30/03/2015 : A View From The Dark Side
An article by our Studio Ceramics Consultant Jason Wood which has appeared in the current edition of the Northern Potters Association newsletter.
I take it all back. I used to think auctioneers had it easy; stick a few lot numbers here, bang a hammer down there, and sit back and watch the money roll in. Now I have seen life from ‘the dark side’ – as one fellow collector/dealer put it – let me tell you, I wouldn’t begrudge them a penny.
Organising last October’s inaugural auction of studio ceramics at Adam Partridge’s saleroom in Macclesfield was the most intense few weeks of work I’ve experienced in years. It was also the most enjoyable.
It all began with a chance encounter with John Maltby, or rather a sloping vase with side handle made by John Maltby. Some might call it a large cup form. Anyway it was big …. and a beauty, covered in mottled blue glaze with a black and white painted design; an early piece, probably dating to the late 1980s. And there it was, poking out of a box on the floor, in the company of a nice Derek Emms celadon dish, and both surrounded by, but happily not damaged by, a mixture of holiday souvenirs and evening class pots, all masquerading as a job lot estimated to sell for £20-30.
This was May 2014. I had been at the Mallams sale of studio ceramics in Oxford and heading back home to Lancaster. I hadn’t bought much in Oxford. I was tired, and nearly didn’t bother pulling off the motorway to view the upcoming sale at Adam Partridge’s. I had spotted a few lots on the website and thought they were worth a closer look. They were, but it was the box under on the table that immediately caught my attention. How could such a stonking pot have been missed? Especially when it had MALTBY painted in big letters on the base.
In the auction trade, this is known as a ‘sleeper’; a lot whose value (sometimes large) is not obvious. It wasn’t asleep very long. Of course others viewing the sale had spotted it, and the next day, after a torrent of online and telephone bidding (during which my measly contribution was washed aside), the Maltby and those dozing off in the saleroom woke up with a start. It was worth £1,000 of anybody’s money; and that, with the premium, is what it made.
Adam Partridge doesn’t like sleepers, so my drawing this to his attention in an email the following week could have backfired. It didn’t, because the reason for making contact was to offer my services in helping with identification and lotting of a large collection of studio ceramics earmarked for a future auction that had been mentioned in passing during the recent sale. I thought my experience, which included cataloguing the National Trust’s collection of studio ceramics, might be of some use.
As we know, studio ceramics is a specialist field with only two or three auction houses holding regular sales, exclusively in the South. But it is increasingly turning up at auctions across the country accompanied by all-too-often limited or erroneous catalogue entries. This is great for dealers and persistent collectors but the true values of some of these pieces are not being realised for the vendors or the auction houses. Given Macclesfield’s location, perhaps there was an opportunity for Adam Partridge to become the go-to saleroom for studio ceramics in the North?
Adam agreed, which was both pleasing and daunting. Not only, at our first meeting, did he agree to my offer of assistance but he enthusiastically embraced the idea of a dedicated auction of studio ceramics and to me ‘curating’ the sale. A date was set for 10 October 2014. I had three and a half months to learn the trade, as well as drum up trade.
Adam’s regular antique and fine art sales are two-day affairs often comprising upwards of 2,000 lots. Interspersed with these are his occasional one-day specialist sales. The studio ceramics auction would be one of these. This meant getting together 500 lots or so. That’s a great deal a studio ceramics when you consider that sales, say at Mallams, rarely exceed 200 lots at any one time. The first decision, therefore, was to widen the net to include a selection of art pottery and small decorative arts items. This would reduce the quantity of studio to be sourced and also broaden interest. Importantly the higher values often achieved for decorative arts would offset the relatively modest commissions anticipated for a studio ceramics-only sale.
Next, we had to advertise. Conveniently, the September/October issue of Ceramic Review was due out in August and so just in time to publicise the sale and put out a call for entries. The advert declared this to be our inaugural auction as we didn’t want people thinking it was a one-off. If successful, we were in this for the long term. We also reprinted the advert as a flyer for distribution at events like Potfest.
At this point, I hadn’t seen the large collection that Adam had consigned earlier and the initial reason for me approaching him. As this would now be forming the basis of the October sale I thought I better take a look at it. This was easier said then done. The storeroom was jam-packed and most of the collection was securely boxed and unreachable but I could see from a number of the too-big-to-box pieces that there were some significant pots. Thankfully the owner was a knowledgeable collector and had given Adam an inventory. A glance down this revealed a Who’s Who of studio potters. A telephone conversation later and I knew the collection had come from Southport and belonged to Michael Ascott. Built up over many years with his wife Stella, they had bought mainly directly from the potters concerned and so most of the collection was new to the market.
The inventory comprised some 250 entries. By grouping several together, I estimated that this would result in about 200 lots. If so, I was going to have to source maybe another 200 lots from somewhere, maybe less to avoid swamping the market. There was a delicate balance to be struck to ensure there would be sufficient quality as well as quantity. I needed some big-hitting names in order to generate plenty of interest. I also needed pots that would complement rather than duplicate the range in the Ascott collection.
In the end I managed to bring in about 180 additional lots. Some of these came from contacts I already had amongst fellow collectors/dealers, some from potters themselves (I was particularly keen to include a few contemporary pieces by younger ceramicists), and some from the call for entries advert (including a substantial collection from Kent, most of which had to be held back for a second sale). In my opinion, the star of the show was a selection of work by Edward Hughes, sourced directly from Edward’s widow (courtesy of Alex McErlain), and from Edward’s own collection and last firing.
The three weeks before the auction was non-stop. Everything had to be catalogued and photographed, and the printed and online versions of the catalogue ready, ten days before sale day. I had nine days including a weekend. During that time I could be found camped out in the storeroom, surrounded by pots and empty boxes, searching desperately for flat surfaces on which to lay everything out while each pot was described, measured and its condition assessed before being passed to the photographer. Once all this was finished it was time to decide the order of sale, grouping the Ascott collection together and listing potters in order of date of birth (just to make life difficult for myself), and finally assigning the 450 or so lot numbers. All of which involved learning new software and shouting at the computer.
With the printed catalogue proofs checked and sent to the printers and some inevitable last minute glitches to the online catalogues corrected, I could now start to wind down. All the hard work had paid off. The catalogue looked great and everyone was full of praise. I could relax and even forgive the late insertion of a bust of Margaret Thatcher that had been slipped in at the end of the catalogue without my knowledge.
My next visit to the saleroom would not be until two days before the viewing day ahead of the auction. Plenty of time I thought to retrieve everything from the storeroom, decide on the best layout and apply all the lot number stickers. How little did I know? This proved to be a much more time consuming operation than I had imagined but the result was a rewarding one and the saleroom looked great with every table top and showcase crammed with pots.
The viewing day started with a question. Asked if I wanted to hear the good news or bad news first, I said bad. The bad news was that one of the lots had been withdrawn – an instant concern but soon countered by the good news that it was Margaret Thatcher’s bust. Much merriment.
Viewing was busy and brisk. All the time promoting the sale through relevant associations like NPA and groups like the Contemporary Studio Ceramics Specialist Subject Network (which immediately resulted in an invitation to speak at their next event) had paid off. I even broke a vow and joined Facebook in order to spawn interest among the British Studio Pottery Collectors Group. All this created quite a buzz and a new cluster of enquiries. As a result many new clients and potential buyers, new to the auction house, visited that day or signed up to bid online.
I’ll save a description of the actual sale day for another time, as I’m already over my word limit. But safe to say that it was a success, except for my initial feeble efforts on the rostrum, and virtually everything sold. Consequently, we’re having a second specialist auction on 1 May 2015. I hope you will join us. It promises to be a good one.
To get in touch with Jason, call 01625 431 788 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
To view our forthcoming sale dates, click here.