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“It was like selling used to be 15 years ago,” he enthused after the March 7-8 sale at Cambridge ended with 91% of the 700 lots getting away to a hammer total just shy of £1.2m.

A major contribution to that figure was the £570,000 taken for Il Guercino’s oil, Study of an Italian Cane Corse (ATG No 2333), but this was no lone-star sale brightening dark times.

“It was one of the most comprehensive country house collective sales to have come to the market in the past decade,” said Macdonald. “But it was also representative of the growing confidence in the antiques market.”

And that includes furniture buyers. “We had 143 lots and all but seven sold,” said Macdonald.

Bright prospects for the middle market generally have not been confined to East Anglia – a Home & Interiors sale held by Bonhams in Edinburgh was equally upbeat, with furniture making a significant contribution (see separate story this edition).

Quality consignments

At Cambridge, the enthusiasm of bidders was matched by the quality of consignments, which included the contents of a country house in Oxfordshire, the Essex estate and house Baythorne Park and a fine Bury St Edmunds house.

Bidding, though often above estimates, was steady rather than spectacular, the sort of solid business auctioneers will hope will become the norm in 2018.

Successful bidders included top-end London dealers, countrywide trade building up stock and private buyers, one of whom was furnishing a 15-bedroom Norfolk country house.

Best of the furniture was a pair of early George III mahogany night tables. They chimed as a pair of untouched period pieces: the commode drawers unconverted.

Both suffered splits to the tops and side panels and one had a section of leg missing but, against a £3000-5000 estimate, the pair went to the London trade at £9500.

“They did need proper restoration work but they could be good enough for TEFAF,” said Macdonald. “I went to Maastricht last year and was pleased to see a number of pieces we had sold to dealers.”

The condition of a 6ft 8in (2.06m) tall Queen Anne walnut bureau bookcase with a fitted interior was more problematic.

The mirror-glazed arched doors had been replaced by pleated silk-backed glass, the bun feet were missing, the gilt brass handles were later and it lacked sections of moulding. Nevertheless, it more than doubled hopes in going to a northern English online bidder at £3200.

Among the occasional surprises was an 18th century carved wood pedestal. Standing 2ft 4in (73cm) tall, it was carved with a dolphin, cherub and scroll designs supporting a shaped rectangular top. It was noticed by Macdonald in the garden of the Bury St Edmunds house and was in weathered condition.

However, apart from a loss of sections of the moulding, it was intact. Against a £200-400 estimate, it went to the London trade at £3000.

Park life

Almost half the lots were from Baythorne Park, which contributed £145,000 to the day’s total.

Best-seller was a 5ft 9in (1.78m) tall George I walnut chest-on-chest, divided by a brushing slide and with a sunburst marquetry panel to the lowest drawer. It had some fading and went to the trade just shy of top estimate at £3800.

Tripling modest expectations at £3200 was a 2ft 5in (74cm) tall Regency mahogany writing table with a single drawer and swept legs linked by a turned stretcher.

The selling point was the 2ft 7in x 20in (80 x 52cm) top formed of specimen marbles with brass three-quarter gallery.

Such marbles tops were produced in Rome from the 1750s onwards. A more obvious Grand Tour item in the sale was a 1¾ x 2¾in (4.75 x 7cm) micromosaic on copper of the Colosseum, possibly by the Moglia family. In a gilt-metal, easel-backed frame, it was estimated at £1500- 2500 and sold to a top-end London dealer at £6500.

Silver tankard

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An 18th century silver-gilt cagework tankard – £4800.

Most aspects of dealing and collecting were covered in the sale. Among the silver was an intriguing 8in (20cm) tall 18th century silver-gilt cagework tankard.

The domed top, tapering cylindrical body and spreading base were elaborately decorated with a frieze of pierced scrolling foliage and four panels depicting Moorish or possibly South American figures.

It had a presentation inscription to a 7th Dragoon Guards officer stating by Captain E. Molyneux, Xmas 1871, but the only mark as to origin was a stamped 84 and a star. Eastern Europe was a candidate for where it was made and the 21oz tankard, estimated at £1000-1500, sold at £4800 to a dealer.

The same buyer also took the next lot, a larger early 17th century German silver-gilt lidded tankard probably made in Augsburg.

Embossed, engraved and applied with beads, the finial was a knight with another figure reaching up to him from the hinge.

Standing 11½in (29cm) high and weighing in at 48oz, it sold at £11,500 (estimated at £5000-8000).

The outstanding piece of glass was an 18th century wine glass engraved to the conical bowl with the white horse of Hanover rearing above a banner inscribed Aurea Libertas.

Hanover glasses were, historically, less fashionable than those relating to the Jacobite enemies of the royal house (and thus much less likely to be latter copies).

This one, 7in (18cm) high with a disc knop on the hollow baluster stem and folded foot engraved with a fruiting frond, was estimated at £500-800 but sold to a French buyer at £3000.

France, as so often, provided the two best bronze works.

A 3ft (92cm) tall group by Eugène Marioton dated 1899 and entitled Frères d’Armes depicted an axe-wielding warrior standing guard over his wounded comrade. It went within estimate at £3400.

The other was a pair of French Empire gilt and patinated 16in (40cm) tall ewers.

With handles cast as roosters’ heads and bodies applied with triumphal regalia and figures, the pair were pitched at £300-500 and sold at £2800.

Hearty oak stool sales

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A 17th century box stool sold for £1700 at Cheffins, left, and another which made £4000 at Dreweatts.

The two box stools shown above indicate that plenty of life is left in the collector’s oak market.

At the Cheffins sale,, “everybody loved” a 17in (43cm) tall 17th century example, said auctioneer Luke Macdonald, who expected it to go above the £150-250 estimate.

A basic piece lacking the locking clasp and rather dry, it was of a very good colour and untouched. The stool sold to the London trade at £1700.

The more sophisticated example also shown here was offered by Dreweatts (24% buyer’s premium) at Donnington Priory on February 28.

With turned legs and simple carved decoration to the drawer and sides and complete with clasp, the c.1660, 20in (50cm) high stool was estimated at £500-700. It sold at £4000.