Week 117 - An Auction at Duke's

Having been an antique dealer for 30 years it was a strange but thrilling novelty to find myself co CEO of the auction house Dreweatt - being involved with that world appealed to me. I have been both an antique fair exhibitor and organiser. Now I had the chance to be on the other side of the rostrum - so to speak. My tenure at Dreweatt was - blink and you'd miss it - short; but here we are in February and I find myself nonetheless awaiting the gavel fall of an auction initiated by me. It is true that at Mallett I did negotiate sales of our stock at both Christies and Sothebys but this is different in that I am negotiating on behalf of a client and not my erstwhile company and therefore I had to please them as well as the auction house. I had planned that this auction would have been with Dreweatt but it was not to be; therefore I had to find a new home for the sale at very short notice. I put my head under a towel and came up with Duke's of Dorchester. Calls ensued over Christmas with director of Duke's, Guy Schwinge. He is a long term mover and shaker, negotiating, smoothing and schmoozing his way into fashioning Duke's, which is a long way from London, into a place where some remarkable sales take place and has therefore developed for itself a reputation that belies its location. Guy himself is a hard negotiator and despite his broad smile and breezy attitude there is no slack, no casualness, no time nor money wasted. But a deal is done and my client is broadly happy.

Then comes the day to day. The client needs to approve the catalogue, the press release, the cover picture, and every aspect of how the sale will be presented to the outside world. It is not just a question of whether I like it. It is his stuff and his reputation that is being pored over. It is a very sobering and depressing experience to have your property examined like a dead carcass when for you - each item is suffused with cherished memories and places. Objects that for years were lovingly admired and cosseted are now just a job for a couple of months for the team in Dorchester. Next they will be processing something else. The millstone grinds the corn to fine powder, all that sun and rain, all the sewing, the harvesting and all the months of carefully nurturing - all is flour.

The auction world does not love the object. It is all a question of costs and percentages. 10% sellers commission plus 25% buyers makes every £100 earned deliver £35 profit. It seems extortionate when the auctioneer piles all the stuff up, catalogues the items cursorily and as quickly as possible moves on to the next thing. I spoke to one old lag from the auction world who brazenly made the comment that selling the object through marketing or personal persuasion was simply not worth the money spent. Let the objects do the work themselves as the commission earned from a couple of extra bids simply did not deliver a viable business case for extra time of staff. But it is not easy money whichever way you look at it. The staff, the building, the catalogue, the advertisements even the movement of goods from A to B costs money and the sale itself has to pay for all of it. Hence many sale rooms end up cutting costs, doing a worse job, charging more and still barely making a profit at the end of the year. The - so-called - slim profit margins on auction sales are the reason why the big boys - Sotheby's and Christie's - are moving into dealing which offers higher margins. They call it " private treaty ". Hand in hand they are shedding their lower priced sales. From the perspective of fixed costs the handling of a £1000 lot is the same as one valued at £100,000. Why bother with the bottom end? That is the mentality.

The Saleroom at Duke's of Dorchester

But John Holmes who is the enthusiastic young man at Duke's is not so jaded. He has been there for 12 years and he appears to be hardly 30. He is keen, and lays the rooms out as appealingly as he can. It is tough because the building is modern and low ceilinged and makes no effort to hide its basic office block nature. But he does well and the much loved treasures do their best to feel positive about their futures. I was put in mind of the film Toy Story where the toys are given away to a play school. Their future is scary and uncertain and if these objects could magically come to life like the toys in the film then you know they would be muttering nervously amongst themselves. They have had a lovely life for the last 40 years and now they must be scattered and find new friends.

My induction into the hard world of the auctioneer has been very illuminating. I see now how undervalued the dealer is as he buys, restores, catalogues extensively and carefully sells each item. It is a huge effort - but it is increasingly hard to make money dealing. I see fellow dealers sending their things to the cremation service of an auction, where the struggling auctioneer pushes them to accept lower and lower estimates to enhance the possibility of a sale.

Someone needs to cry halt and try to find a new way of doing things, to reinvigorate the volume in the trade, deliver a rationale for prices and try to appreciate objects that have survived the ravages of centuries for the treasures they really are.


Follow Thomas Woodham Smith on Twitter:www.twitter.com/twoodhamsmith