Amy Brenan is an auctioneer and valuer at Duke’s of Dorchester with a specialism in jewellery. She started her life as an auctioneer at the age of 19 working at her local auction house, a livestock market, during university holidays. Her first auction was on a cold December day selling 900 lots of turkeys ready for Christmas! From thereon she caught the bug and having moved to the arts department of the auction house, was headhunted by Duke’s as a junior valuer at the age of 23. She’s now in her tenth year at Duke’s and is qualified as a member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors as a gemologist.
What are the current top sellers in the auction room?
Sparkle and novelty, coupled with quality will always sell. Jewellery and watches are top sellers at the moment since they are viewed as solid yet useable investments – both have an intrinsic value due to the gemstones and metal but can be worn and enjoyed whilst improving in value. Buyers are very image focused: jewellery and watches have a status value and are portable symbols of wealth so the desire is always there.
What antiques do you have at home?
A real mixture! I only buy what I like, not for investment so my collection is eclectic, full of different styles and periods. Condition doesn’t bother me – part of the joy of collecting is looking at chips and a cracks in a piece – it is part of its history and a mark of its longevity. My favourite piece is a basic George III mahogany bureau which belonged to Helen Brotherton, the lady who was instrumental in conserving Brownsea island in Dorset for the National Trust. It is not worth much but the fact that she sat at that bureau every day until the day she died writing letters gives it a mystery to me which is invaluable. I have a small collection of Art Deco paste buckles which I display in a glazed frame and which I love for the ‘tutti frutti’ garish colours in them!
My father-in-law’s Carol Weight portrait painting entitled ‘Pauline’ so I could buy it. I love that picture and hope that he will sell it to me one day! Failing that, to be able to sell a piece of genuine Renaissance jewellery would be amazing. Just think of the history behind a jewel like that!
What has been your most exciting sale so far and why?
Every sale is exciting because of the anticipation. Having seen an object in situ at home, bringing it in to the saleroom and cataloguing and then seeing what it makes (and seeing if you have got it right or not) and finally getting to see it in its new home is always a bonus. However, the most exciting (but unconventional) auction I have taken by far has to be a sale of Rupert Bear memorabilia. We broke the record for the most expensive Rupert bear annual ever sold at £23,000. It was the most expensive thing I had ever sold on the rostrum at that stage and I was only 23.
Will people go to auction houses in 20 years or will sales all be online?
They absolutely will still go to auctions though what we will sell to them will be entirely different. Nothing beats the excitement of bidding and I don’t think it will be long before people begin to appreciate quality and start to reject the ‘cheap and cheerful’ throw-away society that we have all become used to.
Tell us some trade secrets – what are your top tips for being at an auction?
Make sure the auctioneer can see you. It is your responsibility to communicate your bid and these days an auctioneer has so many places to look (think phone bids, internet bids, commission bids and room bidders) that he can easily miss you if you are hidden behind something! Also attend as many real auctions as you can, the internet doesn’t give you the full perspective. You can only understand prices properly if you see who is bidding and have examined what they are bidding for. Chatting to other bidders is a great way of learning and swapping knowledge.
Will brown furniture make a comeback?
Yes I think it already has done to some extent. The best quality brown furniture never really went off but these days it is all about the styling of the piece and the functionality of it. Small items fit into modern homes more easily and people are also looking at other uses for furniture. For example, big old travelling trunks are now used as stylish coffee tables and I have known several clients buy bureaus as dressing tables – the fall flap means they can hide away their mess and have less to dust!
Where are your favourite antique hunting destinations?
The Shepton Mallet antiques fairs are huge and sell such a range of pieces that you can never fail to spot something. I also love looking though tiny local salerooms as quite often things get missed or overlooked in the small cramped rooms.
Young people don’t like antiques – agree or disagree?
Disagree! I have met so many interested teenagers but the problem for them is getting on the career ladder since auction houses do not have specific apprenticeship programs and there is no clear route of study to ‘qualify’ as a valuer/auctioneer.
What’s the future for the trade?
It has to be a positive one since the whole industry is undergoing such a lot of change, especially to regulation. In some instances, I don’t think prices can get worse so they have to go up at some point and I’m sure we will see new bubbles in the market appearing as we have done with Asian Art, coins and amber. It’s predicting them that is the challenge!