A Suffolk saleroom set to hold their first auction in May are going for a new business model of flat vendors’ fees based on reserves rather than the hammer price.
Clare Auction, located in Clare itself, is the brainchild of Robin Stone, a dealer who runs Market Hill Antiques in the same town. He believes vendors will be attracted by a deal where they know exactly what commission they will pay before bidding starts.
It also means that the auction house would not benefit, at the vendor's expense, in the event of a sleeper being uncovered at a huge price.
The fees are payable on consignment so when the hammer falls the vendor will receive the entire value of the winning bid.
However, the fees will not be refunded if an item fails to sell. If the auctioneers acknowledge that the failure to sell was the result of them overvaluing it they will reconsign it at an adjusted value for the next sale for half the fee. Otherwise, reconsigned goods will be liable to a new entry fee.
"I don't think anyone has done it before," said Mr Stone. "I spent nearly a year working out a business plan, to come up with something unique. I've been dealing since 1979 and haven't seen anyone do it.
"I knew we had to be different to enter the marketplace. It is generating a tremendous amount of interest. With the flat-fee system the vendor knows where they are."
He said that one of the main reasons the auction house can offer such a fee structure is by keeping overheads as low as possible. The biggest outlay is insurance, but the auction house rent the town hall in Clare to hold sales when they want it, for four days. Utility bills are included, along with phone and wifi costs. The second biggest outlay is storage, said Mr Stone. They will use part of a former high street bank and the old prison and court rooms for storage.
"Staffing costs are as and when," he added. "We just call in the 12 staff members for three days, no permanent heavy staffing, but 12 top consultants... such as clocks and watches, books, film memorabilia, comics. We have a good team, a major list of consultants we can get to. They will be invited to valuation days when we run them, but my payback is simple - if they have something they want to buy they can bid for it."
Mr Stone feels the big auction houses have neglected dealers - a disputed if not uncommon sentiment these days - and his fees system and buyer's premium (10%) are geared towards a "more dealer-focused approach to auction trading".
"When I sat down to try and work out the business model I knew what I wanted on the 'other side of the counter', if you know what I mean. I know what I wanted when I go to a sale... in the last four to five years buyer's premium has been whacked up."
He is also advocating a discounted buyer's premium for the official trade: "If I was a builder and went to a builder's merchant I'd pay a trade discount, but I'm paying the same as Joe Public in a saleroom. I just sat down and thought what can I do, and thought of starting auctions with a flat-fee system."
There will inevitably be doubt over whether such a system is realistic for larger auction houses with greater overheads even if they wanted to adopt it.
However, Mr Stone told ATG: "If it's working we'll stick with it. If we get inundated with lots we can always run extra sales. We have only booked in the four sales for this year but next year I hope we can get where I want: monthly sales in the second week of every month."
Rejuvenating the town of Clare is also a strong motivation, he added. "The real reason we're running it is to bring back business to Clare. I've got to make money - I'm not a numpty, don't think I'm doing it for nothing, I'm not - but the main thing that made me sit down and think is we miss the auctions here."
Clare hosted auctions run by Mike Dyson from the 1980s until five years ago, while Boardman auctioneers held sales from the 1920s to early '90s.
"When we lost those the town started to suffer," said Mr Stone. "Something had to be done. When Dysons packed up I wanted to do something, but to get into the market I needed a unique selling point. I came up with this flat-fee system."
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Above: the new fee structure at Clare Auction.