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The UK auction market achieved solid results for 2018 with some salerooms posting record sums in their January-December hammer totals. Edinburgh-based Lyon & Turnbull total of £10.65m was up £1.55m on the previous year.

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Aided by some spectacular individual sales, the elite of Britain and Ireland’s regional fine art auctioneers enjoyed a largely positive 2018.

Despite continued softness in some aspects of the market, solid January to December hammer totals were posted by all of the major contenders with some achieving record – or near record – sums.

Woolley & Wallis regained the top spot it has held for much of the past decade after what chairman Paul Viney called “a cracking year” and a hammer turnover from January to December 2018 of £19.82m.

It represents a 26% increase on 2017 when the equivalent figure was £15.7m. The three strongest departments were Asian art (£6.98m up 115%), jewellery (£3.67m up 14%) and paintings (£2.65m up over 8%).

Two very different but equally beguiling lots stood out: a teapot attributed to ‘America’s first porcelain factory’ sold in February for £460,000 and a portrait, The Northern Girl, by the contemporary Chinese artist Yang Fei Yun, sold in November for £1.7m. There have now been 13 lots sold in regional salerooms for over £1m – 10 of them in Salisbury.

While sales continue to be held from Castle Street, many staff have moved from Salisbury town centre to a refitted warehouse in Old Sarum that has doubled the working space available to each department.

New contender

The greatest change to the established hierarchy has been the arrival at the top table of Chiswick Auctions.

The west London firm has morphed from a general saleroom on the periphery of the London market (the firm’s sales were around £2m in 2015) to a key metropolitan player staffed by ex-Christie’s South Kensington and other specialists.

The hammer total for the calendar year of 2018 was £14m – up from sales of around £9m in 2017.

William Rouse and Leigh Osborne, Chiswick Auctions’ joint managing directors, said: “The company has seen exceptional growth in the last couple of years, with our turnover increasing 50% year-on-year since 2013.”

Last year, the firm reconfigured weekly general sales into a series of higher-quality monthly Design & Interiors auctions plus a raft of new specialist sales in disciplines from Islamic art to photography.

+50% The year-on-year growth for west London’s Chiswick Auctions since 2013

Rouse and Osborne say the focus in 2019 will be “on reaching out to new markets and developing the South Kensington branch, by having a permanent team of specialists on-site for valuations five days a week”.

Plenty in the pipeline

Jewellery and watches specialist Fellows was one of the firms to boost its footprint in London in 2018, a move on the wish-list of others for the year ahead.

Managing director Stephen Whittaker said 2018 had been “a highly successful and exciting year. We have increased our presence in London by taking on our own townhouse in Mayfair and more than doubling our team in the capital.

“We now hold viewings for the majority of our auctions from this office and are open for valuations five days a week.

“Our auctions have continued to go from strength to strength. We have beaten records in our flagship jewellery and watch sales and have had the privilege of selling some extremely interesting pieces. We look forward to a lively 2019 with a full calendar of auctions and plenty of interesting projects in the pipeline.”

Fruits of investment

In 2018 Tennants of Leyburn recorded a hammer turnover of £13.3m – an increase of roughly £1m from the previous year.

The top grossing of the auction house’s 27 specialist departments were pictures (£2.1m), jewellery (£1.6m) and furniture (£1.3m), with a 1935 Bugatti tourer the firm’s best-selling lot at £450,000.

With more than 85 auctions and further specialist standalone single-vendor sales scheduled for the year ahead, managing director Jeremy Pattison says: “I am optimistic for 2019 as prices and demand is strong.”

Already consigned are good named estates and collections – including one with jewellery by Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Tiffany, and art by Kyffin Williams, Sir Frank Brangwyn and Sydney Harpley.

Pattison told ATG the firm was seeing the fruits of investing in its digital offering, with a new website launched in October, and is continuing to develop its programme of events at the Garden Rooms extension.

Exhibitions of work by William Morris and an important private collection of antique quilts are planned for this year.

Eyes on London

Berkshire-based Dreweatts also has eyes on London via its Bloomsbury Auctions brand.

With a first full year of trading under its belt since a change in ownership (from Stanley Gibbons to Gurr Johns in October 2017), Dreweatts’ 2018 total hammer was £12.11m.

The firm, with Jonathan Pratt now managing director after swapping Bellmans in West Sussex for Donnington Priory, said there had been “strong performances across all the specialist departments” and significant uplift in online traffic.

A total of £4.64m (around 40% of sales) was sold through online channels including through Dreweatts’ own live-bidding site and thesaleroom.com. The firm’s top lot of the year (a £340,000 Book of Hours) was achieved by subsidiary Bloomsbury Auctions, trading from the firm’s central London offices in Pall Mall.

Modern first editions, single-owner collections and other works on paper will be added to Bloomsbury’s schedule this year as the rivalry between auctioneers with offices in London grows fiercer.

Looking south

Edinburgh-based Lyon & Turnbull also intends to win a greater share of business in England’s capital. Its overall sales in 2018 year totalled £10.65m, up £1.55m on the previous year.

New sale categories included posters, tribal art, antiquities and whisky, increasing the number of specialist sales to 34 (from 27 the previous year). Collection sales – long a focus of the firm’s efforts – included the £800,000 sale of the contents of Kirton House in October when exceptional prices were paid for top-drawer examples of Pilkington’s Lancastrian.

L&T also acted for the seller of a European painting that made “a substantial seven-figure sum” when sold overseas in the second half of the year.

The firm’s top lots were diamond solitaires sold via a November jewellery sale in London.

“Growing our London sales calendar continues to be a focus into 2019,” managing director Gavin Strang told ATG. “We are looking forward to Modern Made, our inaugural modern art and design auction at the Mall Galleries on March 27 and will be joined by a new London-based picture specialist at the end of the month to drive yet more London sales.”

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Gavin Strang managing director, of Lyon & Turnbull.

Top Old Master

One-off lots and single-owner consignments can make the difference between a good and a very good year. Cheffins enjoyed fine art sales of £9.83m (the equivalent in 2017 was £9.4m).

The top lot sold at the Cambridge firm was a previously unrecorded canine portrait by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as il Guercino, sold for £570,000 in March – the top-priced Old Master in the UK regions last year.

Career highlight

January to December hammer sales at Sworders in Stansted Mountfitchet were £9m, up on 2017’s figure of £8.1m. The increase was thanks primarily to the 550-lot, £1.75m contents of North Mymms Park in Hertfordshire – including a collection of European tapestries with a JP

Morgan provenance. “When I come to look back at my career, I think this [April] sale will have been the highlight,” said auctioneer of 40 years Guy Schooling.

A London office is in the pipeline this year for a firm that has already hit the ground running with a strong £550,000 result for last week’s single-owner sale of the Barbara Holliday collection, centred around current market favourite Modern British art.

Online on the up

Forum Auctions – another relatively recent arrival in the London market – recorded a 25% growth in hammer turnover to £8.47m in 2018, led by a surge in weekly online-only timed sales across the firm’s core disciplines of books, works on paper and wine. These complemented its 12 fine sales held the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair.

The £1.75m ‘white-glove’ sale of the Rothamsted agricultural library and continued success in the market for Banksy prints (over £1m from 100 offered works) were among the year’s highlights. According to CEO and founder Stephan Ludwig: “One of our key objectives when launching in 2016 was to harness the benefits afforded by technological advances.

“A remarkable 87% of sold lots, accounting for 53% of hammer turnover, were transacted online last year over a combination of Forum’s proprietary timed bidding software, its ATG-hosted white label BidForum and the combination of four other auction aggregator sites.”

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Stephan Ludwig chief executive officer, Forum Auctions.

One of the firm’s priorities for 2019 is to push that total above 90%.

Brexit in the balance

For UK auctioneers Brexit has, so far at least, caused less turbulence in the saleroom than it has in London’s Parliament. The weaker pound can attract foreign buyers keen to snap up bargains at auction and market uncertainty may prompt asset owners to convert their riches to cash via consignments.

However, not all those consignments may be staying within the UK. Dublin auction house Adam’s believes it has benefited from Britain’s political chaos. “Market conditions are curious – we have a much-improved economic environment here, but Brexit is causing a good deal of uncertainty,” says managing director James O’Halloran. “It has encouraged many more UK-based clients to consign to us and there was a marked increase in the number of these vendors in 2018.”

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James O’Halloran, managing director of Adam's.

The Dublin firm recorded sales in 2018 that were marginally higher than 2017 at €11.6m (up from €11.25m). The selling rate across the firm’s 16 ‘live’ auctions and three online-only auctions was 77%.

O’Halloran said the firm had enjoyed success in all departments – the €360,000 ‘Armada Table’ was comfortably the top-priced piece of furniture sale outside London last year – but jewellery and watches showed most growth, contributing almost a quarter of turnover. A single-vendor sale in this category will be announced shortly. Plans for 2019 include increased offerings in the mid-century modern category (from one to perhaps three sales) to meet the demand for designer-led interior pieces and post-war art.

Market risers

This year ATG also approached a number of other regional UK auctioneers to gauge market sentiment and discover what underlies their ongoing success.

In north-west England, sales at Adam Partridge tipped over £4m. The aggregate from two salerooms in Macclesfield (£3.25m) and Liverpool (£0.76m) represented the firm’s largest turnover in recent years – pipping the £3.95m in 2015 when the firm sold the Firth collection of studio ceramics for £860,000.

The year’s highlight was the two-day £435,000 sale of the remarkable Reginald Cheetham militaria collection sold in January with a smashed but monumental Jiaqing (1796-1820) mark and period famille rose vase providing an unexpected £94,000 in June.

“It was our 10th anniversary year but I still feel we are a growing firm,” Partridge told ATG. A new website and additional specialist sales are a focus for this year. In 2018 the firm offered just shy of 30,000 lots, selling over 90%.

“We aim for smaller sales and higher average lot values but there is always a tricky balance to strike between rejecting the £20-30 item and not satisfying the client’s needs. It sets a dangerous precedent to reject too much.”

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Adam Partridge of Adam Partridge Auctioneers and Valuers.

Niche sales

Ewbank’s in Surrey enjoyed a healthy uplift in sales for 2018, with a hammer turnover topping £3.6m (up more than 12% up on 2017) and a sell-through rate of over 83% by lot.

“It’s been an exceptional year for us,” said chairman Chris Ewbank, “and not just in terms of sales totals. We have focused on developing niche sales and witnessed some extraordinary pieces and prices on the entertainment front in particular. Following the December sale of an archive of early Pink Floyd posters, February 7 brings Bond & Beyond, a themed sale focusing on everything 007.

“We face 2019 with many of the same concerns as other business, from uncertainty over Brexit to the fall-out of the ivory ban, but we also move forward with confidence.”

Kent-based militaria and toys specialist C&T Auctions enjoyed its best trading year since the firm launched in 2013. January to December sales in 2018 were £2.23m.

Co-owner Matthew Tredwen attributed the uplift to the sale of single-owner collections including the £540,000 Michael Baldwin collection of militaria. Sales across various toy disciplines were £650,000.

This year the firm is introducing a general antiques department (the first sale scheduled for April) while seeking a permanent base.

“The business is growing at a rapid pace and we are looking to find new premises in the Ashford, Kent, area [currently auctions are held in The Spa Hotel in Tunbridge Wells],” said Tredwen.

Richard Winterton of Lichfield broke through the £2m barrier for the first time – up 33% on 2017. Winterton said there had been no big-ticket single sale to boost the figures, “just much larger volume and our core belief in doing the job properly”.

Through realistic reserves, he said the firm has managed to achieve the balance between online bidding and preserving a packed saleroom, posting a remarkable selling rate of 93%.

Another relative newcomer to the UK regions is East Bristol Auctions set up by Evan McPherson and his partner Samantha Homes in 2012. Organic growth fuelled by valuation days throughout the south-west brought sales to £1.8m, a 21% increase on the previous year.

ATG’s annual round-up of regional auctioneers provides snapshot of market conditions and performance at a number of firms based on the hammer totals they report to us. The term ‘regional’ (or ‘provincial’) auctioneers is used to draw a distinction between the majority of UK and Irish art and antiques auctioneers and the ‘London big four’ (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Phillips).