Published: 06:00, 04 December 2019
| Updated: 14:20, 19 December 2019
Star lots often make the headlines at antique auctions with sky high prices. Here auctioneer Tony Pratt reveals some of the top selling and most fascinating items to go under the hammer. But away from the headline figures, there are bargains to be had to furnish a home, he tells Gerry Warren.
Over the decades, Tony Pratt has rifled through thousands of homes across Kent looking for valuables - all strictly at the invitation of owners.
And after 47 years as an antiques valuer and auctioneer, he has a keener eye than most for what's hot and what's not.
It's both a business and a personal passion which continues to fascinate him and, despite handling some of the most precious items, he still can't resist peering into a skip.
As managing director of The Canterbury Auction Galleries - the county's major fine arts antiques auction house with a history dating back to 1911 - he has almost unrivalled knowledge. And he still gets a thrill from making those house calls.
"You never know what to expect, even if you have been given prior indication by the owner," he said.
"Sometimes the items they think are most valuable turn out not to be, but something else catches your eye which they didn't realise was significant."
"If I'm walking down the street and see a skip, I just can't help peering in to see what's been thrown out..."
He recalls visiting a house in Bridge to value an oak dresser only to dash the owner's hopes of it making a large sum.
But the real treasure was standing on the dresser in the form of a small Royal Doulton stoneware group of mice by George Tinworth which sold for more than £2,000.
Another animal figure - this time a Doulton Lambeth salt glazed stoneware bear holding an upturned bee skep - he found overgrown with grass in the garden of a house in Hythe. It subsequently sold for £8,000.
"You have to go in with an open mind and treat everyone with respect because the items have often been handed down in families," he said.
Though sometimes that does involve letting people down gently.
He recalls a man claiming to have a Chinese gold chalice with precious stones which he was convinced was of great value.
But when he brought it in to one of the Galleries' valuation days, it was quickly found not to be gold, nor were the stones precious.
"It was actually something quite modern so unfortunately we had to disappoint him," said Tony.
Tony says that items of significant age are often automatically thought to be of great value - which is not always the case.
And he points to how much period furniture has lost value in recent years while some modern designer pieces from the 50s, 60s and 70s are now much more sought after.
But that has opened up an opportunity for quality Victorian and Edwardian tables and chairs, for example, to be snapped up at very affordable prices.
He has one regular dealer who buys sets to sell to the pub/restaurant and hotel trade wanting a slightly eclectic look to their dining rooms
"I am always taken back at the price of new furniture which can cost thousands when it's often a copy of things we have in the saleroom at a fraction of the price," said Tony.
"To be frank, anyone looking to furnish a home with good quality furniture really needs to check out their auction house first."
Over the decades he has witnessed the changing fashions and lifestyles which influence what buyers are now looking for.
"You have to go in with an open mind and treat everyone with respect because the items have often been handed down in families,
"Properties are smaller, especially flats, and there isn't room for the kind of furniture which often graced Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian homes," he said.
"It's the same with things like long case (grandfather) clocks which were once quite sought after but values have fallen significantly, except for the very best makers.
"Tea sets used to be very collectable too but have lost some of their appeal, except for very rare and special ones sought after by collectors.
"But the market has also become stronger for certain types of collectables like old toys and medals."
One such collectable was an enamel BP advertising sign which made a staggering £28,000 - a world record for such an item.
But the most valuable items are often Chinese porcelain, though specifically made for the home market rather than export.
Another find of a different kind to rarely feature at the auction house was a motorbike. But not just any machine.
It was a highly sought-after and rare unmolested 1955 Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle, discovered under a tarpaulin by the Canterbury nieces of its late owner Johnnie Sawyer who'd had it from new. It sold to a Kent collector for £48,000.
The auction house has had to move with the times technically too and has now developed its own in-house live bidding platform called galleries.com which has opened up the whole world to its sales.
"It has been the biggest revelation in how we do business now," said Tony.
"More than 50% of our winning bids are online but the downside of that is fewer people attend our sale days."
To address that and open up the saleroom to a wider range of potential buyers, the galleries' two-day sales are moving from Tuesdays and Wednesdays to Saturdays and Sundays, starting in February.
Despite all the changing trends Tony remains as passionate about antiques and collectables as ever. He freely admits that not everything he sells he would want to grace his own home, but business is business.
And he still gets a thrill from making those special discoveries, no matter where.
"If I'm walking down the street and see a skip, I just can't help peering in to see what's been thrown out," he said.
"I've not spotted anything special yet but a client brought in some beautiful old engraved brass seals which he found in a bag in a skip which sold for £1,400. I will just have to keep looking."
With auctions switching to weekends next year, viewing days will be from 10am to 7pm on Thursdays and 3pm to 7pm on Fridays as well as between 9am and 11am on the day of the sales.
"Tea sets used to be very collectable too but have lost some of their appeal, except for very rare and special ones sought after by collectors..."
But people can still bring in items for valuation on Friday mornings, as they have done since 1991.
The most valuable item ever sold at the Canterbury Auction Galleries was a Chinese bronze Tiger Ying which was about 3,000 years old, discovered in a Whitstable bungalow. It went under the hammer earlier this year for a staggering £410,000.
But controversy surrounded the good faith sale as the vessel was found to have been brought back to Britain from China by the Royal Marines after the emperor's Summer Palace in Peking (Beijing) fell to British and French forces in 1860.
It subsequently resulted in a first for a UK auction house when the company helped facilitate the return of the vessel after the anonymous Chinese buyer decided to donate it to the National Museum of China.
Auction highlights from the past 25 years - the top prices dominated by Chinese Imperial porcelain.
1996 – A George III satinwood and marquetry serpentine commode, probably by Henry Hill of Marlborough, found in a home in Fordwich. Sold for £62,000.
2005 – An early 20th Century B.P. (British Petroleum) enamel advertising sing. Sold for a world record price of £28,000.
2012 - A six-inch Chinese Imperial porcelain Wucai “Pheasant” bowl. Sold for £195,00. It was part of the Evans Collection from the Kent coast – the whole collection realised almost £1,000,000.
2012 – A Chinese porcelain Doucai “Chicken Cup” in the Chenghua style, Qing Dynasty. Sold for £155,000. Also part of the Evans Collection.
2012 - A Chinese imperial porcelain Doucai stem bowl, 6.25ins diameter (Yongzheng period 1723-1735) sold to a London based Chinese specialist for £140,000 (having been sold by them originally in the 1960s for £25). Also part of the Evans Collection.
2012 - A 1955 Vincent 'Black Shadow' Series D motorcycle,- one owner from new, complete with all original paperwork. Sold for £48,000.
2012 - A 1920s Cartier black onyx and coral cased “Milestone” desk time piece. Sold for £49,000.
2012 – A Chinese blue and white porcelain “Lotus Scroll” bottle shaped vase, (Qing Dynasty). Sold for £60,000.
2014 - A 1920s platinum and all diamond set 'Tree in a Pot' jabot pin in the Cartier manner. Sold for £26,000.
2015 – Oil painting portrait of a young girl in a garden landscape by Maurice William Greiffenhagen (1862-1931). Sold for £24,000 - creating a world record price for the artist.
2016 – A Chinese celadon jade brush pot carved with mountain river landscape, (Qing Dynasty – Qianlong period). Sold for £50,000.
2016 –Silver repousse plate by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) –“Visage Geometrique”,(18 of edition limited to 20). Sold for £28,000
2018 - A pair of George I 'Irish' silver double lipped sauce boats by Mathew Walker. Sold for £57,000.
For more details about the auction house and sale catalogues go to https://www.thecanterburyauctiongalleries.com
More by this authorGerry Warren