I was never incredibly academic at school, but I did thoroughly enjoy and excel at History. My careers’ teacher guided me to the options of Army, Navy or Air Force, none of which particularly appealed, however I was very keen to explore the world that would soon be my oyster. Upon making my way home one Wednesday afternoon after school, I was drawn to the saleroom of a local Auction House. The sale was still in progress with the auctioneer in full swing. I settled into a chair at the rear of the room and within minutes, I had raised my hand and parted with 20p for an album of 78RPM records by Enrico Caruso. I then researched (local library, no internet) Enrico Caruso and found the whole process thoroughly engaging. To me as a young boy, the whole ‘auction-process’ seemed like fun and I decided right there and then, that it was what I wanted to do… 35 years later, and it’s still what I love doing!
Despite initially being drawn to furniture, when I first started out in the antiques business... After three years at Southampton taking a degree for fine art valuation, I found my interest in ceramics. Whilst at University, I remember having a wonderful lecture by David Battie (of Antiques Roadshow fame), and I recall writing non-stop for two hours whilst he informed and instructed on all things ceramic based, I was converted. Who was to know that upon finishing my degree, and with the world being a small place… I ended up working alongside David for 12 years within the Asian Art department of another Auction House.
Whilst there are far too many items from my career for me to single out a favourite, a Chinese brush pot I sold on behalf of a client does hold pride of place in my memory in terms of the hammer price achieved... Upon visiting this client, I was informed that she needed to buy a new car, not a brand-new car, but new to her. The Bitong (brush pot) she was looking to sell was made of Zitan wood, which is incredibly rare, and the pot was exquisitely carved in the hundred boys’ pattern, depicting boys in various pursuits, kite flying, setting off fireworks, playing chase. After some careful marketing and courting the interest of UK newspapers was piqued and the Bitong (brush pot) had attracted global interest. With a room full of extremely interested bidders, and after some commotion betwixt two competing Chinese buyers, I finally put the hammer down at £180,000!
I’ve always enjoyed learning, and within my role, I’m very fortunate to be able to learn something new almost every day, either from a work colleague or client. One of the most satisfying aspects of this career is that you can positively affect someone’s life, be it wonderful prices achieved at auction for their items or by simply affording them a light at the end of a dark tunnel in helping them with a loved one’s estate. As auctioneers we’re invested with the client and their items from the first visit. It is up to us to then achieve the best price possible for them, ensuring that a loved one’s treasures have found a new home in which to be admired for another generation. The most positive result for me, is when a client becomes a friend, who will then go on to recommend you to your next potential client/friend.
I am occasionally asked what I would buy if money were no object. Well, I would pay a visit to Kevin Page Oriental Art in Camden Passage and clear his shelves of Japanese works of art. He has some simply wonderful Japanese artworks, the majority second to none… Including Japanese Meiji-period art and ceramics, including fine Satsuma ware, bronzes and Okimono, Imari ware and loads more!
However, there are no guarantees in the art world, prices rise and they fall, the latter most exemplified by the current state of antique furniture and ceramics. 30 years ago nobody wanted Scandinavian teak or rosewood sideboards.
In terms of what to buy, my advice would always be to simply buy what you like, and if it increases in value that’s great, but if it doesn’t increase in value does it matter anyway, you bought it because you, as an individual, liked it. Prior to marriage, children and a mortgage I bought, what was then, an expensive wristwatch. Not a day goes by when I don’t look at it and derive some pleasure from it, so on that basis it wasn’t really expensive after all.
When asked what is best to sell at auction… I would have to say that Chinese ceramics and works of art are still hotly contested at auction. It’s interesting to note that even chipped and cracked pieces can attract numerous bidders resulting in unbelievable prices, so don’t disregard them because of the odd chip or crack. Why? Well the Chinese have been producing items with the marks of previous emperors for centuries, simply in reverence of said emperor. The boom in financial independence in China has a new generation of avid collectors’ keen to own a piece of their country’s history.
Richard Harrison BA (Hons)
Auctioneer/Senior Valuer/Asian Art Expert
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