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In what remains a difficult market, the top art and antiques salerooms outside London enjoyed a relatively fruitful 2007.

Despite scant evidence of a revival in the market for stock chattels and a backdrop of small saleroom closures and company ‘restructuring’ – Hobbs Parker, Mullocks Wells and Greenslade Taylor Hunt were among the names we said goodbye to in 2007 – it was a record year for two leading provincial salerooms.

From January to December 2007 Tennants posted total hammer sales a fraction shy of £10m, a figure up significantly on last year’s total of £8.25m and the previous high water mark of £9.5m in 2004. The burgeoning picture department at The Auction Centre, Leyburn established a new house record when Sean Keating’s Ulysses off Connemara shot to £400,000 in March. However, equally important has been an increase in the number of general sales (where the minimum value of each lot has risen to close to £100) and the regular input of specialist collectors’ departments from militaria to natural history specimens.

The two rediscovered panels of Dominican saints from Fra Angelico’s celebrated 1438-40 high altarpiece for the Church of San Marco in Florence helped Hy. Duke’s of Dorchester to their most successful year. That £1.7m contribution in April contributed handsomely to sales figures of £7.5m – more than double that of previous years. The libraries of Sir Harry Newton Bt. and the late Jean Preston sold for close to £1m in March, further icing on the cake. But, like Tennants, Duke’s are also bucking the trend at the lower end of the market. While increasing numbers of auctioneers are withdrawing from secondary sales, Duke’s invested in a 10,000 sq ft space to handle typical estate goods.

In 2007, turnover at Duke’s Grove Auctions leapt 30 per cent, despite the well-documented market conditions. “By any measure, 2007 has been an exceptional year for us,” said partner Guy Schwinge.

Woolley & Wallis, who sold three major single-owner collections last year were up an impressive 21 per cent on their 2006 total at £8.15m – and this without the contribution of fortnightly general sales (typically around £750,000) that ceased at the Salisbury Salerooms in October 2006. The remodelled ground-floor saleroom has yielded space for expanding specialist departments: adding a substantial £1.9m to the mix this year was the silver department, whose sales included the stock of the London silver dealer Jane Penrice How, which sold for £550,000 in October.

Edinburgh-based Lyon & Turnbull did not repeat last year’s £11.5m figure, but consolidated their position in the top five with £10.8m. Last year saw the auctioneers conduct the £2.1m dispersal of the collection of dealer/decorator Keith Skeel at Loudham Hall, Suffolk – their first sale South of the Border. The Deloitte Collection offered at the Royal Academy on January 10, 2008 (see caption story) was the second.

Total sales at Gorringes in 2007 stood at £7.8m – up £400,000 on 2006.

Their plans for a regional ‘selling centre’ in Cooksbridge, near Lewes, announced at the end of 2006, have now been abandoned in favour of an overhaul of their existing galleries in Lewes, Bexhill-on-Sea and Worthing.

Total sales recorded by The Fine Art Auction Group – who as of this month are branded simply as Dreweatts 1759 – came to £18.3m. This represented only a very slight (£100,000) increase on 2006, but came from substantially fewer lots processed through fewer salerooms.

Following a year of restructuring, all specialist catalogue auctions are now held in Nottingham and Donnington Priory, with mid-range material now sold through Bristol. These second-string sales are now promoted aggressively online, and more of these mid-level sales will be available for live online bidding through the-saleroom.com in 2008.

While the figure was achieved without a major individual lot of the type that had added heavily to the bottom line in previous years, the number of items Dreweatts sold in the £10,000-plus range was higher in 2007 than in any previous year. A £900,000 collection of jade sold on Valentine’s Day was the year’s most lucrative consignment.

Perhaps more than ever, in a market that rewards the best at the expense of the average, securing spectacular one-off entries made the difference between an indifferent and a good year. Two Qianlong (1736-1795) mark and period sleepers brought unexpected rewards for two West Sussex auctioneers: a pair of famille rose moon flasks that sold for £760,000 at Henry Adams of Chichester in July and a gilt bronze temple bell and stand that commanded £400,000 at Billingshurst saleroom Bellmans in October.

Hard on the heels of Duke’s San Marco panels, Woking auctioneer Ewbank offered 45 lots of diaries, letters, photographs, personal ephemera and small oil studies from Francis Bacon’s studio that were the property of retired electrician Mac Robertson. They improved upon expectations of £35,000-50,000 to bring a £1.1m house record. The two best-preserved and most fully worked canvases were a Study of a Dog at Rest (£260,000) and Study for a Portrait (£400,000). Ewbank’s turnover more than doubled in 2007 to £2.5m.

However, the provincial scene’s most remarkable result was surely the small oil on copper titled The Young Rembrandt as Democritus the Laughing Philosopher, which sold for £2.2m at the Cirencester saleroom of Moore, Allen & Innocent amidst speculation it was by Rembrandt van Rijn himself. The price is second in the list of all-time provincial prices, behind the £2.6m set by the Yuan vase sold at Woolley & Wallis in July 2005.

By Roland Arkell