Britain runs out of antiques

BRITAIN'S MOST prestigious auction houses are closing sales rooms because of a dramatic fall in the number of antiques coming on to the market.

The third largest auction house, Phillips, will close its regional salerooms in Glasgow, Cardiff and Retford at the end of the month as part of a restructuring. Christie's closed its Glasgow saleroom earlier in the year, although the company still holds sales from Edinburgh. "We're very much a global business and we are always looking at new markets," a Christie's spokesman said. "We are very much international buyers on all fronts." Sotheby's Holdings, owner of the international auction house, has reported a 19 per cent fall in income from pounds 17m to pounds 14m in the first half of the year. Bonhams has lost three directors and four leading members of staff this year.

The lack of antiques is partly due to a decline in country house sales, which used to provide rich pickings for the auction houses and the private collectors who patronised their sales. Since the war there has also been a rise in the number of art galleries and museums, which have acquired many treasures, and thus taken them out of circulation.

There is also the power of foreign buyers, in particular the Americans. "An awful lot of stuff is going to the States," said Susy Smith, editor of Country Living. "More and more goes abroad, especially to the Far East"

Over here, it is believed that many owners are hanging on to heirlooms rather than selling them off with the family silver.

The remains of the British aristocracy have enjoyed more support from the heritage industries so they are not so desperate to sell grandpa's favourite Turner. Nor is it only the upper-classes who are holding on to their trinkets. The middle classes, too, thanks to programmes such as The Antiques Road Show, are more inclined to keep heirlooms knowing that the most unexpected objects can now increase their value.

What are now referred to as "collectibles" - things of value which are not strictly antique - are an increasingly popular subject for sales. In September, a small cardboard ticket to a baseball game is estimated to sell at Sotheby's for pounds 6,300. At a recent auction, a cardboard cut-out of the Spice Girls sold for more than pounds 500.

"Some collectibles are far more valuable than antiques," said Ivan MacQuisten, deputy editor of Antiques Trade Gazette. "For instance, a Faberge egg, say, which isn't strictly antique but early 20th century."

Ms Smith added: "Suddenly stuff from the 1950s to the 1970s, which would have been viewed in a sneering way until recently, is moving into a very wide market; it's what's available at a reasonable price that most people can still afford."

The cover of Christie's magazine gives a good insight into the state of the antiques market. "Ten years ago it always showed pictures of classic antiques," says Mr MacQuisten. "Now it's just as likely to be Eric Clapton's guitar."