“Those were the times when the local cattle market agent, estate agent and undertaker were all the same person, and they also sold the contents of the house,” he said in an interview in 2020.
Developing a taste for this world early, having worked as a chartered surveyor, Chris worked for Dreweatt Neate before moving to Guildford in 1982.
He became unsettled when Cubitt & West sold out to the Pru, which then sold on to Phillips. Having established strong local roots and an excellent network of contacts, Chris felt he could do better for his clients as an independent.
“It was 1990 and in those days it wasn’t too expensive to start up. Your market was essentially local, with a few dealers and collectors from further afield, and no internet or technology to pay for.”
They started selling out of the Hogsback Hotel but after four years wanted their own premises.
“It was incredibly difficult to find auction rooms but by a stroke of luck our present premises just off the A3 near Send became available.”
The agricultural building had no floor or electricity and making it usable took years. Chris said: “Heating and air conditioning – both essential in a building made of metal – have made conditions considerably better.
“It used to be known as the coldest saleroom in the south east of England in winter, while in the summer it was like being in an oven.”
Buying the freehold, in 2004 they added a mezzanine which doubled the floorspace, but expanded so much that within 15 years they were bursting at the seams. Chris was working on ambitious schemes for expansion to the end, even as he tackled the maze of local planning restrictions.
Inside, things moved on from traditional general and furniture sales to niche market specialisms.
Ewbank’s 18 departments sold silver, ceramics, Asian art, watches, paintings and 20th century design and more. By 2019 their now celebrated Entertainment & Memorabilia department was posting annual sales of more than £1.25m, and in 2022 they were the first auction house in the country to create a bespoke department dedicated to trading cards, retro video games and consoles.
Best of both worlds
All this reflected Chris Ewbank’s dual approach: protecting the best of traditional auctioneering while always keeping up with technology and the times when it came to sales and collecting tastes. Online bidding via the likes of thesaleroom.com was joined by the firm’s own bespoke platform.
Ewbank’s greatest coup came in 2007: “A chap who had carried out work for the artist Francis Bacon at his studio came to me with a unique archive of material that Bacon had given him when he was clearing the place out. It comprised 45 lots of diaries, letters, photographs, personal ephemera and small oil studies.”
The total for the sale was £1.1m.
The more complex nature of the business – technology, an international clientele, increasingly complex regulation – made the business a seven-day-a-week vocation, as far as Ewbank was concerned. “You have to be interested in this business otherwise it doesn’t work, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’m proud to have built a business that provides employment for 35 people,” he reflected.
In 2020, when he turned 75, questions of retirement arose, but he was having none of it. Instead he and his son Andrew, who had joined the firm seven years earlier, announced a £5m sales total for the year and talked about how they would take it to greater heights.
And it was Andrew joining that “changed the landscape”, according to Chris.
“When Andrew got involved it was out of the blue,” Chris said. “It was fantastic for me because small family businesses always have the worry about what is going to happen with the next generation. When a family member joins a business like this it can be a bit tricky, but in our case it has worked very well indeed.”
Chris’s daughter Louise brought her talents to the business too, and now oversees its impressive social media offering.
Chris Ewbank looked well beyond his own rostrum and cared about the professionalism and future of the industry as a whole, dedicating himself to developing standards with two stints as chairman of the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers for years, and remaining a committee member to almost the end.
He was also on the governing council of the RICS for a number of years and worked closely with several other auctioneers, including on a trip to China to promote western goods for sale to the Chinese market.
He founded the charity Help The Children in the 1980s, holding sales at The Hogs Back rooms for them, and was involved in numerous other charitable enterprises and auctions.
When the pandemic hit, Chris continued to work from home, recently cataloguing the extensive silver collection of the late Sir Ray Tindle, even as he bore the brunt of his final illness.
Despite ill health, he was determined to attend last year’s SoFAA dinner in London, the final such gathering he was able to be part of, joining current chairman Helen Carless at the top table.
Chris leaves behind four children, nine grandchildren and his wife Linda, to whom he was married for almost 50 years, expecting to celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary in early September.
From family and friends