Over the past 2 years, Dreweatts has seen the number of people registering to bid for auctions and the prices achieved across all its 22 specialist departments increase. Joe Robinson, Head of House Sales and Private Collections, takes a look at what has led to this upturn, how auction houses adapted to the challenges that Covid-19 brought, as well as offering advice on starting a collection in the current market.
It is no secret that with greater freedoms around office working and a desire to have more open space, many have looked to leave their gardenless houses in town and don their pristine Le Chameau wellies for their idealised dream of the country. For those less fortunate, they have taken the opportunity to carry out that forever dreamt of renovation to the downstairs loo or the redecoration of their dining room. Some projects have been on a grander scale than others. As homes have become workplaces, holidays abroad have become more of a hassle, and frankly boredom strikes, this has led many to reassess their living space. As a result we have seen a renewed fascination in traditional taste as clients look to create homes with character and interest instead of minimalist white cubes. No area of the market seems to have been left untouched and a new equilibrium is being formed, with academic and decorative works of art alike fetching prices in some case many times their pre-auction estimates.
Covid-19 and the ever-changing restrictions have been a curse for everyone – but have also offered opportunities. As a result of the change to lifestyles, it has condensed a 5-10 year migration to online sales into 18 months. In 2020, not surprisingly, public auction sales reached $17.6 billion, a 30% decline from 2019; however, there was a supply and demand mismatch with demand outpacing supply. Thus, those who innovated faster appeared to defy the doom and gloom. At Dreweatts, we have continually challenged and re-imagined the way we present our sales, so as to combat the challenges, maximise sale potential, and capture and engage an ever-increasing online audience. It all helps to generate a competitive atmosphere which drives momentum. From creating virtual tours of entire houses and gallery spaces, and offering remote viewing services, to multi-location telephone bidding and multiple online bidding platforms, our sales have been made more accessible not just to UK bidders but also to a wider global audience. Buyers who would usually be unable to view an exhibition in person are now able to explore the galleries/houses, assess colour, consider scale etc. These innovations have helped to capture the feel and flare of the event while enabling the buyer to bid confidently with the added help of thorough condition reports.
In January 2021, Dreweatts held the Aynhoe Park sale, the first ever virtual House Sale. Public viewing was disallowed by government restrictions and bidding was restricted to online and telephone. By investing in our online bidding strategy, together with strong marketing and PR, it attracted a 'white glove' result with over 3,000 online registrants and 70% selling online compared to 34% at the sale of the collection of Lord Wraxall's sale in 2019. The sale would eventually total £4.2 million, 146% above estimate. Online bidding rates have remained high since, with lots won via online averaging about 65-70% across our sales.
Online sales in the first half of 2021 almost equalled that of the entirety of 2020. This rise in interest for online bidding has also led auction houses to present lots in timed online sales without an auctioneer. Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale took place online only and saw a work by Leonor Fini sell for nearly five times the bottom estimate at a hammer price of £499,000. Something unimaginable just two years ago, but with necessity come success. High prices are being seen across the out of London auction houses, proving that the market is strong both in town and beyond - buyers are being reached and tempted to buy!
2021 also saw the emergence of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) a unique digital image which is created by a ‘crypto-artist’ and is neither tangible or interchangeable. In March, The digital artwork entitled Everydays: the First 5000 Days, by artist Mike Winkelmann (known professionally as Beeple), sold for US$69.3 million. This was the third-highest auction price for a work by a living artist, after works by Jeff Koons and David Hockney, respectively. In June, Sotheby’s hosted 'Natively Digital', the first curated NFT sale at the auction house.
So, within a market where prices remain strong, here are a few tips and key phrases to understand which might help with buying and selling in today’s market!
The words 'fresh to the market' are met with utter delight in the art world meaning the piece has not come up for sale before or for a long period of time. These works generate excitement, a marketable message and often attract premium results. Just recently a newly discovered work by Henry Moore was offered at Dreweatts with an estimate of £30,000-50,000 (+ fees). The piece came from the collection of the architectural publisher and editor, Hubert de Cronin Hastings (1902-1986) and was left undiscovered and unattributed on a mantlepiece for over forty years. After much research the Henry Moore foundation recognised it as a work by Moore and it was offered for sale for the first time in its history. Ultimately, it would hammer down at £320,000 over ten times its low estimate. When considering important works which are ‘fresh’, definitely be prepared to exceed expectations.
Provenance has always been a catalyst for generating excitement and fetching brilliant prices at auction. Dreweatts has developed a leading reputation for presenting unique and important provenance, special narratives and historic works to the market. It is indeed my job to maximise all potential whilst ensuring this is done in an entirely bespoke and sympathetic way. Provenance can be understood as either ownership, retail or artist.
At the beginning of March 2021, Christie’s sold Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque by Winston Churchill for over £8 million against an estimated £1.5 to 2.5 million, a world record price for the famed politician/ artist. Provenance? Angelina Jolie, no less! In November 2021, Dreweatts held the auction of ‘Weston Hall and the Sitwells: A Family Legacy’, a seat of the Sitwell family since the early twentieth century and their ancestors since the eighteenth century. One of the most interesting results from the sale was the personal address book which had belonged to poet and author Dame Edith Sitwell. The small book was found among other family ephemera in the attics and sold for £52,500 (incl. buyer's premium) against a pre-sale estimate of £200-300 (+ fees). There was spirited bidding from around the globe, all fascinated with the book which showed first-hand evidence of Edith’s infamous character. Equally, a portrait by Maria Cosway given to the family by Queen Caroline and later altered by Thomas Lawrence fetched £62,400 (incl. buyer's premium) off an estimate of £5,000-8,000 (+ fees). Along with many of the other highlights the sale itself totalled 114% above the pre-sale estimate. Naturally, as a buyer you would rarely wish to exceed budgets to such an extent; however, competition is a good indicator of how provenance and a compelling narrative can capture people’s attention and lead to fabulous results!
The inspiration of the taste maker, whether it be a taste-maker collector or an interior design collaboration, has also increasingly played a role in buying habits and market trends. Social media, particularly Instagram, has made the world of ‘taste’ and inspiration far more accessible than ever before. Indeed, it is estimated that one-third of collectors used Instagram to purchase antiques throughout Covid. This has meant that even the more decorative works of art and objects have seen very strong results throughout the Covid years. In March 2022, Dreweatts hosted an auction of a curated selection of works from ‘The Collection of Victoria, Lady de Rothschild’. Lady de Rothschild championed art and design, buying objects that ‘moved’ her for her private collection. The sale was a statement of taste which emphasised Victoria’s discerning eye with a beautiful selection of silver, objects and entertain-ware highlighting her skill as an impresario. Prices for the collection surpassed all expectations, achieving 180% above the presale high estimate. A pair of late George III silver gilt twin handled cups by Paul Storr hammered down at £26,000 against an estimate of £6,000-8,000.
At Dreweatts we deploy a creative way of presenting our sales and inspiring our clients. We frequently invite guest curators for our pre-sale exhibitions. These creatives work with academic and decorative highlights from the sales to offer their own interpretation of a lived-in space. For the sale of the collection of Sir William Whitfield CBE we invited the iconic Colefax and Fowler and similarly last November we invited the incomparable Nina Campbell. This has meant that even items with only a decorative value have soared in price as buyers take inspiration from designers with an authority. The latter had adored and used a pair of red striped upholstered Regency chairs which carried an estimate of £300-500 (+ fees); they would eventually hammer down at £1,500.
As fine art auctioneers, Dreweatts takes great pride in working with its clients to advise and help form and manage their art collections. Whether it is offering important works through private treaty to interested individuals or offering bespoke selling strategies, we have first-hand experience of market trends.
Some of the best and most cohesive collections have been developed and curated over many years, with multiple generations adding their own distinctive styles and interests. Therefore, how can you capture this organic feeling of items having lived together for a long time while curating a collection with quality in a shorter time frame? Or how can you augment an existing collection with choice pieces so that they are at ease with their surroundings?
I would always advise ‘buy what you love’ and will enjoy living with the most and then decide where to place it after. This may sound like a high-risk strategy with the thought of storage charges becoming inevitable. Naturally, this isn’t always realistic and should be undertaken with a modicum of common sense - no one wants to end up with multiple dining tables regardless of how much of an impresario you are! However, this mentality means that the initial outlay is more justifiable as you are more likely to live with it for longer. Interior designers call it ‘layering’; placing objects of differing dates and styles together in a way which creates an atmosphere and not a gallery or museum. Just like some of the great historic collectors, as your collection builds your taste will change and this offers you an opportunity to then fine-tune, offload and consider new purchases.
They say that everybody has two collections throughout their lives, the first is the collection that you live with and were successful at purchasing, the second being the collection of items you were outbid on or regret not going a little bit further. The existence of the latter is usually to do with budgeting and is a word I do not much enjoy. My advice would be to have three budgets. The first is the price at which you would be delighted to win the item, usually within the estimate. The second is the price above the estimate you begrudge paying but are relieved and proud to own. The final budget is the ‘I want price' the price which you will go to just win it at all costs against that pesky other telephone bidder. So long as the item is small enough you can always sneak it into your house and ‘forget’ how long ago you bought it…
Dreweatts is delighted to be sponsoring Historic House’s new award, ‘The Collections Award: Recognising Responding, Reimagining’. This is an award which celebrates the history of collecting and seeks to honour the creators, owners, curators, researchers and conservators who preserve, augment, restore and interpret these beautiful and significant objects, enabling the public to understand and enjoy them and the stories that they tell. We greatly look forward to exploring some of the UK’s hidden gems.
Sign up for auction alerts and our monthly newsletter to receive expert analysis and insights from our specialists and keep up-to-date on forthcoming auctions, valuation days and previews.