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.
27 March 2015 08:30 PM
20 March 2015 07:30 PM
How to make the most of Isas: You can save more money now, the returns are tax-free and the rules are flexible
20 March 2015 07:30 PM
13 March 2015 09:00 PM
13 March 2015 09:00 PM
10 March 2015 09:03 AM
The Financial Conduct Authority found non-compliance in all reviewed firms
11 March 2015 11:38 AM
Pension expert John Lawson talks on why improved longevity is something to plan for carefully
06 March 2015 08:30 PM
02 March 2015 10:50 AM
The DWP and the FCA have joined forces to investigate transaction charges in occupational pension schemes
04 March 2015 03:00 PM
The company was found to have unacceptably long call waiting times
27 February 2015 07:30 PM
27 February 2015 07:30 PM
27 February 2015 12:01 AM
The NHS is currently bearing a yearly burden of approximately £1.5bn treating cold-related illnesses every winter
Bargain Hunter: Comparethemarket.com launches two-for-one cinema tickets offer
Help to Buy Isa Q&A: Are they real help for first-time buyers or simply a vote-winner for the 2020 election?
You'll need £220,000 for a minimum wage in your retirement
Pension freedom: Steve Webb answers your questions on the big shake-up
Bank-beating exchange rates on your international payments
- 1 Germanwings crash: Police make 'significant discovery' at home of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz
- 2 Germanwings captain Patrick Sondenheimer tried to break into locked cockpit door 'with an axe' as plane was descending
- 3 Zayn Malik already working on solo material, just days after quitting One Direction
- 4 The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
- 5 #FreeTheNipple: Women in Iceland bare breasts in solidarity with trolled student
Nigel Farage brands LGBT activists 'filth' and 'scum' and accuses them of scaring away his children after they invade his local pub
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Russia threatens Denmark with nuclear weapons if it tries to join Nato defence shield
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Germanwings plane crash live: Andreas Guenter Lubitz intentionally crashed flight 9525 into the Alps in act of mass murder and suicide – latest
iJobs Money & Business
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: To provide a prompt, friendly and efficient se...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be the first point of contact for all...
£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...
£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...
Day In a Page
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
Hibernate during winter and make your living during the summer at this busy guesthouse with panoramic sea views, in the village of Lynton
A four-bedroom penthouse next to the Tate with direct views of St Paul's from two floors of luxurious living space
A four-bedroom detached home surrounded by spacious gardens and woodland, close to New Pudsey
An 18th-century, three-bedroom home near Langstone Harbour built from ships beams with vaulted ceilings and wood burning stoves
A five-bedroom semi-detached home with a mix of period and modern features in a popular and convenient location
This five-bedroom red-brick beauty overlooks the village green and sits in just under two acres of land
A three-bedroom villa with self-contained flat, minutes from Lake Windermere
A five-bedroom Victorian home with four receptions, superb gardens and paddock in Pembury
An eight-bedroom house on the south side of the The Green with cinema, wine cellars and summer house
This 17th century beauty is full of rustic cosiness, while the detached home office means you can also run a business
Four exclusive apartments in a Grade II-listed former medical school with 2,275 sq ft of living space and 18ft ceilings
A five-bedroom terraced house on the popular Peterborough Estate, ideally located for both Eel Brook Common and South Park
A state-of-the-art farm-building conversion on the former Cliveden Estate, with 11,420sq ft of internal space, cinema and wine cellar
Windsor Castle overlooks this three-bedroom Victorian cottage located on one of Windsor's smartest roads
A boutique mews house, set around a central courtyard, with three bedrooms and a private roof terrace
A four-bedroom farm-conversion with three bathrooms and two reception rooms
A two-bedroom detached house with ensuite bathrooms and a sun-drenched decked terrace, £750,000
A modern and spacious two-bedroom, penthouse flat with two bathrooms in a prestigious development
A beautifully renovated five-bedroom terrace with three reception rooms and a courtyard garden, £700,000
A four-bedroom period house which has been extended to provide almost 2,500sq ft of living space, £675,000
A pretty three-bedroom Georgian home with a 22ft drawing room and a master suite with a balcony, £525,000
A substanstial family home with five bedrooms and landscaped gardens in the much sought-after Branksome Park area
A well-presented three-bedroom house with front and rear gardens, close to White City station, £475,000
A handsome five-bedroom house in a sought-after location close to the city centre
A five-bedroom country home with valley views, equestrian stables and 27 acres of land, £725,000
A six-bedroom farm house with separate, detached cottages and 371 acres of land
A two-bedroom cottage with parquet floors, chunky beams and an open fireplace
A three-bedrrom flat with 2,733sq feet of living space, a beautiful private garden and 15 acres of communal grounds
A four-bedroom chalet bungalow with three bathrooms and a spacious garden, £525,000
A two-bedroom flat with an open plan kitchen and two balconies, close to Arsenal station