Collectors corner: Ornaments bloom in garden auction

Check what's lurking behind the rhododendrons, it may just be a work of art.

Forget the exotic plants imported to wow the judges at Chelsea Flower Show. The most valuable items in your garden could be statuary. This is a specialist collectors' market that has gone from strength to strength, but with a very limited supply of material, it's also an area that still has the potential to see some significant price rises.

Sotheby's held its first garden statuary sale in Billingshurst, West Sussex, in 1986. It made a record amount for a provincial sale, and the auction house now holds two sales a year.

"It's a comparatively cheap market," says Rupert van der Werff, the head of garden statuary. "In our last sale, we had two lots making six figures and, for us, that is unusual.

"I would imagine values will increase as people become aware of quite how good many pieces are and that they should be viewed in the same context as other period pieces."

Around 90 per cent of Sotheby's lots are sold privately and the auction house ships around the world. "The market is very strong for the best items," says Van der Werff. "There are some areas that have really come up in price during the past few years; most notably, 18th-century leadwork, both figurative and architectural, which has probably quadrupled in the past two or three years. It was undervalued before but people are realising the rarity value and the fantastic quality of it."

But there are dangers with rising prices. In this market, frenzied buying of cast-iron Coalbrookdale seats in the late 1990s lead to record prices of well over £30,000 - since then, their value has plunged.

Even so, some pieces have been much more steady. "In general, there is now a much greater awareness of what's good and what's average," says Van der Werff.

The top prices are paid for figurative sculptures, in marble and decent 18th-century lead figures. Codestone or Blashfield sculptures and urns are reasonably priced and always sell well, while there has also been a rise in interest for the Compton Potters Art Guild.

One area where there is great potential for price rises is in top-quality modern work. "For the past couple of years, we've included sections of contemporary sculpture in the auctions," says Van der Werff. "We've had a good response to it. It's an area that is going to grow enormously."

Spotting sculptors whose reputations will achieve longevity is tricky, though there are several well-established artists, such as Lucy Kinsella, who are already selling well.

There is an enormous variety of garden art, from bridges to simple urns, fountains and bird baths, sundials and fossils, which have become increasingly popular. It's a relatively small market because only wealthy individuals have been able to afford quality decorative items for the garden. In many cases, works are unique, having been created especially for a specific house or client.

The limited supply will ensure that the best of this art continues to rise in value. For now, it's mostly "old money" buying, but if fashions shift and gardens attract the attention of the "new rich", expect to see some meteoric price rises, as we have in other markets.

Sotheby's (next sale 26 September, Billingshurst, West Sussex): 01403 833560, www.sothebys.com

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