran told ATG that he expected the greater activity in the Irish property market to lead to more buying and selling next year.
While choice pieces of Irish Georgian furniture also provided a significant contribution to the turnover, the lot of the year at Adam's was Paul Henry's early figurative painting The Potato Diggers which took €400,000 (£353,980) in May.
Meanwhile, fellow Dublin saleroom de Vere's posted a hammer total of €2.1m (£1.86m) for their art sales only. They achieved the highest price of the year for a painting sold at auction in Ireland, namely Walter Osborne's The Ferry, which made €490,000 in November.
Whyte's of Dublin have also released their results for 2013. They reported an annual hammer turnover of €3.1m (£2.75m). Their top lot was Paul Henry's painting The Lake from 1928 which took €93,000 (£82,300) in November.
Auctioneer Ian Whyte told ATG that some of the artists whose prices were hit in the recession, such as Daniel O'Neill and Gerard Dillon, saw real increases in value over 2013, while confidence has remained in place for older Irish masters like Jack Yeats, Sir William Orpen and Walter Osborne.
View from the SOFAA
Commenting on the wider marketplace in her capacity as chairman of the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers, Helen Carless of Lawrences of Crewkerne gave ATG this brief summary of the feedback received from various SOFAA members.
"SOFAA's membership continues to grow, which is indicative of the strength of the industry and the high level of activity across the board. 2013 was a year which saw the continuation of record-breaking prices from auctioneers outside London, with Chinese pieces continuing to dominate the top end.
"One of the most encouraging signs was the halt in the slide of 'brown furniture' prices. Hurrah! Jewellery and silver continue strong despite fluctuating gold and silver prices. Collectors' items continue their mass-market appeal and help to bring less-experienced and younger buyers to the salerooms.
There have been study days, conferences, visits to museums and dinners and throughout all there has been a mood of optimism. As the economy continues to recover in 2014, this will, I am sure, be another good year for our members."