Expensive souvenirs from the big house: Country house sales can be great fun. But private buyers rarely pick up bargains, says John Windsor
Saturday 31 October 1992
But the private buyers ended up shooting themselves in the foot, as usual. Judicious privateers can force dealers out of the bidding at the point where the price bid threatens to eat into their profit margin. But if inexperienced bidders then continue to compete against each other, they can push prices even beyond dealers' high street levels. Country house sales are not upmarket jumble sales full of bargains, as many a private buyer discovered last week.
At Barton Abbey, Oxfordshire, where surplus contents were being shed before refurbishment, the trade sagely stopped bidding at about pounds 1,000 for three clapped-out late 19th-century oak and upholstery French armchairs estimated by Phillips at pounds 400- pounds 600. Private buyers took the price to pounds 1,595.
Michael Wynell-Mayow, of Phillips Oxford, said: 'At country house sales the private buyer's benchmark tends to be shop prices.' He cited a set of six George III mahogany dining chairs in the same sale, estimated at pounds 800- pounds 1,200, which sold for pounds 2,035 to a private buyer. 'The trade would have paid pounds 1,200 maximum and they would have been priced at more than pounds 2,000 in a shop. So private buyers regarded that as a bargain. But they are still paying more at country house sales than they would if they came to our general sales in Oxford.'
A private buyer with a keener eye came away from the sale with a genuine bargain, paying only pounds 242 for an Arts-and-Crafts-style oak dressing table and wash-stand estimated at pounds 100- pounds 150.
For the inexperienced, the biggest bargain at country house sales is the entertainment - the cut and thrust of the bidding, the atmosphere, the bar. In the fairytale Gothic of Shadwell Park, near Thetford, Norfolk, last week, any sightseer with pounds 12 to spend on a Sotheby's sale catalogue (admits two) could have seen more than pounds 1m change hands in a day. The bangs of the gavel echoed the guns of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al- Maktoum, Shadwell's new owner, blasting away at wild duck.
At Barton Abbey (catalogue pounds 5) more than 3,000 people watched two British dealers fight a saleroom duel up to pounds 28,050 for a six-inch French gilt-brass figure of Bacchus, catalogued by Phillips as 19th century and estimated at a trifling pounds 150- pounds 200. (The victor believed the figure to be older.) The sale totalled pounds 236,516, more than double its estimate.
The main reason for the high prices is that every lot at a country house sale has a provenance - the house itself. Locals eager for small, easily housed souvenirs of a well-known, well-to-do family pack the marquee, outnumbering dealers by more than 2:1.
At Shadwell Park the gala atmosphere of unrestrained bidding was encouraged by the fact that its former owners, the late Sir John and Lady Musker, were famous for creating the biggest stud farm in Europe. Also, Sotheby's had overdone the underestimating of the decorative lots. The sentimental paid pounds 350 for two small wooden cupboards estimated at pounds 20- pounds 30, pounds 80 for 'two toasters and a portable radio' (est pounds 10- pounds 15) and pounds 40 for two wicker cat baskets (est pounds 5- pounds 10). But they had seen a West Country dealer pay pounds 115,500 for a William Morris carpet estimated at pounds 20,000- pounds 30,000, so pounds 40 for a pair of cat baskets seemed next to nothing. (Even more remarkably, Christopher Weston, chairman of Phillips, recalls a sale at the Abbey, Aston Abbotts, Buckinghamshire, in 1989, when two wicker and leather picnic baskets estimated at pounds 40- pounds 60 sold for pounds 1,210.)
Furs, stamps, coins and jewellery over pounds 5,000 seldom appear at country house sales. The small valuables are put in specialist sales and the furs are put on bonfires, sacrifices to conservationist sensibilities. But in May a fox's head on a shield (est pounds 80- pounds 120) made pounds 143 at Phillips' sale of the contents of Stone Farm, Exford, Somerset. Locals knew the fox had been dispatched by Captain Ronnie Wallace, Britain's most eminent master of foxhounds, only two fields away. (A hideous chair made from moose remains was left unsold. According to Celia Haddon, daughter of Stone Farm's late owner, Darby Haddon: 'If it had been an Exmoor moose, it would probably have sold well.')
Much to the relief of dealers, private bidders seldom compete above pounds 5,000. But at Groombridge Place, Kent, last month, dealers looked aghast as a private bidder paid pounds 33,000 for a pair of 1745 walnut side tables (est pounds 20,000- pounds 30,000), which Sotheby's catalogue hinted strongly had not always been in one piece.
Christopher Proudlove of Sotheby's attributes the strength of trade bidding at country house sales to a plentiful supply of lots in the pounds 50,000- pounds 150,000 range, in short supply at regular auctions because would-be vendors are sitting on them until the recession lifts. Country house sales, often occasioned by death, divorce or despair, force them on to the market.
Mr Weston of Phillips reports that Italian, Belgian and Spanish dealers are active at country house sales, encouraged by the weak pound. The Belgians are scouring East Anglia for big, free-standing furniture such as wardrobes (Belgian householders have not yet succumbed to fitted furniture). Four Italian dealers pushed the price of an exceptionally ugly pair of 18th-century Italian walnut parquetry commodes to pounds 7,920 at Barton Abbey, against an estimate of pounds 3,000- pounds 4,000.
Phillips Oxford holds a house sale only if the total is likely to exceed pounds 100,000. There is the marquee and security to pay for. But in Hawkhurst, Kent, the auctioneer Michael Shortall is reviving the modest house-clearance auction that was common 20 years ago. 'I used to move from room to room, sit on a chest of drawers and auction the lot,' he said.
The biggest chance of bargains comes from mistaken or incomplete cataloguing. House contents span numerous sectors of the art market and London auctioneers may be hard-pressed to spare experts to make on-the-spot attributions. Auctioneers are bedevilled by stories of Vanbrugh archways worth pounds 150,000 emerging from piles of stone bought for pounds 350.
After Sotheby's 1977 sale of the contents of Mentmore Towers (the Bedfordshire home of the Rosebery family), which raised an astronomic pounds 6.6m, a dealer insisted that for pounds 8,800 he had bought a Fragonard, The Toilet of Venus, catalogued wrongly (but not inappropriately) as by his less bankable master, Van Loo. The Dowager Countess of Rosebery was unruffled. 'Well, at least somebody got a bargain,' she said.
08 May 2015 10:30 PM
13 May 2015 07:34 AM
The Tories have appointed campaigner Ros Altmann to the post
30 April 2015 07:30 PM
06 May 2015 09:39 AM
One reader’s monthly direct debit charge has been increased by 62 per cent
05 May 2015 02:09 PM
Many Londoners who live in social housing estates are not allowed to switch because their landlord has ‘locked’ them in to buying from one supplier
24 April 2015 07:30 PM
01 May 2015 12:00 AM
More than £60m was paid out to more than 2 million prizewinners this month
28 April 2015 05:20 PM
Why can’t we just have open and honest charges, without all the cross-subsiding?
28 April 2015 03:50 PM
With the pound at a high against the euro, it pays to buy now before uncertainty post-election
17 April 2015 06:00 PM
23 April 2015 12:00 AM
Experts disagree about the 7% increase over the past year
22 April 2015 07:29 AM
Too many mortgages are being sold with misleading gimmicks
21 April 2015 09:54 AM
The firm’s revenues slumped by a third to £217 million in 2014
21 April 2015 12:00 AM
The average quote for a buildings and contents policy has fallen by 3.6 per cent
10 April 2015 07:00 PM
- 1 Cyclist who knocked down three-year-old girl says his life has been 'destroyed'
- 2 Chelsea victory parade: Chelsea mocked on Twitter as 'tens of fans' pack the streets of London
- 3 US warned by Chinese media to stop meddling or 'war will be inevitable'
- 4 Woman, 21, dies after taking contraceptive pill that 'caused fatal blood clot'
- 5 Isis burns woman alive for refusing to engage in 'extreme' sex act, UN says
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote
iJobs Money & Business
£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...
£45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...
£45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...
£50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...
Day In a Page
On the market for the first time in more than 50 years, this six-bedroom home is a project with vast potential - spread over three floors of living space.
This five-bedroom home comes with a range of outbuildings including a large barn which could be converted into a self-contained granny-flat or rental.
Surrounded by rolling countryside, this four-bedroom barn conversion comes with a self-contained, one-bedroom annexe that could serve as an office or a holiday let.
Located near Harrogate town centre, this five-bedroom Victorian terrace is arranged over three storeys while a current study serves as an optional sixth bedroom.
A ground-floor flat in a country house, located a mile from Sway; this two-bedroom home would make an ideal weekend retreat on the edge of the New Forest.
On a popular residential lane in Caterham on the Hill, this four-bedroom family home offers a secluded garden and a convenient location for local schools and public transport.
Just a short walk from Westerham green, this three-bedroom cottage has a light kitchen with exposed brickwork and double doors that lead to a south-facing garden.
In a prime spot opposite the River Thames, this one-bedroom flat has an 18sq ft reception room with glass doors that open out to a private terrace.
Set in the hills above Llanwrda Village, west Wales, this 18th-century three-bedroom farmhouse has holiday-let potential from a separate barn conversion and annexe.
This charming end-of-terrace townhouse is arranged over three floors, with two double bedrooms and a private courtyard garden located at the rear of the property.
This four-bedroom Edwardian home offers a combination of original features and contemporary design after a renovation by the current owners.
Located in the University area, this semi-detached five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors - there's even a rear garden and off-road parking too.
Only a few minutes' drive from the charming town of Marlow, this two-bedroom home sits on the private riverside estate of Harleyford.
This detached four-bedroom home in Middleyard is arranged over two floors, with features that include a wood-burning stove and bespoke oak staircase.
In a row of eight detached Georgian residences, this five-bedroom home offers views of The Sound, Mount Edgcumbe and Cornwall from its impressive veranda and full-length balcony.
If you love cooking for friends this two-bedroom flat - complete with views of the iconic Battersea Power Station and an open-plan kitchen/dining area - will go down a treat.
Located above Grasmere village, this five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors and offers countryside views across Grasmere Lake towards Silver Howe.
Surrounded by the Western fells, this five-bedroom Georgian home retains many original features including panel-plastered ceilings, sash windows and fireplaces.
This six-bedroom home is set amongst three acres of grounds. Currently a large family home, Clift Hill has potential to make a B&B, subject to change of use permissions.
A former period coach house, Glebe Farm Stable is now a three-bedroom cottage with a double car barn, office, kennels and an outbuilding that's currently used as a gym.
Set sail for this four-bedroom farmhouse in Cowes. With five acres of land and an indoor pool, this home oozes character. There is even potential to let a one-bedroom annexe.
Surrounded by woodland, this five-bedroom manor house has plenty of outdoor storage space in the form of three converted loose boxes, two smaller outhouses and a woodstore.
This four-bedroom detached home comes with a double carport, useful workshop, garden and two walkways that offer views of the adjacent countryside.
With space for an equestrian business, a greenhouse for growing your own veg, a wine store and a gym; this five-bedroom home has all the ingredients for a country retreat.
This four-bedroom home has exposed brick chimneys and a vaulted ceiling in a breakfast room that's ideal for summer entertaining - the doors open to the patio and garden.
The decked roof terrace of this two-bedroom flat is perfect for summer drinks while large windows and ample storage space make for a light and spacious interior.
Surrounded by approximately 15 acres of grounds, this six-bedroom grade II-listed home has been extensively refurbished yet retains many period features.
This four-bedroom home comes with a two-bedroom cottage and commercial office, with planning to extend, in a stunning courtyard setting.
In a pretty Norfolk village, this four-bedroom family home is surrounded by landscaped gardens, with even a self-contained annex for guests.
A few miles from the seaside at Perranporth, this four-bedroom farmhouse sits amongst nine acres of idyllic grounds - including a lake and two barns used as holiday lets.
This five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors of a converted Victorian hospital, offering spectacular views of the Pentland Hills - only three miles from the city centre.
This four-bedroom detached home comes with grounds that span to approximately 2.5 acres, as well as two large patio areas and a double garage.
This four-bedroom cottage is a Grade II-listed town house, well-located for the thriving market town of Nailsworth.
A four-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a stunning period property in North Yorkshire, with two kitchens and a large south-west facing garden.
This high-spec two-bedroom home is part of a smart collection of new flats at Beaufort Park and has a large decked balcony that's perfect for summer drinks.
Capitalise on the fabulous views of Trevone Bay by taking two homes and creating one spacious boutique B&B. Just a cliff-top walk from Padstow.
Overlooking a golf course, this six-bedroom Edwardian detached home spans four storeys and retains many period features including the original, operational servants' bells...
On the edge of the city, this six-bedroom home comes with an outdoor swimming pool and a large garage block that has annexe potential.
In a Grade II-listed manor just outside of Bath, this three-bedroom home is arranged on two floors with a skylight in a vaulted roof line.
Open the living room's bi-fold wooden doors to reveal a retro-style kitchen, and a conservatory leading to a paved garden at this three-bedroom home.
A Grade II-listed, four-bedroom home, in a charming Somerset village, with a two-storey studio that could be converted into a holiday cottage
A modern four-bedroom Victorian home, within walking distance to the high street
A luxury apartment in the Gothic mansion of Wyfold Court in Kingwood, offers six bedrooms spread over three floors and a turret
This school conversion, near Stockwell Tube, oozes New York loft style. The one-bedroom flat features double height ceilings and exposed brick work
This six-bedroom Georgian home is on three floors with open fireplaces, a two-oven Aga, an annexe, and cottage gardens with outbuildings and a car barn
High Crest House covers an impressive 9384sq ft, with almost three acres of grounds including a tennis court and summer house enclosed by electric gates
A six-bedroom farmhouse with separate accommodation in converted stables. Situated in the village of Church Aston, within walking distance to the market town
A two-bedroom flat with under-heated walnut floors and bespoke built-in storage. The Tube and Clapham Common are a short stroll away
A refurbished seven-bedroom townhouse with staff quarters, cinema room, superb gym, steam room and plunge pool
A minimnalist four-bedroom home designed to the highest spec, featuring glass walls and a kitchen space lit by a glass roof