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The week beginning May 12 saw the main spring sales of antiquities yield two spectacular prices. On the 13th at Christie’s South Kensington (17.5/10% buyer’s premium) a new auction high of £800,000 was paid for an Egyptian sarcophagus and mummy from a 19th century German collection after a protracted battle between the US dealer Barakat in the room and a telephone bidder who emerged as the final victor. The following day Bonhams (17.5/10% buyer’s premium) trumped this with £950,000 for a little 4in (10cm) high parcel-gilt silver lotus bud shaped vase of pre-Achaemenid period, c.600-550 BC. Entered for sale by an overseas trade vendor, who had acquired it ten years ago from a German collection, this saw plenty of would-be purchasers up to the £200,000 mark. It then settled down to a two-way battle between a bidder on the phone manned by Bonhams’ specialist Joanna van der Lande and a dealer in the room acting for a client via mobile phone, with the hammer falling to Miss van der Lande’s telephone.

Meanwhile, on May 14 Christie’s single-owner and house contents department, newly transferred from South Kensington to King Street, marked the transition with a £5.5m sale devoted to The Decorative Arts of Georgian England that produced a clutch of record prices for its
star pieces, all classic examples of top-drawer Georgian furniture.

Over at Sotheby’s Bond Street (20/12% buyer’s premium), a £1.3m selected silver sale on May 15 provided a number of multi-estimate results for market-fresh, well-provenanced pieces, including a new auction high for Irish silver when London dealers S.J. Phillips bid £110,000 for a set of four candlesticks made by David King of Dublin in 1702. These appear to be the only surviving Irish examples of a rare form of stick first produced in London by Joseph Bird in 1700 and 1701.

Moving up to 20th century decorative arts and back to Christie’s South Kensington, another auction record was resoundingly broken on May 14 when they obtained £34,000 for the Clarice Cliff May Avenue charger pictured and discussed on page three of last week’s Antiques Trade Gazette.

There is an element of fortuitousness about this high-octane saleroom activity which is down to scheduling. Late spring is traditionally one of two periods in the year when the London rooms offer antiquities, and from Christie’s standpoint May is also the main month when they are free to offer single-owner sales since the June schedules are too crowded with regular fixtures. (The Arts of Georgian England collection has already been preceded by the Kai Wunsche collection at South Kensington and was followed this week by the Park West collection at King Street).

Nonetheless there was some talk after these results of renewed shoots of confidence, of a ‘Baghdad bounce’ factor reflected in the salerooms now the Iraq conflict is over. Certainly both CSK and Bonhams had a full and international attendance of buyers for their antiquities sales, with all the usual faces plus some new ones.

Of course quality is key. The success of King Street’s single-owner sale, discussed in detail below, was not so much down to any density of sale programming as to the fact that it offered just the kind of top-drawer English material in original condition that collectors and dealers both crave. And significantly those blockbuster antiquities prices are exceptional results borne of two determined combatants who refuse to let go. They have to be seen against the backdrop of a majority of pieces that sell more realistically (or failed to find buyers in the case of 118 of the 496 lots offered at Christie’s and 212 of the 610 at Bonhams). High prices and improved selling rates are encouraging but the highly selective best-and-rest approach to buying is still very much a feature of today’s art market.