A strong market for jewellery and Asian art helped Britain and Ireland's top tier of regional salerooms enjoy a largely positive 2014, with some at least achieving record sales.
The January to December 2013 hammer total at Woolley & Wallis - for some years now the UK's largest regional fine art saleroom in terms of sales - was £16.55m. This represents a 5% fall over 2013 (£17.42m), reflecting, said chairman Paul Viney, the absence in 2014 of the seven-figure lots that the saleroom had enjoyed in previous years. The seven-figure barrier passed 12 times by Britain's provincial salerooms from 2005-12 was not breached in either 2013 or 2014.
The Salisbury saleroom did, nonetheless, see the top price posted in the UK regions in 2014 - the £680,000 bid in May for "the largest round natural saltwater pearl offered at auction".
Of the 12 lots W&W sold over £100,000 in 2014, six were in jewellery and five in Asian art. A £200,000 oil by Munnings completed the dozen.
But while two departments dominated (sales of around £4m saw the jewellery department achieve their highest-ever turnover), Mr Viney was keen to point towards successes in other areas.
The decorative arts department saw new auction highs for Martinware and Lucie Rie, the exceptional Foley collection of English commemorative medals sold in October for £478,000, while the better entries to the firm's tribal art sales show the department has great potential. Furniture, he says, is showing some signs of recovery "but only in very specific areas such as the more decorative pieces and items by known makers such as Gillows and Bullock".
"Overall," he said, "provenance, condition and rarity remain the benchmarks and if you have a lot that ticks all three boxes then it's almost guaranteed to do well."
The high-water mark at Woolley & Wallis of £23.36m was seen in 2010 when £9m of a provincial record figure was provided by just seven Chinese jades.
Last year the distance between the Salisbury Salerooms and their regional rivals narrowed somewhat.
Investment in premises
Hammer sales at Tennants reached £13m, an increase of £1m on the previous year and second only to 2012 when a £2.6m Yongzheng bottle vase took sales to a record £14.1m. The Leyburn rooms' top lot of 2014 was again Chinese, a Qianlong circular jade table screen sold for £300,000 in July.
Managing director Jeremy Pattison is predicting a positive 2015, with close to 80 sales planned. Four private collections are already consigned and will be marketed as single-owner auctions with highlights displayed in the new £7.1m Garden Rooms extension for several weeks before each sale.
While technology is playing an ever-important role across the auction world, no regional saleroom has invested more in its bricks-and-mortar presence - still seen as key to attracting blue-chip vendors such as the American consignor whose collection of traditional Old World antiques, shipped to North Yorkshire for sale, garnered £570,000 in December.
The names that traditionally compete for the position of the UK's highest-grossing regional auctioneer were joined in 2013 by Fellows of Birmingham with record hammer sales of £12.1m. The jewellery and watch specialists saw almost identical sales in 2014, a pleasing result, said managing director Stephen Whittaker, given "a couple of less than spectacular months". Internet activity at Fellows continues to grow across a range of different platforms.
Despite the modest bullion prices - scrap silver and gold are now way down from the highs seen a couple of years ago - there have been many compensations in the markets for coloured gemstones, saltwater pearls and the coral, amber and agate beads that have such appeal in the Far East. Amber beads of the right size and colour were commanding three times the price of pure gold in late 2014.
Alongside jewellery, the strongest areas of the regional market remain quality pictures and Asian art - the latter now more circumspect and selective but continuing to supply the occasional spectacular 'windfall'. These can make an enormous difference to the bottom line.
The highest Asian art price of the year was the £520,000 bid in December for an Imperial Qianlong famille rose and calligraphic vase at Toovey's - the West Sussex saleroom who also enjoyed the year's top picture price with a 'sleepy' 18th century French drawing sold for a spectacular £320,000 in October.
Close behind in both categories were Oxfordshire's JS Auctions, who took £440,000 for a jade tablet with an inscription by Qianlong in January and a record £265,000 in September for Bathing Machines, Aldeburgh, a newly-discovered picture by Eric Ravilious.
Headline sales at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions included a Joseph Knibb Oxford period longcase clock at £240,000 in March and a £230,000 Jiaqing 'five dragons' vase in November.
The firm, now a subsidiary of a stock-exchange listed business, posted auction hammer sales of £20.4m in 2014.
Trading across all four of Dreweatts' saleroom locations (Donnington Priory, Bristol, Godalming and select events at the Mayfair premises of Bloomsbury Auctions) totalled £11.6m - falling from £12.9m in 2013 and £13.7m in 2012. The £8.8m in sales at London books and works-on-paper specialists Bloomsbury was again down on the £9.4m of the previous year.
A major change in 2014 was - as part of the Stanley Gibbons group - the acquisition in October of London dealership Mallett, something chief executive Stephan Ludwig says "significantly broadens the range of routes to market that [Dreweatts-Bloomsbury] can offer clients". He added: "I anticipate an increasing trend for both vendors and buyers of higher-value items electing to transact privately.
"While our 2014 auction sales volumes declined slightly relative to 2013, growth in private treaty consignments more than compensated for this."
The first half of 2015 will see a renewed focus on Donnington Priory, with the update of the three present auction rooms and the creation of a permanent gallery space on the first floor of one of the region's finest auction venues.
The investment in state-of-the-art premises - the largest straw-bale structure in Europe - made by Sworders in recent years is, says managing director Guy Schooling, beginning to bear fruit.
January to December hammer sales at the Stansted Mountfitchet firm in 2014 were £7.2m, record figures that are fractionally up on the £7.15m posted in 2013. The result was particularly pleasing given the absence of a single 'game-changing' entry (while many lots were sold in the £20,000-50,000 price range, a zitan brush pot sold at £150,000 was the only one to bring six figures) and the delay of three significant instructions that were pencilled in for 2014 but will now be rolled over into 2015.
These will comprise two house contents sales and, on February 17, the stock clearance of retiring Norwich dealer James Brett. The new year also brings two lots with high hopes - an Irving Penn still life (January 27) and an oil by the French Impressionist Henri Martin (March 10), both estimated at £80,000-120,000.
"We are consistently being invited to quote on very good things," said Mr Schooling, although he is aware that - with vendors of the right art and antiques able to strike a hard bargain - the pursuit of turnover at any cost is not always profitable. "Margins are being squeezed. We now have a lot of staff and a lot of space but with them come substantial overheads. We need to be confident in the level of service we provide."
It seems the conversations that are being had at the very top level of the market - where competition for blue-chip contemporary consignments has seen what one dealer recently called "suicidal deals" - are being repeated in boardrooms in the UK provinces too.
It is sobering too to repeat an observation Mr Schooling made earlier in the year following a valuation for capital gains purposes. "The Georgian furniture had been bought around 1986 for about £25,000. I found there was virtually no difference in the values of items bought then and those of 2014." Other aspects of the market offer more potential: Sworders have added a third decorative arts sale and new accessories sale (vintage luggage, couture, handbags, etc) to the calendar this year.
In Dublin, Adam's hammer sales across 14 auctions in 2014 were €8.22m, almost identical to the previous year (€8.28m).
Irish art contributed €4.3m of this with a sold rate of 87% across the 979 lots offered. Some 46% of art prices were above the top estimate - evidence, said managing director James O' Halloran, that this market is regaining some of the momentum it lost during a "torrid" few years. "Purchasers are still circumspect, however, and they still look for good value."
"What is interesting is that the demand and prices for some of Ireland's contemporary artists is continuing to increase. Work by Colin Watson, Ciaran Lennon, John Boyd, Patrick O'Reilly, Brian Vallely and Hector McDonnell all performed well and is in sharp contrast to the fortunes of yesteryear favourites such as William Sadler, James Arthur O'Connor, Alexander Williams and the like."
Nonetheless, Ireland's top-priced lot last year was not an Irish picture but a Chinese jade ritual vessel which drew an unexpected €380,000 (£325,000) at Adam's in May.
Among other salerooms to release their annual turnover figures are Surrey's Ewbank's. Sales in Send were up 29% to £3.4m - this following on from an 18% rise the previous year. The firm, preparing to mark 25 years as an independent family concern, enjoyed notable successes in both Asian and contemporary art.
A Qianlong cloisonné prayer wheel sold for a house-record £135,000 in May, while the following month, the dispersal of 28 lots from the collection of Tate Gallery curator Michael Compton garnered £284,000.
Ewbank's now employ more than 20 full- and part-time employees, with at least two staff members occupied photographing objects prior to sale, producing around 800 separate digital images a week.