Hartleys: Tale of an English auction house

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Four generations of auctioneers in the Hartley family: founder Thomas, son Douglas, grandson Andrew and great-granddaughter Daisy - here marrying England rugby star Charlie Hodgson in 2007.

Ilkley in Yorkshire, is an English market and spa (spring water) town in the north of England. It has existed since the early Bronze Age and was fortified by the Romans in 79 AD. Today it has a population of 14,000 and relies on a combination of farming, tourism, commerce and service industries. It is, perhaps, better known than most British market towns. Nearby Ilkley Moor (raised heathland) is the subject of a well-known English folk song and is sometimes referred to as part of the Brontë Moors – the sisters lived eight miles away.

Ilkley’s sole auction house is Hartleys Auctioneers and Valuers – the only one for maybe 10 or more miles around. Its structure, turnover and catchment are about as representative of the typical English provincial auction house as it gets.

Hartleys in Ilkley – origins

Like so many of today’s auction houses, Hartleys was founded around 100 years ago – in their case 1906. Perhaps they were by-products of Victorian industry, commerce and prosperity. Stability of employment and housing meant that their bread and butter business, the dispersal of deceased estates, was becoming more substantial. The recently deceased were leaving behind property worth having. It is no coincidence that Thomas Hartley, the founder, was also a funeral director.

Ownership passed from Thomas to son Douglas and then grandson Andrew, who in 2003 was joined on the rostrum by his daughter Daisy – today the fourth generation auctioneer in the Hartley family.

The only substantial changes in the structure of Hartleys, over the century, have been the loss of the funeral business and the acquisition and then disposal of an estates agency (realtors). Involvement with managing the sale and rental of land and buildings is commonplace among English auction houses – the two professions share the same governing body.

Times change

Changes in the nature of business have been far more dramatic over the past 30 years. Single estate sales, often turning up the most exciting lots, tailed off in the 1970s, for several reasons.

Some of the largest estates found that one way of reducing death tax liability was to donate some or all of the property to museums – or to turn the estate into a charitable or educational trust. Families also shared effects among themselves before the tax was assessed, sometimes long before the owner passed away. The end result was far fewer complete estates reaching the open market.

Then there was the explosion of information on the television, the bookshelf and, most recently, the Internet. BBC TV’s Going for a Song, a pro-celeb antiques quiz show, arrived in 1965. Then BBC Antiques Roadshow in 1977 and then, from the ’80s onward, a flood of derivatives. Yes, the public was better informed. But expectations have become so much higher, often resulting in bitter disappointment.

To auctioneers, the Internet is a two-edged sword. Mixed lots are keenly snapped up for breaking and putting online. But Andrew Hartley sometimes wonders whether provincial auctioneers are often little more than unpaid appraisers for wannabe eBayers.

Hartleys in 2009

Today, Hartleys confines its activities to auctions and valuations. With annual sales of around £2.75 million ($4 million), it has three auctioneers and valuers, a handful of administrative support staff and around a half-dozen porters. The majority of their auctions are the Wednesday general sales – “Victorian and later furniture and effects” is the industry-wide euphemism for sales that include the bulk of items from house clearances. Up to a thousand lots generate around $35,000 in hammer prices – sometimes at up to 300 lots per hour.

Classier items, though not always the most highly priced, are usually held over for the six-a-year fine art and antiques sales. Those are supported by an illustrated catalog and posted online, rather than the non-illustrated schedules provided for the weekly sales. A similar number of lots generate around $400,000.

Better toys and dolls are consigned to dedicated cataloged sales (twice yearly). There is also an annual fine wines, spirits and cigars sale, usually around the end of November. But these conventions are by no means universal – other auctions have different specialties, such as sporting memorabilia. Some make special sections added to general sales.

Hartleys has considered putting their cataloged sales live on the Internet – DMG World Media, until recently the publishers of Antiques Trade Gazette, runs the largest such operation in the UK. But, like many others, Hartleys concluded that the extra time dealing with enquiries and despatch, the delays in the saleroom on the day and the setup and running costs were likely to outweigh the returns.

Viewing provincial auctions in the UK is usually on the day before the sale, and on the sale morning (sales typically start at 10 a.m.). With fine arts and antiques, the viewing is usually over the two days prior to the sale. Catalogs are usually out a fortnight earlier and can be downloaded online.

Charges

Both the auctioneers’ commission on sales and their premium on bids are typically around 15 percent, plus Value Added Tax on both – though not on the goods in question. VAT, recently reduced to 15 percent, is often referred to as a sales tax – which can sometimes be excluded on items sold for export outside Europe. But, at auction, it is a tax on the auctioneers’ services. Bidders from outside Europe are not exempt.
Bidding

Other than bidding online or in person, telephone bids can usually be made only when a lot has a minimum value. Hartleys’ minimum, for example, is £500 ($750). Few auctions take telephone bids lower than £100. It is not unknown for the unscrupulous to reserve several lines and frustrate competitors by using only one.

Commission bids, those left on the book, are generally reliable and safe. If within reserve and without any higher bid on the book, good auctioneers will generally start at around one half of the amount you leave. No competition and it’s yours at that price – plus premium, of course.
Registration, payment and clearance

Different houses have different conventions regarding bidding. Some require registration prior to bidding, some with ID, some allocate bidding numbers, others don’t. Most accept payment by plastic, though usually with a premium of 2 percent or so if by credit card. None takes non-guaranteed checks from strangers. To avoid potential embarrassment, notify your card provider if you expect to be making substantial payments.

Most auction houses require both payment and clearance within a couple of days. Their standard terms and conditions usually include storage charges that may be added if collection is late. Whereas most will waive them for higher value smaller items, removal and storage costs can be disproportionate if the auctioneer has rented that church hall only for the viewing and sale days.

Your rights

Although authenticity is pretty much guaranteed in fine art and antiques sales, salerooms give minimum guarantees at general sales. That is why the descriptions are usually so vague, such as “quantity of ceramics.” If the item is a fake then it is not their problem unless they have specifically guaranteed its authenticity. And it is, in theory, your responsibility once the hammer goes down – though I have never known any auction to exercise that prerogative after loss or damage.

Auction rings do exist in the UK. Although it is strictly illegal to offer financial incentives to stop others’ bidding, it is quite usual for one dealer – or friend – to defer to another on a tit-for-tat basis. What is also reputed to happen is some dealers bidding artificially highly to price others (often strangers) out of the market and drive them away. That can happen anywhere, but it might be better not to wave those traveler’s checks around until after the sale is over …

What’s to be found

See five of the pictures – they are items photographed at random before that general sale commenced one Wednesday in November. None had guide prices. All sold; it is unusual for items in general sales to carry anything other than modest reserves.

The results on the day were quite typical for an English provincial auction house – typical though never predictable. But note the prices in both US dollars and in pounds sterling. With the recent high fluctuation in exchange rates, these prices would have been maybe one-third higher a year ago. Now is a good time to buy.

The best bargains are to be found in general sales, the ones not posted or searchable online. And, in those sales, the best buys are often “boxed lots.” Those are mixed effects, including any variety of items such as silver-plated spoons, Wedgwood teapots, Edward VII coronation cups, incomplete tea services, walking sticks, Murano glass animals and a broken barometer. You know what I mean. The only people competing for these are high-volume low-value dealers who have the knowledge and time to break them into individual sales.

So, what do you do if you find a boxed lot that includes a must-have item? Buy the lot, remove the item in question and re-enter the rest. And remember to keep an eye on that item immediately before and after the bidding.

Items best viewed with caution are anything to do with the locality and local traditions. Looking for Tunbridge Ware (small Victorian decorative wooden items)? Sure, you’ll find plenty more round Tunbridge Wells, Kent. But you won’t be the only one looking, and you’ll be bidding against collectors and dealers.

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