Confirming the time-honoured ability of auctioneers to attract vendors in a recession and buyers at a time of low interest rates, solid - and even record sales figures - proved possible.
The three names that traditionally compete for the position of the UK's highest-grossing regional auctioneer - Woolley & Wallis, Tennants and Dreweatts - were closely matched in 2011. (Bonhams, whose regional sales are now conducted at salerooms in Oxford, Chester and Edinburgh, declined to give specific details of provincial sales.) Sales at jewellery and watch specialists Fellows continued to grow significantly.
The January to December 2012 hammer total at Woolley & Wallis was £14.7m. This compares to £17.44m in 2011 and the high water mark of £23.36m in 2010 when £9m of a provincial record figure was provided by just seven Chinese jades.
Chairman Paul Viney said the 15.8% year-on-year fall was seen in the Asian art department where turnover was £5m in 2012 as opposed to £10.1m in 2011. "If you take Asian art (which will always be dependent on a few high-ticket items) out of the equation, our 2012 turnover was 32% up on 2011, which I'm delighted with," he told ATG.
Five departments had a turnover in excess of £1m - Asian art (£5.1m), jewellery (£3.5m), silver (£1.9m), decorative arts (£1.5m), pictures (£1.2m) and furniture (£1.2m). Outstanding among these was jewellery, which had a sensational year with turnover up 55% (£1.59m in 2011) even without the sale of a pair of pearl earrings for £1.4m in April.
But this was not the highest price of the year.
At Tennants of Leyburn, sales reached £14.1m, a significant increase on the previous £12m record figure, posted in both 2011 and 2010. An already positive year was given a fillip by a new house record in November when a Yongzheng (1722-36) mark and period blue and white bottle vase shot to £2.6m.
It was proof that the Chinese market - more circumspect and selective in 2012 than it had been in previous years - continues to thrive given the right conditions.
The hammer price matched that bid for a 14th century Yuan dynasty porcelain double-gourd vase sold by Woolley & Wallis in July 2005 (the very first £1m-plus price in the UK regions), now represents the 12th time the seven-figure barrier has been passed by Britain's provincial salerooms.
A new management structure at Tennants has seen proprietor Rodney Tennant pass the day-to-day running of the business to a fourth generation. His three daughters, Alison, Jane and Caroline, were made directors of the business in 2012, while plans to expand the Auction Centre are currently out to tender. The New Year began in strong fashion with a £265,000 uncatalogued sale of country house furnishings on January 4.
The Fine Art Auction Group, who in December were acquired by Noble Investments, reported 2012 hammer sales at Dreweatts at £13.7m. Achieved without the benefit of a six- or seven-figure 'windfall' lot, this included solid trading in all four of its saleroom locations: Donnington Priory, Bristol, Godalming and select events at the Mayfair premises of Bloomsbury Auctions.
A further £8.8m in sales at London books and works on paper specialists Bloomsbury brought the aggregate figure to £22.5m (in 2011 TFAAG reported premium-inclusive sales of £27.4m across its three auction houses: Dreweatts, Bloomsbury and BCVA).
Chairman Stephan Ludwig told ATG the focus for 2013 would be to maintain the momentum achieved in the 18 months since the two firms merged in June 2011, but he anticipates TFAAG's inclusion in the Noble stable alongside coin specialist Baldwins and stamp auctioneers Apex Philatelic, will create new opportunities - "as, no doubt, will our newfound status as the only UK Stock Exchange-listed auctioneer of antiques, art and collectables."
Internationally, TFAAG are reopening a Bloomsbury Auctions franchise in Rome and expect to be heavily involved with the first 'Western antiques and works of art' auction in China, held in the Xiamen Freeport this April.
Expansion in Essex
Work is under way to extend Sworders' state-of-the-art premises - a strong indication of a decent trading year in Stansted Mountfitchet. Expansion and the continued development of online bidding, mean that the four-year-old building - already the largest straw-bale structure in Europe - has increased its footprint by 30%.
January to December sales in 2012 were £6.51m, almost matching the Sworders' record take of £6.54m posted in 2011. The specialist sales were up on 2011 but the weekly sales in the second half of the year dropped quite significantly, which was the underlying cause of the fall.
Managing director Guy Schooling told ATG: "2011 was easily our best ever year, so we are delighted to match the total turnover under difficult trading conditions in 2012. Prior to the Olympics, our weekly sales were as busy as they had ever been; however, these sales tailed off significantly once the Olympics got under way, and never recovered."
He nonetheless looks forward to 2013 with considerable optimism having already secured "several outstanding consignments".
The need to turn assets into cash in times of economic travail brought some surprisingly good consignments to the block in Ireland. There was solid demand for 'blue-chip' fine art names: the top price for the year at Adams of Dublin being Louis Le Brocquy's Procession with Lilies consigned by Independent News and Media and sold to a private Irish collector for €320,000.
Managing director James O'Halloran considered 2012 a "relatively good year" with total hammer sales of €7.2m and selling rates for Irish art averaging 80%. Brown furniture remained "stubbornly hard to shift at any price" (average selling rates for furniture and chattels slipped to 74%), but silver had seen a resurgence and biannual jewellery sales had been a significant new source of revenue.
"The demand for anything high quality is still as strong as ever," he said.
The continuing strength of gold and silver prices helped sustain demand for precious stones and other forms of portable wealth at Fellows of Birmingham, where the hammer total was £10.9m. In 2011 they had been a fraction over £10m, itself a 27% growth on 2010.
Much of the 9% year-on-year gain in 2012 came in the watch department (where business was up by around a quarter) and a busy calendar of close to 70 sales (even more are planned for 2013). But director Stephen Whittaker echoed others when he said business had been patchy. From the onset of the Jubilee celebrations to the close of the Paralympics, consignment rates had slowed - the Great Summer of Sport proving a distraction.
The View from the SOFAA
Commenting on the wider marketplace in his capacity as chairman of the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers, Paul Viney gaveATGthis brief summary of the feedback received from various SOFAA members.
1. For most salerooms 2012 was a pleasingly satisfactory year, if not exceptional.
2. One or two have commented that the brown furniture market may finally be showing signs of awakening from its slumbers of the last few years, but it's too early to be sure.
3. Middle-range Chinese items seem to have plateaued but for the very best pieces prices are still stratospheric.
4. As well as wine, the Chinese have shown interest in jewellery, clocks and mechanical objects.
5. Silver and jewellery both performed strongly over the year.
6. The old adage of 'the best is the easiest to sell' remains a truism.
7. Most members were surprisingly optimistic about the prospects for 2013.