Guest editorial

Taking The Past In To The Future: The Changing Face Of Auctioneering

Jane Tennant, Tennants Auctioneer

The business of fine arts auctioneering will always be somewhat of a dichotomy; whilst dealing in the past modern consumer demands require this very traditional business to embrace new technology and adapt to a fast- changing market place.

There is a constant push and pull between the traditional auction forum and the remote digital-based transactions that have become the norm today, and auctioneers have had to adapt to find a balance between the two. 

Until the turn of the Millennium, auctioneering had remained virtually unchanged for centuries. Tastes, fashions and prices may have fluctuated, but the manner in which auctioneers operated has remained the same. Estate sales would be offered on site, or a curated sale offered in a traditional saleroom, and a printed catalogue for the better sales might only include the most rudimentary of descriptions. Auctions were aimed at those in the know – members of a small circle of dealers, buyers and those in the local area. Terms and prices were dictated by the auctioneer and the onus was on the buyer to come in person, hunt through the lots and stand in the saleroom to bid.

Since auctions began to be listed online nearly 20 year ago, the auction industry has been revolutionised. With the power of the internet, an auction has the potential to reach a global audience. From a base in the Yorkshire Dales, Tennants now connects over 200,000 buyers and sellers in over seventy countries. Now an increasingly tech-savvy audience has shifted the balance of power in the auctioneer/buyer relationship firmly towards the buyer. Today, buyers demand greater transparency and a greater level of information before they bid; clear and accurate cataloguing, high-resolution imaging and detailed condition reports are the norm. With the ease of online research, buyers approach a sale with a prior knowledge of auction prices and bidders are more risk adverse and rarely buy an item ‘unseen’. In recent years online bidding and online payment transactions has in effect taken the auction to the buyer, who can now bid live from their desk at work or from their phone wherever in the world they may be.

One of the many intriguing aspects of being auctioneers, is the ability to chart changes in our society’s history by the objects made and sold.

Interestingly, we are seeing the digital revolution not just making changes to the transactional auction processes, but also influencing the market. For example, the buying power of the Far and Middle East and Russia is widely recognised to have had a significant effect on the prices of Asian and Russian Art. However, other cultures buying back indigenous art and artefacts has helped lift the market for ethnographic and tribal art in recent years. On a more practical and prosaic level, large, bulky items that are difficult or not cost effective to ship long distance will naturally suffer depressed prices as the pool of competing buyers is reduced. A buyer might bid on Rolex watches internationally, but only bid on furniture from their local auction rooms.

One of the many intriguing aspects of being auctioneers, is the ability to chart changes in our society’s history by the objects made and sold. Text for image Above: A 1940s Robert "Mouseman" Thompson Panelled Oak 4ft Sideboard
– Sold for £5,800 plus buyer’s premium. Made from English oak with solid construction and rich patina, Mouseman furniture’s Arts and Crafts style has a broad appeal at auction. In the last couple of years online only auctions, a format more akin to eBay than traditional auctions, have been introduced. However, there is a risk of making buying at auction too clinical a process and losing the magic and theatre of the saleroom and the emotive nature of buying art and antiques. Away from the top end of the market, where the super-rich are buying big-name items to lock in storage for potential investment – collecting should be about pleasure and use. Whilst a Rolex might easily be bought online, practical items such as furniture, or paintings are so much better viewed in the flesh. Drawers can be pulled out, dining chairs can be tested for comfort, and the play of light over brushstrokes on the surface of a painting can be witnessed. Salerooms will always be a vital forum to engage physically with art and antiques; to delight in the tactile nature of a piece of oak furniture, to see how a diamond ring sparkles as it catches the light, and to gauge the patina on a bronze statue.

As our everyday shopping experiences become ever more clinical and detached, a purely transactional process with no personal contact, the traditional, social aspect of a physical saleroom becomes all the more important. Everyday, we see our buyers come through the doors at Tennants with friends and family, making a visit to our auctions a day out. Regular buyers have become long- standing friends and being in a crowded saleroom during a heated bidding battle and soaking up the charged atmosphere is a unique experience. Auctions exert a peculiar fascination – the combination of beauty, history and money captivates and excites, and it was in response to this fascination that Tennants expanded in 2014 to include permanent display galleries where visitors can come every day and see highlights of forthcoming sales outside of traditional auction public viewings.

Today the Holy Grail of toy collecting are pieces from the 70s and early 80s.

One of the many intriguing aspects of being auctioneers, is the ability to chart changes in our society’s history by the objects made and sold, by the changing tastes and demands for material and luxury goods. Not only can we chart these changes over the past few centuries, but it is also fascinating to see how a modern, everchanging society is reflected in the objects that we buy to fill our homes. Traditional brown furniture has suffered a much-publicised drop in prices in the last twenty years – for example prices for Georgian and Regency furniture have dropped as much as 30% since 2003. With smaller homes, more frequent moves and a trend towards bright and light decorative schemes, dark, heavy furniture has fallen out of favour for many. There is virtually no market for Victorian sideboards and the like. However, an increasing demand for mid-century design furniture fills the gap with elegant, light wood pieces by well-known makers such as Ercol seeing strong prices. Yet all is not lost for brown furniture. It remains a useful and beautiful addition to the home; well-made and enduring, minor damage is easily repaired, and a rich patina only deepens over time. The market for art and antiques tends to shift with the generations, and we are seeing Millennial buyers who are less averse to buying on the second-hand market than their parents may have been. They are also increasingly viewing antiques as an eco-friendly source of affordable furniture. With a low carbon footprint, made from simple materials and easily resold or recycled, brown furniture beats the likes of imported flat-pack furniture hands down.

We often get asked what will be the next ‘big thing’, and as with the stock market, we cannot see into the future. The best we can do is analyse current trends and buying habits of our customers and be prepared to follow where they lead. For example, the market for toys and collectables shifts with each generation. Buyers tend to be those in their forties and fifties, and with a little spare money are buying collectable items from their childhood. Twenty years ago, diecast toys such as those made by Dinky were at their peak, but today the Holy Grail of toy collecting are pieces from the 70s and early 80s and particularly pieces with a movie tie-in such as Star Wars figures.

Wherever changing tastes and technology takes us, auctioneers must respond with enthusiasm; we must adapt and grow lest we run the risk of becoming obsolete, and a world without the thrill of a live sale would be just that little bit dimmer.

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