Nature abhors a vacuum. When Christie’s announced the closure of its South Kensington saleroom in March this year, it was inevitable that rival and aspirant auction houses would move in. ‘I think every auctioneer in England thinks that they are taking over South Ken’s business,’ Dreweatts’ Mark Law comments wryly: ‘There is a certain amount of over-confidence around.’ While it is as yet unclear who will be the victor in claiming the lion’s share of the spoils, Chiswick Auctions has so far proved fleetest of foot.
Earlier this week, the west London auction house opened its new showroom in South Kensington at 127 Fulham Road, close to the landmark Bibendum building. It has also taken on six former CSK staffers, poached another from King Street, and has more appointments in the pipeline. ‘The vultures have been circling,’ says managing director William Rouse, ‘and we made the decision to go in before everyone else.’ He continued: ‘Our new space is relatively small but it is to be our presence in the West End, providing valuations by appointment and showing highlights of forthcoming sales in the first-floor gallery space, as well as in the window.’
Running the operations will be Nigel Shorthouse, CSK’s former business development director. Wine, jewellery, and rugs and carpets specialists have been signed up but Rouse describes the main area of expansion as the picture department, with Melissa van Vliet heading up a new Old Master department and Krassi Kuneva modern British art. ‘It is all about people coming here with black books full of contacts and the experience to encourage people to buy here with confidence. If we ended up taking 5–10 per cent of CSK business, we would be more than happy.’
Snapping at their heels is Roseberys of West Norwood, which is also on the hunt for new business after taking on three former CSK members. Nic McElhatton, who was the firm’s chairman for seven years, takes a consultancy role, while Mark Bowis becomes head of jewellery and watches and Fiona Baker leads the decorative arts department. Salisbury auctioneers Woolley & Wallis have opened an office in Mayfair, at 17 Clifford Street, and Islington’s Criterion Auctioneers and Valuers has opened a central office for valuations and consignments at 239 Kensington High Street.
Mark Law, it seems, has his eye on the estate sale business. In the next day or two, he and investor Gavin Alexander will complete on the long-projected purchase of Dreweatts of Newbury and London dealers Mallett from stamp specialists Stanley Gibbons, having already re-introduced general sales at the Donnington Priory saleroom in July after a 12-year hiatus. ‘As Anthony Coleridge pointed out, the changes at Christie’s mean that it will prove almost impossible for the firm to take on deceased estates, which is the bedrock of this business. Executors tend to want to deal with only one company. We have the unusual ability to sell items from £50 to millions, and we can display them just an hour from London in a beautiful country house setting.’ There are also plans to add new specialist sales to the calendar.
In pole position ought to be Bonhams, the only one of London’s four international auction houses to retain a second saleroom. Managing director of Bonhams Knightsbridge is Jon Baddeley who has also recently taken on more staff – but not from CSK – and is intent on growing the business: ‘We have 75 scheduled sales a year but the capacity for 100.’ A recent innovation is Home and Interiors sales, comparable to CSK’s Interiors offerings, with a broad range of collectables at affordable and entry-level prices. Estimates across the saleroom range from £1,000 to £10,000.
Baddeley sees the recently refurbished interiors of Montpelier Square as a place where new collecting categories are trialled – the latest being contemporary British silver – but also a vital event space in which to woo and win the next generation of collectors. While Christie’s is directing its energies into online sales, Baddeley sees them more as a tool to bring in new clients with the aim of forging relationships face to face.