The so-called ‘big four’ auctioneers slip into high gear during June and July. However beyond them, other auctioneers are seeking to attract the cream of the international art-buying community for showpiece sales during the summer months.
Vicki Wonfor, director at south London-based Roseberys, agrees that buyers coming to London would do well to look at the city’s wide array of auction houses for the full panopoly of objects on offer. “Masterpiece really is the focal point of the year with many collectors flocking to London to experience the fair,” she says. “And our selection of summer sales ties in neatly with the array of works on show.”
This flurry of activity by Roseberys and others perhaps requires some context – the closure last July of Christie’s secondary saleroom in South Kensington.
At its peak in the ’80s and ’90s holding a dozen sales a week, ‘CSK’ was a seemingly never-ending source of middle-range chattels and a posh shop window for a range of collecting areas from posters to polyphons. Its influence as a collecting ‘R&D’ department had undoubtedly waned, but a vacuum of sorts was created with its departure.
Chiswick Auctions in west London has made the biggest play for CSK’s business. In September last year it opened a South Kensington showroom manned by a group of former Christie’s staff.
The 127 Fulham Road premises is both a consignment and valuation office and a viewing and live-streamed bidding space. The business name of Chiswick at South Kensington provides a cheeky acronym easily recognisable to London’s auction regulars. “We are now the only CSK,” quips co-owner Leigh Osborne.
Chiswick’s summer schedule includes a raft of specialist auctions including an inaugural dedicated Post-War & Contemporary sale. A special ‘Chiswick Late’ preview event will be held on June 7 at the South Kensington showroom when highlights will be on view.
Migration of merchandise
Chiswick’s recent arrival in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is proof that during the retreat of the major brands from the traditional middle-market heartland (the backdrop to the UK auction business for two decades or more), neither merchandise nor expertise has been lost to buyers. Both have simply migrated elsewhere – to the growing number of London ‘indies’ or the major players from the UK regions now enjoying a presence in the capital.
Roseberys is another established firm that has sought to capitalise on the momentary availability of talent – seasoned valuers, business-getters, logistics and administration personnel – in the job market.
Picking up specialists in jewellery and decorative arts, plus former CSK chairman Nic McElhatton as a consultant, the auction house is hoping for a synergy between events such as Masterpiece and an uplift in business. And the good news for mere mortals who share the art and antiques collecting bug is that their entry level is £50 rather than £5000.
Across June and July, Roseberys has eight sales, including a maiden 20th Century Art & Design sale (June 26) with a private collection of 60 Art Deco sculptures.
Books and prints specialists Forum Auctions has received a summer season head start in May with the ABA Rare Book Fair moving to a new site close to its Battersea doorstep.
However, the firm’s showpiece summer sale – the Rothamsted collection from the Lawes Agricultural Library to be sold in 700 lots in the Westbury hotel – takes place on July 10-11.
“London’s cultural and social attractions have become a must-attend for the global elite with Masterpiece now a focal point for top end buyers of both academic and decorative works. We emphasise this to vendors,” says CEO and founder Stephan Ludwig.
Forum, launched in 2015, added another string to the bow of London’s specialist auctioneers.
Once confined to stamps and numismatics, since the turn of the century niche firms have emerged to cater for disciplines as diverse as musical or scientific instruments, maritime memorabilia, sporting collectables and fashion. Many were formed as these ‘minor’ departments were cut loose by Sotheby’s and Christie’s a decade or more ago.
Thomas Del Mar is both an arms and armour specialist and founder of the 25 Blythe Road ‘collective’ of auctioneers.
“Summer in London is a great time for the business when we see our longstanding international clientele at our various auctions and art fairs and, of equal importance, we meet a number of new faces too,” he says. His Antique Arms, Armour and Militaria sale on June 27 follows colleague Matthew Barton’s two-day auction blending Asian and European works of art (including the Peter E Muller collection of netsuke and Judaica from the Richard Teltscher collection) on June 6-7.
A London presence
In recent years it’s not just London-based auctioneers that have created a foothold in the capital. A number of well-known regional auctioneers have a permanent London presence in the ‘right’ parts of town: John Pye (New Bond Street), Woolley & Wallis (Clifford Street) and Lyon & Turnbull (Connaught Street).
Most recently, jewellery specialists Fellows has underlined its commitment to London, swapping its previous Mayfair office space for all floors of a Georgian terraced house at 29 Charles Street. This premium space is for meetings, viewing and valuations rather than a rostrum.
“London is always a good place to meet our clients, whether they are based in the capital or just visiting. We look forward to seeing them in town for events like Masterpiece, the LAPADA fair (in September) and Frieze (in October),” says Alexandra Whittaker of Fellows.
However, amid the jostling for position and talk of ‘filling a vacuum’, it is perhaps reassuring that some London saleroom traditions remain unchanged.
Nick Carter, senior auctioneer at Lots Road Auctions, says the firm resists temptation to change a 40-year tried and tested formula of weekly sales on a Sunday together with a monthly ‘fine sale’. “This model fits for us and our marketplace – which is varied as you can get,” he says. “We are somewhere people can come, no matter how much they have to spend, be that £50 or £50,000. But we do get a lot of people coming to us from Masterpiece – maybe we should lay on a shuttle bus!”
Additional reporting by Noelle McElhatton and Gabriel Berner