"How to Auction" with Christies - Part I

We live in an age of bewildering choice and if I wanted to I could furnish my flat five times over with the click of a mouse, next day delivery.  Instagram tells me what’s trending, John Lewis’ offers a click and collect service and if I like my friend’s chair I don’t even have to ask her where its from – I can just google it on the sly.  All without ever leaving the house, not exactly a journey of discovery is it?  Nobody is going to ask you how you found that piece, what it is that makes it unique or why you fell in love with it.  What ever happened to the thrill of the chase? It’s all far too easy!   

Personally, I’m happy to put the leg work in; I’ve been known to eat bacon sandwiches at 5 am at Ardingly Antiques fair and make a car load of friends stop for a brocantes in a backwater of France.   I waited three years for the perfect wardrobe and I’ll wait another three for the right painting.   So how is it I’ve never bought at auction?   Well the idea of buying at auction felt a little bit intimidating, all those secretive nods and winks, surrounded by people who know what they are doing when I haven’t the foggiest.  So when esteemed auction house Christie’s asked me if I fancied a lesson, I jumped at the chance to be shown the ropes.  As Katy Richards from Christie’s explained; “collecting is a journey and if you ask most collectors they will tell you how their story started with finding their first piece.” 

So I popped down to the South Kensington sale room to pick up a catalogue for the Interiors auction and see if anything caught my eye.  All lots are on show for two weeks before auction, giving you plenty of time to view the piece in the person, something Christie’s highly recommends.  During this time, their knowledgeable department experts are on hand to talk you through any questions you might have and understand the condition of a piece.   

I wanted everything in the sale, but narrowed it down to a couple of pieces I wanted to potentially bid for; an early 19th century George III Mahogany four-poster bed and a set of Eight Prince of Wales Investiture chairs.  English Furniture expert Ned guided me with his professional opinion on both lots, starting with the four-poster bed. 

Ned quickly drew my eye to a break in the carving on the posts, an indication that the height of the bed had been cut down at some point to fit a smaller room, a common occurrence he said.  The pretty chintz fabric also being in good condition was likely to be worth £1000 alone.   Though we weren’t sure it was the most ideal bed for nocturnal adventures, 19th century couples must have slept like sardines!  The bed’s diminutive size was reflected in the relatively low estimate price at £1,200 - £1,800.

Next we moved on to the investiture chairs; “so rare to see a set of eight,” were Ned’s first comments.  Designed by Lord Snowden for Prince Charles’ investiture in 1969 as temporary seating, guests were allowed to take the chairs home after the ceremony.  One’s and pairs are common, mostly belonging to grandparents who attended and kept the souvenir programme.  Made from ash laminate and painted red with seats covered in red fabric, they often show signs of wear on the arms where the paint has worn through.  Far from being a drawback, Ned explained the beauty in seeing the exposed layers of ash peeping through which would never happen on most modern furniture made from MDF.   

Discovering the story behind each piece with the specialists was easily my favourite part of learning how to auction and makes buying through Christie’s an unrivalled experience.   There are also plenty of lots starting with a guide price of £500, making it more affordable than you might think.  Lastly, it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to register with Christies, ideally before auction day.  You will need some form of identification such as a driving license or passport and proof of address to create your account.  Then you are ready to go!

Join me for Part II on auction day as I wield my paddle, learn how to bid and if I won my lots.   Visit www.christies.com for more information in the mean time.