Helen Carless of SOFAA.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

ATG: How has SOFAA evolved in recent years?

Helen Carless: In the past 10 or so years, the art and antiques sector has become far more regulated. There is now an awful lot more that auctioneers and valuers must handle. From GDPR to anti-money laundering, changes in CITES and the Ivory Act in addition to general health and safety regulations.

At SOFAA we have adapted with these changes and are now providing an increasing amount of support and information to our members about these regulations, through seminars and regular updates.

Government and regulatory bodies are getting much better at providing guidance, but our members value SOFAA’s initiatives to ensure they are kept up-to-date with the law.

What type of events and information are you providing?

Earlier this year we held an update on the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).

Duncan Smith of legal compliance firm Icompli presented to the auctioneers and valuers gathered at the Royal Thames Yacht club a few weeks ago. The session was informative and engaging.

We have also had feedback that the combination of getting someone who is an expert to keep them up to date with the latest regulations coupled with an ability to network is key.

Smaller auction houses and sole valuers in particular comment that they don’t have the chance to meet others as often, so that is important. We are building on what members want: more networking opportunities and this year we will take these regionally.

We begin with a visit to a private collection of oriental works in Somerset later this spring. This is followed by a visit to The Burrell Collection in Glasgow where we have managed to secure a private, curator-led tour around the much anticipated Discovering Degas tour of Sir William Burrell’s complete collection of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), and finally another private visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in the autumn.

Just recently I was in conversation with a number of members who were very grateful for the work that goes into the terms and conditions, which were updated last year by Constantine Canon. This is of course at no extra cost to the members and comes as part of the fees.

Tell ATG more about education and training

Our most valued seminars have been those on AML (Anti Money Laundering) and CITES. Right from the first introduction of the (then EU) directive, we have held seminars to inform our members of the guidelines and held updates as it has developed. We have been indebted to Tom Christopherson and Rena Neville for AML and to Kim Macdonald for CITES.

We have recently commissioned a set of Anti Money Laundering videos from Rakhi Talwar and these are now available to members via the SOFAA education website. They sit alongside the five ‘Foundation’ videos that cover an introduction to the main specialities for those working at auction houses. Both these suits of videos are provided free to SOFAA members.

Some members have been using the existing Foundation videos as part of the induction process for new employees. There is an optional Q&A section at the end (with a certificate) and so some companies have been using them to encourage employees who want to progress through the profession and need a good basic grounding.

There has been a predictably high uptake for the AML training videos which can be used as part of annual AML training.

Obviously, many of the events we offer are viewed as CPD even though we do not have a formal requirement for CPD.

Does this help with getting the younger generation involved?

I think arts education in general has been sadly lacking in schools and universities and especially since the closure of the Southampton course, there really has not been any an industry-specific route.

But I would say that there are encouraging signs that more are choosing a career in our industry, and I have been delighted at how much support the biennial dinner receives among a younger group of people. We would like to find ways to give more networking opportunities for them.


A view from one of the SOFAA dinners.

I am keen to encourage more routes into the profession and more and varied ways in which those already working in an auction house can be recognised. I am currently working with other on initiatives to achieve this.

We are planning a Banksy tour in Bristol in spring 2025, which I think will appeal to a younger audience.

How do you react to criticism that SOFAA does not do enough?

I refute that allegation. SOFAA is a relatively small society especially compared to some of the art and antique trade bodies. But Covid saw us become much more involved in steering our members through a very difficult time.

This was coupled with an increase in legislation, and we have been very active in making sure that our members are kept fully abreast of AML, CITES etc.

SOFAA is an advisory body and we have shown leadership in this, which our members have been very grateful for.

We have signed up three new members this year: Tayler & Fletcher, Amati Auctions and Excalibur Auctions.

How important is SOFAA to the wider art and antiques sector?

I believe SOFAA is increasingly important. Our position with British Art Market Federation (BAMF) means we are the only ones speaking on behalf of regional auction houses in the UK. We are an increasingly important voice for the industry and government and regulators recognise this.

What about lobbying?

Lobbying is not something SOFAA has the resources to get involved with directly. But we put our members positions via BAMF and I attend the executive committee meetings. SOFAA is very much part of the ‘circulation list’ of relevant government departments and they often invite us to be part of consultations and for our feedback.

BAMF members span Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, Phillips alongside SOFAA, all representing auctioneers and valuers and in addition they have many dealer organisations, and usually we are dealing with issues relevant to all of us. We all work together as one industry to make sure our voice is heard in government.

How does SOFAA react to Sotheby’s plan to change buyer’s premium threshold and its fees to vendors?

Questions concerning the buyer’s premium are a recurring theme, but essentially it is a commercial matter for each member, in which SOFAA does not get involved in any way.