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Gold prices at all-time high

Against the backdrop of the Brexit crisis and a weakening of the pound, the price of gold in the UK hit an all-time high.

The gold fix, climbing since May, peaked at £1184.17 on Friday, August 2, representing a 3.1% rise on the previous week and above the previous record of £1182 set in September 2011. The silver spot rate reached £13.64 per ounce, the highest of 2019 but some way short of record levels.

Brighton precious metals dealer Michael Bloomstein reported larger amounts of gold and silver coming in due to the increasing scrap values.

Following these peaks, the price of gold and silver fell back somewhat but remained relatively strong throughout the remainder of 2019.

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A rare complete set (one of the six shown below) of Thomas Milton’s plans of the Royal Dockyards sold to a buyer on thesaleroom.com at the David Lay sale in Penzance on August 13. Showing what was once the world’s largest industrial complex and the British state’s single biggest investment, it depicted Deptford, Woolwich, Portsmouth, Sheerness, Chatham and Plymouth.

W&W chairman steps down

In August, Paul Viney of Woolley & Wallis, a 25-year veteran at the Salisbury saleroom, handed over the role of chairman of the auction house to colleague John Axford.

An auctioneer for almost 50 years, including at Phillips for whom he opened its New York office, Viney joined W&W in 1995 as managing director. He stepped up to the role of chairman in 2000, following the retirement of Tim Woolley.

Previously deputy chairman, Axford joined W&W in 1993 as a graduate trainee valuer and has built the firm’s Asian art department to become the leading Asian art auction house outside London.

Since Viney joined, the firm has tripled in size by staff and its total annual hammer is now £20m – up from £2m – which puts it top of UK fine art auction houses based outside London.

As reported in this week’s News pages, W&W deputy chairman Clive Stewart-Lockhart is also standing down, by the end of March 2020.

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Some of the rarest and most desirable of all English creamware jugs were those made for the American market. One of them, titled Signals at Portland Observatory, sold for $4400/£3600 (plus premium) at the Bourgeault-Horan auction in Portsmouth, New Hampshire August 18. The Portland Observatory was built in 1807 by Captain Lemuel Moody (1768-1845) who seemingly ordered 75 of these 9in (22cm) high jugs in Liverpool or Staffordshire, c.1807, to give or sell to subscribers to his service. The borders are captioned vignettes with evocative titles, some of which were by John Cleveley the Elder (c.1712- 77) who was a Deptford dockyard shipwright as well as a painter. The engraving was by French émigré Pierre-Charles Canot (c.1710-77). Estimated at £600-800, they sold at £10,000 (plus 18% buyer’s premium).

Stolen vases returned

The FBI’s art crime team and auction house Christie’s returned a pair of Nazi-looted Louis XVI bronze vases valued at $120,000 to the heirs of the original Jewish owners.

They were consigned to Christie’s New York by an unnamed source but it was discovered through the due diligence process, which included checking lost art databases, that the pieces were part of the unrestituted property that had belonged to Lucie Mayer-Fuld in the 1930s. They had previously surfaced in London at an auction in 1997, and then again in another auction in 2000.

Christie’s worked together with the FBI to secure the return of the vases.

This was one of several high-profile restitutions that took place in 2019.

These included a self-portrait drawing by Swiss artist Karl Stauffer-Bern (1857-91) that was returned to the family of its original Jewish owners and sold for €115,000 (£101,455) at Berlin saleroom Grisebach in May.

Aa Dutch Old Master that had entered the collection of Adolf Hitler’s photographer Heinrich Hoffmann was returned to its original owners by Xanten Cathedral in Germany.

Fraudster sentenced

Art adviser Timothy Sammons was sentenced to up to 12 years in prison after a New York court found he had used his profile to broker sales and obtain loans using paintings he did not own, “then betrayed that trust by pocketing the proceeds of those sales to fund his own lavish lifestyle”.

Pictures including Chagall’s Rêverie, Calanque de Canoubier (Pointe de Bamer) by Paul Signac and Picasso’s Buste de Femme were used to steal between $10m-30m from clients from the UK, US and New Zealand.

Before sentencing, Sammons – a former head of Chinese art at Sotheby’s – said: “I have always said how extremely sorry I am for the trauma I caused.”