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The new company, with a substantial sphere of influence that includes Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset, will begin trading as Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood as of January 2.

Discussions have been taking place for more than 12 months regarding the merger of the two Exeter auctioneers, who have a combined turnover of £6m.

Bearne’s (now set to lose their apostrophe) are a long-established player on the West Country auction scene. Set up in 1945 by Arthur Bearne as part of his Torquay-based estate agency, the company shifted their focus to fine art auctioneering and valuations under the aegis of his son Brian.

They were acquired by Sotheby’s in the 1970s, although Bearne’s were to regain their independence in 1982.

The business retains many contacts in the Torbay area but opened an office in Exeter in 1990 before moving to their current saleroom site on Okehampton Street in 1996. In the last financial year the company posted sales of £4.6m, aided by £1.8m sale of works from the studio of local artist Robert Lenkiewicz.

Hampton & Littlewood were established by former Phillips’ Southwest director Christopher Hampton and Rachel Littlewood (probate manager) in 2001 when their erstwhile employers moved their operation to Southernhay in the east of the city. Mr Hampton and Ms Littlewood remained at the Alphin Brook Road site and set up a business that, with strong contacts within Exeter’s professional community, had sales last year totalling £1.4m.

Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood plans to operate from both the Okehampton Street and Alphin Brook Road salerooms, employing 18 full-time members of staff. They will offer what will effectively be weekly sales alternating between each site plus quarterly fine sales at Okehampton Street and biannual sales at Alphin Brook Road of antiquarian books, maritime antiques and the field sports memorabilia which have proved particularly popular in the West Country.

Richard Bearne, grandson of company founder and chairman of the new business, said: “The merging of the two companies and the combined strength of expertise allows us the opportunity to provide an unrivalled service to our clients.”

By Roland Arkell