Crosshall Manor Lyon &Turnbull Asian Sale today Photo Paul Harris
It was always going to be a brave venture. Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull decided to forsake their magnificent metropolitan Edinburgh auction rooms for the back room of a modest home counties manor house in the backwaters of Cambridgeshire. Are they mad, or what?
Well, of course, they want to crack the remunerative Asian market big time and, somehow, Edinburgh is a bridge too far for Chinese buyers who want to fly into Heathrow, nobble the goods and get out with them without the pain of connecting flights. And so, they came to Cambridgeshire, just an hour or so from London and its own repository of big money. As the sale opened this morning, one wondered whether or not the strategy was going to work. The Chinese had certainly arrived in some force: in a small room with just forty or fifty seats, Chinese buyers occupied almost thirty.
The London trade was almost completely absent although L&T said they had viewed and would be on telephone and internet from their gilded cages in Mayfair and St. James’s . Anyway, probably just as well they did not appear: it was a tight enough squeeze for the Chinese and a dozen or so UK buyers in between the glass cases surrounding the buyers and the large enclosure for L&T staff (some 15 at one count) manning computers, telephones and cellphones (goodness knows which provider they were using – I certainly could get virtually no signal on my Three mobile . . . ).
The enclosed geography of the auction room had something of the atmosphere of a gambling den – which was, on second thoughts, probably approaching the reality of the proceedings. The sale started slowly and unexcitingly. There were many passed lots and quite a number of bargains to be had: on reflection that was probably the time to buy well because things were to change dramatically . . .
It seemed that as soon as Paul Roberts took to the rostrum things really rather picked up. Now that should not be ascribed to the considerable charisma of this senior executive of Lyon and Turnbull. Rather, he chose his entrance well . . . to sell the Asian contents of the estate of romantic novelist (Lady) Mary Stewart. She had some rather good stuff, courtesy of her top rank dealers Hugh and Sidney Moss. A carved rhinoceros horn libation cup kicked off her collection with £44,000 on the hammer . . .
Happy or what? Auctioneer Paul Roberts knocks down a little blue & white vase for £240,000 Photo Paul Harris
However, the surprise of the sale was an unpretentious little Meiping blue and white vase catalogued as ‘Kangxi mark but later’ and estimated at £800-1200. Nothing special really – as the dealer sitting beside me observed, ‘It’s a £2,000 vase.’ Well, it took rather a long time to sell. But it’s a long way up into the stratosphere for a £2,000 vase to reach £240,000. As the competing bids came in, the reaction of the Chinese in the room, who had the vase in clear view, turned from utter bemusement to open derision. With premium and the rest it cost the telephone bidder around £300,000.
As far as we could see the factor which commended it to putative future owners was The Provenance: ‘Gift from Hugh Moss, 1970s, early 1980s.’ As you know, dealers of the quality of Hugh Moss don’t give rubbish to one of their best clients. However, I hazard a guess he may be a trifle amused when he reads about it . . .
Telephone and internet dominated proceedings with a dozen or more L&T staff manning the lines Photo Paul Harris
From that point in the sale, things never really let up. On some lots, there would be twelve to fourteen L&T staff rising to their feet with telephone and internet bids. A couple of lots later, an unassuming Wucai dragon and phoenix dish estimated at £800-1200 was knocked down for £25,000. Three lots later a pleasant carved wood brush pot estimated at £1,200-500 was sold for £48,000. The snuff bottles, with their impeccable provenance, went crazy.
Other collections similarly did well and the only disappointment was The Max Lowenson Tang Horses. As handsome as they were, the Chinese market demonstrated its distinct lack of enthusiasm for funerary ornaments. However, a Yongzheng celadon and blue charger from the same collection as their June blue and white charger success (£345,000 hammer) was knocked down for £200,000. A pair of doucai ‘butterflies and flowers’ medallion bowls got £75,000, against an estimate of £20,000-30,000.
All in all, it was a rather good day for Lyon & Turnbull.We asked a representative of the company if they would be coming back to Crosshall Manor for their next Asian Sale. “I imagine so,” she cheerfully confirmed. However, with the level of telephone and internet bidding which characterised this sale, the same result might have been achieved from the basement at 25 Acacia Gardens . . . oh, and a note to L&T admin. For goodness sake, if you are returning, get wifi access installed for your bidders. The Chinese buyers were very frustrated not to be able to get onto their life support system, WeChat.