Auctions: Pepper mills and cheap prints

John Windsor previews a contemporary "tag" sale at Bonhams and Phillips' print sale
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Old prints are out of fashion and cheap and Phillips' minor sale on Tuesday, September 10 (12 noon), is well worth a rummage. Auctioneer Richard Lloyd has brought back from "somewhere on the continent" the choicest of up to 20,000 engravings, the remaining stock of a print shop that traded for 30 years at the beginning of the century then closed for 30 years before being bought out.

The most valuable will appear in Phillips' October auction. But hundreds of others are lotted together in collections of 50 or more, estimated around pounds 200-pounds 300 a lot. Some are later impressions from plates engraved by 17th century Old Masters. Most entertaining are scurrilous early 19th century engravings that include an anonymous caricature of George IV in a brothel thrusting a bundle of banknotes towards a swooning prostitute amid much commotion.

The same lot of 80 prints, est pounds 200-pounds 300, is strong on commotions, as indeed was the early 19th century - commotions between keepers and dogs at shoots, street commotions between sailors and prostitutes and between urchins and denizens of the beau monde. Some of the prints in this lot are cheeky continental satires against the English, intended for sale in the English market: poor spelling gives some of them away. Also in the same lot: a robust Cruickshank of an exploding railway locomotive, symbolising the mid-century boom and bust in railway shares.

Why is there, in auctioneer's jargon, such a "small audience" for such delightful things? As an investment, old prints crashed spectacularly in the late Twenties following a buying mania that rivalled the 17th century Dutch bulb craze. Since then, big money has steered clear of them. More recently, mass reproduction of images by photolithography has caused confusion about what is a genuine old print.

In the trade at large, fakes abound - Italian crooks print accurate facsimiles of old prints on blank endpapers taken from old books - but at least most Old Master engravers have now been published in catalogues raisonnes, in which the tiniest scratches denoting different "states" - reworkings - of the same engraved plate are meticulously catalogued. The sale's four prints by the 17th century Claude Lorrain, among 31 Old Master prints lotted together at pounds 150-pounds 250, are the identical Arcadian images that appear priced pounds 3,500 or so at the top dealer Agnew's. But Phillips, having consulted the Claude Bible, the catalogue raisonne by Lino Mannocci, have catalogued their source as 200 Etchings of 1816, a book that contains prints from reworked plates that Claude originally engraved nearly 200 years earlier. Do not be unduly disappointed to find that the Claudes and Hollars have been trimmed to the plate-mark. That was usually how they were issued. Paper was scarce in the 17th century and the trimmings were re-used for smaller plates. Whole-sheet specimens are rare.

If you can pick up any of these lots within estimate - cross your fingers that print dealers are still on holiday - then, even including framing costs, you will have dozens of decorative pictures at about a quarter of their shop price. They are ideal as gifts - and Christmas is looming. But if you do not want to give them away - a wizard wheeze, this - having bid successfully for an 80-odd, pounds 200-pounds 300 lot, keep the 20 you like best and bung the remainder back into Phillips' October auction - the lot might fetch only pounds 100 less than you originally paid for it. Viewing: Thursday 5 September (2-5pm), Friday 6 (9am-5pm), Sunday 8th (2pm-5pm), Monday 9 (9am-5pm).

A chance to spot and buy the work of young design leaders - at Bonhams' fifth Decorative Arts Today selling exhibition, Wednesday 4-11 September. A week-long auction? Not quite. This is a "tag" sale - fixed prices, no bidding, and with each batch-made object replaced the moment it has been bought. Strongly tipped as big names of the future: the Japanese couple Shin and Tomoko Azumi, both RCA graduates. Mr Azumi's re-designed pepper mill is ingenious. Think what annoys you most about conventional pepper mills - spilling when filling, of course - think of a solution, then compare it with his. Simple but not obvious: put a wide, peppercorn-catching lip at the top. Price: pounds 34 + VAT. Mrs Azumi has designed a table-chest that folds. More inscrutable than the pepper mill, it hinges to form either a horizontal table or an upright, three-tiered storage chest. Price pounds 535 + VAT. Then there is JAM, the young trio that became famous for its trendy lamps made out of pierced aluminium drums from washing machines. Their latest design: a three-panel screen in woven cinematic film with aluminium frame, title "3 Minutes". Price: pounds 1,150. Entry pounds 5, catalogue pounds 8. Weekdays (10am-6pm), Tuesday 10 September (7.30am-6pm), Saturday-Sunday, 7-8 September (11am-4pm).