Jade Angeles Fitton

The weird world of regional auction houses

The market is booming

  • From Spectator Life
A Renoir up for sale at Sotheby’s in the 1960s (Getty)

Michael Prowse, proprietor and auctioneer at Pilton Auctions, is rummaging through boxes at the back of his office – which is in a warehouse, up a wooden ladder and underneath corrugated metal and plastic roofing. ‘I’ve got something horrendous here,’ Michael says, ‘but its on it’s way to the bin.’ I’ve asked him what the strangest item he’s sold at auction is. He’s not sure, but he’s on a mission to find the strangest item he won’t sell. It appeared during one of Pilton Auctions routine house clearances. 

I watched a man in his fifties arrive to collect half a dozen world war two German photo albums, which he put into a Finding Nemo bag

‘What is it?’ I ask, not sure I want to know the answer.
‘It’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen,’ Michael replies. 
A glimpse of blonde hair is now visible behind the boxes he’s moving. 
‘Oh no,’ I say, morbid curiosity rousing me to get a closer look. ‘It’s not a… sex doll?’
‘Yeah,’ he says opening the box. ‘Look at its face. How could you?’

Its face is the least disturbing thing about it. The sex doll has evidently been stored somewhere very warm, and it has melted. Strange, shiny, tan-coloured latex has pooled at the bottom of the box, leaving the doll itself somewhat lacking. ‘You can see why I’ve not put that in an auction,’ Michael says, closing the box.

The kind of things Michael does put in his auctions varies wildly, from a job lot of 24 rolls of invisible tape, washing machines, wheelbarrows and graphite portraits of Jean Sibelius to collector items such as Omega wristwatches, antique candlesticks, and original Mini Coopers. His is what is known as a ‘provincial’ auction house – a comparatively small, independent, rural auction house. 

Provincial auctions have changed a lot since the cold rooms I’d occasionally visit with my mother to watch a bidding war over a half-drunk bottle of Famous Grouse. Today, the rooms are still cold, but there are fewer people in them. Yet the growth in online bidding portals means the auction business is booming, with the Antiques Trade Gazette reporting record sales. During the pandemic, there was a surge of interest in art as people sat around at home, staring at empty wall space. ‘Without these auction websites this business would hardly be profitable,’ Michael says. ‘As it is, we turn over three quarters of a million a year – plus.’ As it is, I’ve seen Michael driving a yellow Lamborghini past the local cattle market. It would appear he’s doing all right. 

I became an online bidding fanatic when my husband and I moved into our unfurnished home three years ago. From local auction houses such as Michael’s I’ve bought antique paintings, mirrors, tables, two Ercol chairs for £38, a lawn mower, a fridge, pots for the garden. I’ve even bought what we jokingly call ‘The Picasso’.

It hangs in my office as an exemplary piece of online buying. I was still something of a novice, flicking through the online catalogue, when I spotted a still life. In the right hand corner was a signature. I zoomed in: undulations of oil paint and the hand of the artist evident. Even if it were a fake, I thought, it was a good one and worth a punt. I was victorious, at £35. On collection, £35 was significantly more than I would have otherwise wished to pay. It was indeed a Picassso – a high-quality scan of a Picasso, impasto and all. It was also 20 times the size I had envisaged. 

This is a common mistake with items bought online: if you don’t ask questions, things can prove larger or smaller than they might appear in the photos. But the bargains I’ve obtained from cursory looks through online catalogues far outweigh the occasional enormous wooden trout, Picasso, or model sailboat.

The two main players in the world of online bidding are The Saleroom and EasyLive Auctions. The Saleroom typically aggregates sales of fine art, antiques and collectables. This left a gap in the market for more retail orientated businesses, selling miscellany, which is why Paul Achilleous and Jonathan Burnside founded Easylive Auctions. ‘EasyLive Auctions opened the internet to smaller auctioneers,’ Achilleous says. 

‘The exciting thing for an auction house like Pilton is that they can now compete on a more level playing field,’ Richard Lewis, COO of The Saleroom says. The playing field being what it was before the internet, one of Michael’s biggest sales, a 17th century Chinese vase, might have been bought cheap and sold at vast profit at one of the London auction houses, or it might’ve been bought and used as a doorstop. 

‘We were doing a house clearance in a council estate in Barnstaple,’ Michael remembers, ‘where you don’t expect to find anything very good.’ But up in the loft was a vase he estimated might be 19th century and hoped would sell for around £1,000. So, it was something of a surprise when it was sold online to a man in China for £14,280. ‘If people actually came here they would go, “Oh, I would never buy anything from this dump!” But they are,’ Michael says. ‘For antique sales, I need to put them on The Saleroom, because their clients have bought into the brand.’

The bargains I’ve obtained from cursory looks through online catalogues far outweigh the occasional enormous wooden trout

The industry was already moving online prior to Covid, but the pandemic was a galvanising factor. ‘Prior to Covid, auction houses were selling 20 to 25 per cent online,’ Achilleous says, ‘now auction houses are selling 80 to 90 per cent online, some up to 100 per cent.’ Both The Saleroom and Easylive Auctions are quick to highlight the industry’s green credentials, citing the trend towards sustainable furnishings and low carbon footprint as a factor in the industry’s continued growth. But, as Lewis, highlights, ‘People are also interested in items with a story.’ 

Recently, I decided it was time to leave my computer and attend an auction at Pilton Auctions. There were only about 15 people in attendance, but there were more than a thousand people registered to bid online across The Salroom and EastLive Auctions.

If you bid live online you can listen to the auction from home, holiday, or at work. But in-house, I got to know the people bidding. Two brothers only bid for pocket watches; one woman bids only for cheap silver; a man in a flat clap bought about five gold sovereigns. I watched a man in his fifties arrive to collect half a dozen world war two German photo albums, which he put into a Finding Nemo bag. I noted that he chose not to bid for those in person. Then there was a young man, Harrison, who kept bidding against me for old paintings. He won what looked like an over-glazed Joseph Wright of Derby (after my success with ‘The Picasso’, I kept this optimism to myself).

At 22, Harrison was by far the youngest in the room. He doesn’t bid online because he wants to learn by speaking to people who have been in the industry for years. ‘It’s like a collective in there,’ Harrison says. There is also the extra cost for buyers online, which he thinks is ‘ridiculous’ depending on how much you’re buying. (The Saleroom charge bidders 4.95 per cent. EasyLive Auctions charge 3.6 per cent including VAT or a flat fee of £3). 

There is something special about bidding in person, especially if you can save money. But online there is convenience. And, although I do not love it, ‘The Picasso’ hangs behind my desk as a reminder to check dimensions, and as a totem to my at times delusional optimism.