When the bidding takes off at a public auction and enters seven-figure territory, the atmosphere in the room can become nerve-shreddingly tense, particularly for those bidding for the lot. But spare a thought for the auctioneer who has to keep cool throughout. Only when the hammer has fallen can he properly relax. Sometimes the relief expresses itself in unexpected ways.
When London auctioneer Peter Bainbridge dropped the hammer down this week he hit the rostrum so hard his gavel smashed. It was not surprising. He had just presided over an auction that saw a Chinese Qianlong imperial porcelain vase climb to a winning bid of 51.6 million pounds ($83.2 million), including the buyer’s premium – a new world record for Chinese porcelain and doubtless for a host of other categories too. Whether Bainbridge’s considerable commission on the sale contributed to his over-zealous hammering remains unclear. Certainly his life – and that of the vase’s vendor – will never be the same again.
Bainbridge’s family-run saleroom in the West London borough of Ruislip is more accustomed to selling relatively low-value chattels than record-setting Chinese ceramics. When the Chinese vase was discovered among the otherwise mundane effects of a local house clearance, the auctioneers knew they needed to call in some experienced consultancy. But not even their knowledgeable Chinese ceramics expert had any idea that this extremely rare, reticulated, double-walled ovoid vase would draw just about every dealer and collector in Chinese porcelain to the Ruislip saleroom.
In recent weeks we’ve seen plenty of evidence of the strength of the Chinese market. Last month we reported on a small Chinese hardwood carving of a deity that fetched 320,000 pounds ($511,775) at Duke’s in Dorchester. However, this most recent price seems to indicate that when the very rarest and finest examples of early Chinese cultural heritage come onto the market there is virtually no limit to what mainland Chinese collectors will pay. Doubtless attics all over Britain are being searched for similar examples, but Qianlong masterpieces of this quality are rare indeed. Hence the extraordinary price.
And so to rather more accessibly priced material. This month, London antiquities dealers Charles Ede Ltd. published the catalog for their forthcoming Christmas selling exhibition with a varied selection of objects priced from 100 pounds ($160) to around 7,000 pounds ($11,200). Selling antiquities is an unenviable task in modern times when very object is subject to merciless scrutiny by the provenance police. But director James Ede is acknowledged as being among the more responsible and ethical members of the antiquities fraternity, working actively to foster best practice within the London trade. If one can buy with peace of mind anywhere, it is through Ede.
Ede’s Christmas show extends this somewhat rarefied market sector to those collectors restricted to more modest price levels than one generally associates with the antiquities trade. The selection embraces everything from affordable Roman gold earrings priced at around 1,000 pounds ($1,600), to a Roman marble stele carved in relief with a figure holding a scroll, for sale at 6,750 pounds ($10,850). Ede is even offering small Egyptian amulets and figurines in bronze and faience priced at between 90 pounds ($144) and 550 pounds ($884).
Another London gallery seeking to capitalize on the seasonal appetite for affordable gifts is the shop attached to the famous Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House. Between now and Christmas one can stroll around the Courtauld’s matchless collection of Impressionist masterpieces upstairs and afterwards peruse the gallery’s retail outlet. Here you’ll find hand-crafted, gold-plated dice at 35 pounds ($56) per set, floral silk scarves, inspired by the Courtauld’s “History of Dress” collection, for sale at 40 pounds ($64), and handmade ceramic and sterling silver “Ace of Hearts” pendants and earrings by Welsh crafts company Noa Jewellery priced at 30 pounds ($48) and 35 pounds ($56) respectively.
If you are wondering what connection these vague gambling themes might have with the Courtauld Collection, we can confirm they were created to coincide with the exhibition “Cézanne’s Card Players,” on view at the gallery until Jan 16. Clearly the pressure on museums and galleries to “monetize” their collections through retail and merchandising opportunities is growing ever more intense as the knock-on effect of the budget deficit bites.
In general, however, despite the recession, the art market seems to be thriving. As we have seen, Chinese works of art are in feverish demand, consignments at auction are markedly up on a year ago, and new galleries are opening all the time. In fact, so confident are Worcestershire dealers Simon Shore and Steven Beale that the current upward market trend will continue, that they have decided to open a London gallery.
The partners’ Trinity House Paintings partnership has been thriving down in Broadway, Worcestershire since 2006, but Shore and Beale believe a second outlet in Maddox Street, Mayfair, London W1 will open up new opportunities. “Many of our clients live in the capital and Mayfair is where everyone comes to buy the best art in the world,” says Beale. “Our new Maddox Street location will be an exciting development, enabling us to reach both the London and international art markets effectively.” Trinity House offers classy Impressionist, Post-Impresionist and Modern British paintings and works on paper. The new gallery is the place to see (and buy), among other wonderful things, landscapes by French painter Eugene Boudin and charcoal drawings by Camille Pissarro.
Finally, an interesting take on the bespoke celebrity vacation tour. Celia Sandys, one of Sir Winston Churchill’s granddaughters has spent many years keeping her grandfather’s reputation alive in the public mind by publishing books and organizing tours “in Sir Winston’s footsteps.” Next year, April 3-10, she will be leading a tour to Cuba, where Churchill is still something of a revered icon, not least thanks to his role in promoting the country’s famous cigar industry. The Ultimate Travel Company, co-organisers of the Churchill tours, tell us that the great man visited Cuba on two occasions – first in 1895, as the unknown son of politician Lord Randolph Churchill, and again in 1946, by which time he was one of the most famous public figures in the world.
September sees Ms. Sandys and her party fly to Morocco, another of Churchill’s favorite countries on account of its picturesque scenery, which Sir Winston loved to paint. For more information on the Churchill tours, contact the Ultimate Travel Company at 25-27 Vanston Place, London SW6 1AZ.