Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Quiet Billingshurst. Time for a reserve shake-up?

Billingshurst, Sussex UK - SOTHEBY'S September 26th garden and architectural sale could arguably be said to have bombed, with a cursory look at the results apparently showing roughly 50 per cent unsold by lot. Sotheby's no longer send SalvoNEWS a top ten lots and overall sales summary which makes it harder to get a picture of what happened. Rupert van der Werff, Sotheby's expert in charge, said they do still produce them, but Salvo is no longer sent them. Although the full individual sales results are posted on the sothebys.com web site, the top ten and summary are not.

"Given how quiet the trade is in general, and that this was not our most brilliant sale, with no six-figure show-stoppers, and a lower than normal turn out for the sale preview, the low sold figure is not surprising," Rupert said.

"But there is an extremely good market for good objects. The feeling we have is that the world of antique garden and architectural has caught up with the rest of the antiques sector. Meaning, there is the best, and then there is the rest. If you just take the lots estimated at over £5,000, we sold 90 per cent. But the lower value struggled to sell. We have not had a lot under £1,000 for years. When I started, £1,000 was a nice lot but now consignors expect tired old urns to sell for that price, but these no longer appeal to the market.

"The market is for very good, very clean examples. The very best is what we are good at. These days we turn down loads of fern and blackberry seats that would have sold quite well at modest prices a few years ago. But there is a very very strong market at £5,000 and above. Having said that, the market has also always been volatile which makes it hard to predict. At this sale sundials were very buoyant, but fountains were not. At other sales the opposite happens."

The average sold lot at the twice yearly Billingshurst sales has trebled in value in the past fifteen years, and the last sale was possibly one of the highest (we cannot be definite without stats from Sotheby's). If this is correct, the sale has polarised both lots and buyers. The low value lots which years ago would have been mopped up by the trade for stock are now consigned at too high a reserve for the trade to be interested. While the market in the high value lots is volatile and high reserves are pegged back due to uncertainty of finding a pair of bidders on the day. When the high value lots are wanted there seem to be privates willing to go a long way. These days the trade use Sotheby's for selling rather than buying - 90 per cent of the lots are sold privately with only a handful of lots going to dealers mostly bidding on behalf of a client rather than for stock.

The level of the open market in garden and architectural items is masked by Sotheby's reserve policy. Some items always fly away, bucking the market, But generally the market finds a level, and that level is constantly changing. High reserves deny the trade a valuable opportunity to assess shifts in the market. The trade find it pleasantly acceptable for prices to go up, but difficult when prices drop. This is what happened with brown furniture a few years ago. The auctioneers job is to inject some realism and buoyancy back into the market by pushing the reserves back down, perhaps even no reserve for the lower value lots. There is nothing like a load of no-reserve lots to generate a frisson of interest and excitement. That way the trade will turn out to buy, and the higher value lots could still find a high-value retail market.

Rupert Werff said that Sotheby's Billingshurst is currently reconsidering its reserves policy. "One problem is that fewer reasonable garden lots are appearing at regional sale rooms, so when they do they are being chased up above what we would consider to be a true market value. The trade might be forced up to buy at these auctions, and they then want to consign the over-priced stuff here, so we get pressured to take higher reserves. Whatever we do, we have to take a lot of stick from the trade. It is hard work doing these sales. If they were as easy to organise as I am constantly told they are, then everyone would be doing them."

He is correct, getting the balance right is not easy. The place is littered with failure. Christie's pulled out of the regular Wrotham Park architectural and garden sales in 1995, and Bonhams stopped doing theirs in 1999 when Sotheby's New York also stopped. Gaze, Sotheby's Amsterdam, and a few North American and European auctioneers are tinkering with garden sales, and there is always a smattering of specialist one-off style architectural salvage trade sales organised by the likes of Wellers. Results are hard to come buy. Only Sotheby's seem to be willing to divulge all, which does mean that trends are very hard to spot. And even on a good day Billingshurst squirms under the sword of Damocles.

"It is time for a sort-out on prices," said Mr Werff. "There has been a move by the general antiques trade to move into garden antiques which has chased up prices, many of which, in my opnion, are now too high. There have been blips and bubbles, like cast iron seats a few years ago, but we are careful to try to maintain core reserves when such blips occur. I think a rationalisation has to happen."

Yes, we know about the repro. Yes, we know about things that get broken. Yes, we know about funny goings-on. But a salvage world without Billingshurst would be poorer in market knowledge and benchmark prices, and would never allow the long hoped-for reappearance of a horde of jovial bantering dealers in the tent mopping up cheaper lots against a backdrop of monied privates doing their bidding. Over the years James Rylands has at times used the heady days of Pretty Polly as a benchmark, while perhaps we need the solid days that preceded them, and the measured reassessment that followed. Oh yes, and while I am at it, more big architectural stuff.

Top lot at this sale was a modern aluminium replica of the figure of Eros in Piccadilly Circus which sold for a bottom estimate £54,000. There is an illustrated write up in SalvoNEWS 261, due out next week. Next sale in May or June 2007.

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