A trip to a hotel in rural Warwickshire last week to attend a NAVA one-day course on auctioneering.

A career change?  No, just hoping to gain some insight into how the other side operate.

NAVAWe all love a good story in this trade, and we students heard a few of those. But I think overall it was a useful experience. The course leaders, Nigel J. Hodson of Peter Francis, Carmarthen, and Robert Stones of Peter Wilson in Nantwich are experienced auctioneers and methodical and revealing on best practise in securing consignments, preparing for sales, and rostrum etiquette.

They are both of a generation that remembers mutual antagonism between auctioneers and antiques dealers, in part due to the notorious dealers’ “rings” which used to operate fairly brazenly in and around the salerooms.

Thankfully much of that antipathy has dispersed as both the wholesale and retail branches of the trade have recognised the merits of co-operation and knowledge-sharing.  Though there were a couple of side-swipes at dealers playing hardball in negotiations.

I was pleased to see Mr. Hodson heartily concur on an issue that is a particular bugbear of mine. When an auctioneer calls “my commission bidder is out” or “I’m all done on the books” – as he or she tries to squeeze one more bid from the room – it is patently unfair to that absentee bidder, and therefore bad practice.


Yet I see this happen on TV programmes fairly commonly, from supposedly respected professionals. It is frustrating as I myself often leave bids with an auctioneer before a sale if I can’t be there in person. An auctioneer’s primary obligation is to the vendor, but for confidence in the profession and in the integrity of the sale process all participants must have fair and equal opportunity.

The now regular exposure to a worldwide web audience via live bidding platforms can only help to encourage transparency. You might think that visiting TV cameras would have the same effect?  In my opinion the special consideration afforded to ‘TV lots’ (0% commissions, no reserves etc) – plus the editor’s cut inevitably distorting reality – give the viewer a false impression.  (TV publicity for the antiques trade discussed in an earlier post: https://jasperjenningsprints.wordpress.com/2009/10/21/the-television-antiques-trade/.)

On that subject of TV, I noted that not all TV shows were welcomed equally by our speakers. Apparently that is to do with certain presenters, who shall remain nameless…

In a previous post I featured George Scharf (1788-1860), a Bavarian-born watercolourist and lithographer of topographical views, natural history subjects and contemporary London life. He fought with the British Army at Waterloo and settled in London in 1816 (‘In appreciation of George Scharf‘, 29/04/2009).

I was delighted to acquire a c. 1817 lithograph by Scharf for my stock recently – more precisely, three lithographs on one sheet.

Two are views of the Maidenhead Inn which stood on Dyott Street, London WC1, in what was the notorious St. Giles slum; the third image (lower right) shows the remains of the Manor of Totten Hall, otherwise known as Tottenham Court. It stood at the present junction of Euston, Hampstead and Tottenham Court Roads, not far from Euston station.


According to Rowland Dobie’s ‘History of the United Parishes of St Giles in the Fields and St George Bloomsbury’ (1829) by the early nineteenth century the Maidenhead had become established as a “liquor-shop and public-house of the vilest description, and the haunt of beggars and desperate characters”. By the time Dobie was writing, the inn and its immediate surroundings had been demolished and the land turned into a stone yard under the control of the parish. It seems that the Totten Hall – this remaining building (once part of a larger complex) is identified as ‘King John’s Palace’ in some contemporary book plates – was also pulled down around this time.

So it seems that both buildings disappeared shortly after Scharf made this print, almost certainly from his own drawings. Social and architectural historians of London are in his debt.

Scharf’s prints always have their own, almost indefinable, idiosyncrasies. In this humble lithograph one senses the authenticity and immediacy of the original sketches that inspired it.

I really think that lithography, more than any other medium of printmaking, is suited to depicting architecture, and particularly stone structures. Something to do with the vaguely grainy quality of the image, reflecting the texture of most building stone? And after all, a lithograph was traditionally created from a block of limestone.

I was this morning invited, along with other arts/heritage bloggers, to preview the Royal Childhood exhibition at Buckingham Palace as part of a visit to the State Rooms, before they open to the general public for the summer season tomorrow.

A privilege to be able to wander through the gilded opulence of Nash’s theatrical interiors in select company, unhindered by hordes of the great unwashed. In fact the very polite and helpful staff in their smart uniforms considerably outnumbered the visitors.

A pity that the exterior of the Queen’s London residence – a somewhat austere and faintly institutional-looking building I always think – gives no hint of the lavish warmth and gaiety that greets the visitor within. But that’s by the by.

The exhibition itself didn’t spark much interest personally – a couple of displays of toys, family gifts and childhood outfits, padded out with photographs and film footage of royal kiddies, centred on the ballroom. A lot of smiling Will and Kates posing with little George, for the tourists.

The only item I could find of mild interest to the bibliophile or ephemerist was the below invoice addressed to Queen Victoria from bookseller, publisher and photographer Joseph Cundall (1818-1895), of 12 Old Bond Street.


His bill, dated 1845, itemises exclusively children’s books, for the royal progeny.

Cundall traded from addresses in Old and New Bond Streets (in collaboration with others) in the course of an illustrious career in the book and photographic arts, before accepting the post of supervisor of publications at the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) in 1866.

He specialised in children’s illustrated books and in the later 1840s became increasingly interested in the photographic possibilities of illustration. He was a founder member of the Royal Photographic Society of London.


May I first wish all my readers a very happy and prosperous New Year. I thought it was high time I posted some thoughts on the year ahead, and some reflections on 2009, my first full year working for myself in this wonderfully quirky world of antique prints.

What sort of year ahead can we in the trade expect? Certainly I have heard disgruntled noises from some dealers forecasting a grim first quarter in particular.  “2010 looks to be doubly difficult for many dealers and a rich opportunity for collectors” is the forecast summary by Bruce McKinney, founder of the Americana Exchange website for book collectors.

There are, and have been since the recession bit in the last quarter of 2008, undoubtedly opportunities for buying certain types of material cheaply. Particular collecting areas as diverse as natural history plate books and cricket memorabilia (a special interest of mine) have seen a marked cooling of enthusiasm and prices in the salerooms. In these fields, even the scarcest and highest quality examples, in good condition, are struggling to meet their low estimates. Average hammer prices are down a good 15-20% I would say, as compared with only two to three years ago. The more commonly seen books and prints are in some cases 50% down over the same time period.

As well as buyers feeling less confident, the fragile nature of our economy also leads to a mindset in some of holding on to their assets, so owners of interesting material are less inclined to consign to auction. This phenomenon is another factor in declining prices realised. 

So in turn we are seeing a lot of  ‘recycled’ goods appearing in sale catalogues – things that have not sold in a prior sale being re-offered, or perhaps offered not long before by another auctioneer. This has led to a greater than ever premium being attached to goods ‘fresh to the market.’

I agree with McKinney that this state of affairs is unlikely to change in 2010. There will certainly continue to be good buys to be had by the well-informed collector. A dealer like myself is presented with something of a quandary: I may buy well, but as we all know in this game, buying has always been the easy part of the equation. It is a constant struggle to convince my clients and customers that now is the time to buy; that they must have the confidence and imagination to take advantage of this ‘buyer’s market’ to enhance their collections. This is tricky at a time when it is understandably difficult as a private collector to justify expenditure on ‘luxuries’ to oneself (and one’s spouse).

For my part I have been increasingly buying with an eye to the longer term, not just for quick turnover. I must continue to believe that the market in the prints and books that I am passionate about will in time ‘pick up’, and return to the levels of interest generated only a few short years ago.

I have learned over the past year that fashions in collecting are forever changing, the market in a state of permanent flux like shifting sand dunes (an uncharacteristically poetic simile for you there). These shifts in emphasis are probably more dramatic in difficult economic times. Just keeping up with changing trends, I have found, can be difficult enough, let alone anticipating them. For example, in the print world we have seen a crashing halt in Russian interest in their imperial artistic heritage, at an all-time high in the immediate post-Communist era. This is largely a temporary economic reaction you would think, but can we blithely assume that this market will revive if and when that country emerges from recession? I am not sure we can, perhaps there are deeper, cultural factors at work here.

For my final thought, I would like to mention another dimension to the dilemma of being both buyer and seller – nothing to do with economics, and something that I hadn’t fully anticipated. I am finding reconciling the collector and dealer in me difficult at times. I confess to a touch of pathos, if not sadness, when good quality prints leave my possession. Of course I am pleased to make a sale, but at the same time when an item with particular personal resonance sells part of me can’t help thinking “shame, that would really complement my collection”.

Many dealers are collectors at heart, with a genuine and deep affection for what they trade in. The art and antiques business will always be driven by emotion as much as by money.