I heard a great line on the radio recently which went something like ‘you spend your time climbing the ladder, then realise it was up against the wall of the wrong building’ – which pretty much sums up my route into this job. Having worked in retail since I finished education, it was an off-the-cuff enquiry at my local auction house around ten years ago that changed my path. I have always had a keen interest in antiques, and consequently auctions, but only ever saw it as a hobby. What started as a part-time Porter’s job once a month, then moved relatively swiftly to a full-time Valuers role before I eventually made it to the rostrum. It feels like the job I was meant to do, and I am pleased to have got here… eventually!
As Valuers, we literally have no idea what we may find from one day to the next. A great example was back in 2019, when I was lucky enough to complete a probate valuation for Dawsons in Surrey. Largely wrapped up and hidden beneath the crumpled pages of many an aging newspaper, was a large collection of Martinware ceramics. It had great provenance, with links from the deceased owner going back all the way to the Martin Brothers pottery itself! To subsequently take these incredible pieces to auction was a particular treat. There were varied examples in the collection, from small items such as chess pieces, to large architectural fountain elements, as well as the traditionally known ‘Grotesque’ face jugs.
Perhaps the most evocative and sought-after items of Martinware are the bird jars, so to discover a rare ‘triple’ bird group was a thrill. Whilst I appreciate that they can be a bit of a ‘Marmite’ object, I personally love them for their eccentricity, craftmanship and mysterious nature. This particular group even had a great story behind it, having been ignored by burglars on at least two occasions; they were perched above a window amongst other more ‘everyday’ objects, so clearly the intruders either missed them, or didn’t realise quite what they were leaving behind!
The sale itself saw 48 Martinware lots going under the hammer within one of our Fine Art & Antiques auctions. Needless to say there was a packed saleroom, and plenty of extremely excited online bidders. After some frenetic bidding, the collection sold for a combined hammer price of around £120,000, with the ‘triple’ bird group going for £32,000. Having seen the process through from crawling through a loft, to researching and cataloguing the collection, and then putting the hammer down, it has certainly been a career highlight.
If I could personally own one item, with no strings attached (and money being no object), it would be a late 19th century William de Morgan charger or wall plaque.
William de Morgan Wall plaque
I am often asked what a potential collector should look to purchase. Whilst it is something of a cliché, my advice would always be for people to buy and collect things that they like. Additionally, buy the best you can for the price you can afford, and always think of the opportunity to learn more about the objects you buy. By doing so, you’ll come to value them more, and in turn pass on that knowledge when you come to sell them or hand them down.
When buying, remember the items that perform best in a saleroom and achieve the highest prices, are those with a difference to others. It’s not just about rarity, however. More important is that they stand out from what can be a crowded market, whether that be their individual and particular design, or through the history behind the item. Indeed, there is a buoyant market for historical documents and manuscripts, especially those connected to notable figures such as artists, politicians, explorers and campaigners for social change.
Peter Mason (Saleroom Manager)
Auctioneer/General Valuer/Ceramics Expert
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