Guide to Buying Antiques At Auction

with Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers.

On 21 April, Sworders held an auction called ‘Let There Be Light – The Christopher Butterworth Collection’, featuring a selection of treasures from antique lighting connoisseur Christopher Butterworth’s personal collection, stock from his Pimlico Road shop and other items of furniture that had been kept away in storage. Off the back of other successful single-owner sales, Sworders imaginatively presented the collection, particularly catering to a new generation of online-savvy buyers. The House Directory investigate how Sworders has become established in the international auction market, the process for investing in antiques and how antiques are a positive force for sustainability.

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Image: Alex, Sworders’ auctioneer

What type of sales do Sworders specialize in?

Sworders conduct almost 50 specialist auctions each year, including traditional collecting categories such as Fine Furniture, Old Master Paintings, Silver, Asian Art, as well as more modern fields such as 20th Century Design and Modern and Contemporary Art. We also hold hugely popular monthly Jewellery and Watches sales as well as fortnightly Homes and Interiors sales that provide a unique alternative to high street furniture shops, offering a range of high quality and affordable modern and antique furnishings for the home and garden.

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Image: Amy valuing contemporary art for Sworders

Where do you promote your sales?

The beauty of working in such an interesting industry is that people are fascinated by the world of auctions and the right artwork or object will always get good coverage in both the traditional press and specialist trade publications. Other advertising is tailored to the sale in question; for example, our Asian Art Specialist, Yexue Li, has a strong and successful relationship with Asian Art in London, attending events and providing content to increase the Department’s profile and in turn promote the sales. Then, of course, there is online, through social media, online content, and advertising.

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Image: An Asian inspired interior from The Sally Hunter and Ian Posgate Collection

How do you reach an international marketplace?

Prompted by Covid restrictions, we have seen a sharp trend in online bidding over the past five years and are reaching far more international clients than ever before; our March Fine Interiors auction attracted buyers from 25 countries, ranging from New Zealand to Norway. To improve the quality of service we could offer these clients, as well as those closer to home, we have invested heavily in our Sworders Delivery service, removing one of the biggest obstacles for international bidders when buying at auction.

Where is Sworders located?

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Image: Stansted Mountfitchet saleroom

Our award-winning eco-friendly saleroom is situated in Stansted Mountfitchet (just 40 minutes from central London by train) and we also have a valuations office in the historic town of Hertford and a London Gallery in picturesque Cecil Court, just a moment’s walk from Leicester Square Tube Station.

How does the process begin if you are interested in selling through Sworders?

It starts with a free initial valuation, either by submitting images on our website or emailing images to a particular specialist. A valuation is determined by a range of factors including the item’s authenticity, provenance, condition, and decorative appeal, as well as current market trends for an artist, maker, or designer. Once the valuation has been discussed with the owner, the item will be allocated to the most-appropriate sale where it will sit beside similar and complementary items to ensure maximum potential.

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Image: Black and white collectible from the Two Day Design Sale, 17 May 2022

What is the bidding process like if you would like to buy through Sworders?

We operate two types of auctions: Live, taking place in the traditional way with an auctioneer taking bids, and Timed, operated in an ‘eBay’ style. All our sale catalogues are fully illustrated on our website and go live between one and three weeks in advance of the sale, with the option to request condition reports and create wish lists of your selected lots. Bidders will need to register for the auction they are interested in and choose how to bid for live auctions and leave a maximum bid for Timed. The rest is patience, perseverance, and a bit of luck!

What is your advice to prospective bidders?

Buying at auction needn’t be a daunting prospect. Sworders’ friendly, approachable team is on hand to provide advice no matter what your experience and to guide you through the process. It can prove to be a fun and cost-effective alternative to conventional retail methods and is infinitely more rewarding when you find that one of a kind piece that you have been searching for. Ahead of the sale, bidders should familiarize themselves with fees, such as a buyer’s premium, which is added on top of the hammer price and any potential delivery costs and set themselves a limit for their bid. If bidding live in a sale, bid with confidence, and enjoy the buzz of the experience. Be warned, it can prove highly addictive!

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Image: Buyers viewing lots in anticipation of bidding at auction

How does buying and investing in antiques promote sustainability?

Buying a pre-loved, antique, or vintage item not only provides you with unique style and value for money but it also goes a long way to reducing landfill. Unwanted items are passed to new owners making the auction industry the ultimate re-use industry. It has also been proven that the annual carbon emissions of an antique or vintage item can be as little as one-sixteenth of its new equivalent! Recent studies have demonstrated the carbon savings of typical auction lot purchases (compared to buying new) with items such as an antique armchair saving 0.16 tonnes of carbon from being emitted into the atmosphere, a second-hand sofa saving 0.56 tonnes and a gemstone ring saving 0.42 tonnes. Antiques really are green!

sworders auction lots
Image: Glass bowl from the Two Day Design Sale, 17 May 2022

Can you give us an example of one of your most impressive sales?

Last Spring, Sworders had the joy of selling The Sally Hunter and Ian Posgate Collection – the contents of Badgemore Grange on the outskirts of Henley on Thames. It was, according to our specialists, ‘the dream job,’ a beautiful house, fantastic contents, and wonderful clients. Amongst the impressive collection of 430 lots amassed by the artistic couple over 30 years, the works of East Anglian artists soared and an outstanding collection of early 19th century Indian Calcutta School bird paintings contributed to an overall sale total of £738,000 and a 97% sold rate.

Sally Hunter in her home
Image: Sally Hunter in her home, Badgemore Grange

What is currently collectible?

In Fine Art, buyers are gravitating towards mid-late 20th century artists early on in their auction careers, as prices for well-established names continue to rise to eye-watering levels. Sworders’ Modern & Contemporary Art Department now hold a whopping six sales a year and has seen particular interest in women artists, contemporary and urban art.

In furniture and decorative arts, the best-quality pieces by well-known makers are still sought after. A Howard & Sons armchair in tatty but original condition can sell for around £5,000, whilst a good-quality copy in ‘perfect’ condition is worth a lot less at around £1,000.

A change in people’s lifestyles has also prompted a shift in what people are buying. Interiors of the 1980s-00s were dominated by traditional Victorian pictures and large, dark, and imposing furniture suites when excess and luxury was the fashion. With most people now living in smaller spaces and modest family homes, smaller antiques such as side tables and artworks with lighter and brighter compositions are more popular.

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Image: Mid-century furniture and lighting from the Two Day Design Sale,17-18 May 2022

What types of antiques could be good investments for the future?

With its environmental credentials, the antiques market is likely to flourish over the next few decades, but due to overwhelming supply it is a buyers’ market, so purchasing the best you can afford in any category is recommended. This usually means finding pieces made with the highest-level of materials or quality.

At present there is a good supply of high-quality antiques from the late eighteenth century making it accessible for collectors. However, as we move further away from this period, these pieces will become more rare and prices should appreciate. Additionally, as traditional collectibles that were popular at the end of the 20th century, such as mid-range antique furniture, porcelain, memorabilia, and glassware, have steadily depreciated in value over the past couple of decades, rarer pieces made with quality materials such as exotic woods, precious metals and gemstones have fared better and offer an alternative investment.

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Image: Chest of Drawers from the March Fine Interiors Sale

An ideal way to initiate or add to a collection is to buy at auction. Whether you are interested in fine furniture, old master paintings, silver, Asian art, 20th century design, porcelain, glassware, modern and contemporary art, jewellery or watches, buying at auction offers an opportunity to discover something unique, enhance your home, nab a great bargain and reuse and recycle to reduce landfill. When you sell at auction, what you no longer need is passed to new owners making the auction industry the ultimate, green, re-use industry.

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2 thoughts on “Guide to Buying Antiques At Auction

  1. Hi Mary, thank you for your question. We do not buy and sell antiques ourselves but perhaps Sworders can help you or one of our other members in the Antiques section of The House Directory. Do let us know how you get on!

  2. Do you ever get Indian Bronze Urli’s to sell I have a very large and heavy one that is in good condition
    I look forward to hearing from you

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