There is historical evidence that sales by auction have existed for two and a half thousand years, as recorded in the Histories of Herodotus who was born in 490 B.C. There is also no doubt that auctions were used by the Romans. The word auction is a derivation of the Latin word auctus. The Romans were probably the originators of the type of auction sales highly popular in much more recent times, i.e. the house contents sale held on the premises. Caligula, for example, auctioned the furniture and ornaments belonging to his family to help him clear his massive debts.
Without a doubt, the auction has a long and colourful history and, like most things, it has changed with the passage of time to meet the social and economic needs and conditions of each period.
When I joined Capes Dunn in 1960, my then boss told me that pre-war, at the height of the Art Deco period, Victorian rococo furniture went totally out of fashion – people trying to clear a house would have to put it in the garden and burn it. He also spoke of a chap who attended the auction and for very little money bought Victorian oil paintings in large gilt frames. He would kick out the pictures, load the frames on a handcart and make a living taking the gold leaf off the frames.
I am shocked and dismayed at the effect fashion and lifestyle continues to have on the value of furniture and effects in the auction room. Now a £10,000 Italian designer Art Deco style lounge suite is virtually unsaleable because the leather is cream coloured and this year’s fashion happens to be grey.
At the high end of the picture market, works of art seem to be bought and sold like stocks and shares, just for their investment value. In this part of the world, a signed L.S. Lowry colour print entitled ‘Going to the Match’ is retailing for over £40,000. Five years ago this print was being offered all over the country with an estimate of £4,000 – £6,000.
However, the silver lining is in fact gold. In the saleroom before the recession of 2008, a gold sovereign had for some years brought £50. During the recession it quickly rose to an incredible £100 and they are now selling for £200 plus. The specialist auctions of jewellery, silver, watches and gold coins are booming. Also the eclectic ‘collectors sale’ remains one of our most popular events, with the market in medals and militaria particularly buoyant.
On the bright side, it appears that the billionaire art collectors of the world have confidence in auctions as one of them recently purchased Sotheby’s for $3.7bn!