It’s a fast-paced world when you could discover a priceless work of art – or bag a bargain. Amy Norbury goes behind the scenes at Lichfield’s Richard Winterton Auctioneers to discover more
The vast saleroom is a hive of activity as preparations are underway for the latest auction. Lots for the three-day home and interiors sale are being carefully sorted and catalogued, before being photographed for the auction brochure.
Room after room are filled with all manner of items, each being prepared for its moment in the spotlight. Walls are adorned with gilt-framed mirrors and art prints and originals as far as the eye can see, while the furniture storage room is stacked high with tables, chairs, sideboards and sofas of all descriptions.
At the other end of the building, there are rooms filled with ceramics and glass, toys and games, medals and coins – you name it.
But it’s not just fine art, antiques and collectables. The latest home and interiors sale includes electronic goods like fridges and televisions, even a box of XBox games and accessories, as well as slightly more random items including several motorbike helmets.
Highlights of an upcoming toys and railwayana sale include a “very rare” vintage model Birmingham bus with an impressive guide price of £300 to £400, and a full-sized replica Dalek which could be yours for an estimated £250 to £350 – unless dedicated Doctor Who fans send the bidding soaring.
Over the years, Richard Winterton’s Lichfield auction centre has seen pretty much everything you can imagine come through the doors on it’s way to a new home, secured by the highest bidder.
“”It certainly makes life interesting,” says Richard. “It doesn’t matter to us what we sell; if we can put a lot number on it and shift it, we’re happy.
“We have bikes, cars, microwaves, cookers, three-piece suits and the like coming from house clearances which go into our homes sales, and then at the other end of the scale we move up to the top-end fine art lots.
“We had a garden sale recently where you could by tools, chainsaws, garden ornaments and furniture.
“Watches, wines and whiskeys are all quite hot at the moment, but I really just love anything which is going to come in and sell well.”
While the run-up to a sale involves a steady stream of activity behind the scenes before the public is invited in to view the items for sale – with up to 1,500 lots on offer in a three-day sale – it is in the saleroom itself on auction day when things reach fever pitch.
Punters pack in, some having taken advantage of the last-minute early morning viewing opportunity, some already prepared with items on their wishlist, and there’s a distinct buzz of anticipation as Richard prepares to take the rostrum.
With one eye on the room and one on the screen which shows bidding activity online – as well as the occasional glance across to the bank of telephone bidders – you may think it’s difficult to keep track of the fast-moving activity. And, for the inexperienced, you’d be right. But for Richard, it comes as second nature.
“When I first started there were people in front of you and a few bids on the book; now it’s the internet, it’s telephones, my screen has bids coming all over and I can see where they’re all coming from,” he says. “At our last auction we had about 730 people bidding online. And we get online bidders from around the world, not just the UK; we’ve got bidders registered in 15 countries.”
And with Richard eagle-eyed at the helm, you don’t have to worry about inadvertently bidding on an unwanted item with a scratch of the nose or a wipe of the brow. Years of experience mean he instinctively knows who’s interested – often even before the bidding starts.
“People bid in all sorts of ways,” laughs Richard. “We’ve still got the old farmers who wink and nudge, and it’s just instinctive. I know instantly who’s looking for certain items; if we have a watch come up, or jewellery, I know where in the room to look for bidders.
“And everything happens at pace, it’s really quick. A lot of auctioneers are different, but lots of people come to us because we don’t mess around, we just get on with selling and get through the lots quickly. Time is precious to people so we don’t waste it.”
The Winterton family name has been synonymous with auctioneering in Staffordshire since 1864, from its early beginnings in the Smithfield livestock market in Lichfield. As the sixth generation born into a family of auctioneers – son Tom, who now works alongside Richard is the seventh – auctioneering is the only career choice he ever imagined.
“Since I was a little boy, there was no doubt,” says Richard. “My family were livestock auctioneers so we were brought up with it; Monday was cattle market day and there were different things going on all the time. It was all I wanted to do. I was away at school from the age of eight and every time I was back it was straight up to the market. As soon as I could get out of college at 17 or 18 I was straight into the business; I just wanted to get hands-on.”
The auction house is a true family business; as well as Richard and Tom valuing lots and taking charge on sale days, Richard’s wife Janet works tirelessly behind the scenes, unpacking, checking and preparing items for auction alongside a dedicated team.
“The whole process, from me going out to value an item to someone buying it and it being packed up and taken away is a huge amount of work,” says Richard.
“Everything has to be checked over pre-sale, we pride ourselves on that. And it doesn’t end at the auction; our after-sales work involves packaging items up for posting or delivering.”
Richard’s expertise is broad, and at house clearances he is the first person to cast his eye over and assess the potential of items for sale. But he relies on his team of expert valuers to get to the nitty gritty.
“I’ve got a very broad eye, but my valuers will dig deeper,” Richard says. “I would know a Doulton vase is a Doulton period piece from 1910, but Sarah (senior valuer Sarah Leedham) would be able to tell me who the artist is, exactly when it was made, whether it was limited edition, all the finer detail.”
House clearances make up a sizeable portion of the auction house’s business; both for downsizing purposes and sadder occasion involving divorce or a deceased estate. Richard and his team are well experienced in the delicate nature of such work.
“We have to deal with people going through an emotional, traumatic time so it’s of the utmost importance to be sensitive,” says Richard. “Clearing a house is a difficult job, especially when you’re dealing with the emotional side of things too, and our team is brilliant at helping to smooth out the process.”
House clearances, in particular, can throw up some unusual items. So what sort of things usually pique the interests of buyers?
“Local interest is always good; postcards do really well and we’ve had some nice postcard collections from Lichfield and Sutton which haven’t been seen before,” says Richard. “Postcards are very difficult to value though; we might not have seen them but everyone might have them and they may not be rare at all, so we tend to put each collection together as one lot.
“A lot of people are interested in social history, and there’s a huge market for nostalgia.
“I love medals, and the people who collect medals are so passionate,” he adds. “First World War medals were always engraved with names so people who are buying medals are looking at the age of that medal and wondering if the recipient survived, was young enough to go into the Second World War, or if he was too old for the Second World War did he go to the Boer War? They want to build a history around these medals, and it’s fascinating.”
Weird and wonderful, often macabre, items also attract a huge amount of attention from buyers – especially if there’s a historical element.
“A calling card left by Jack the Ripper has just sold down south for thousands,” says Richard.
The item in question was an ink-written card which arrived at Ealing Police Station on October 29, 1888 – just 11 days before the serial killer’s last suspected victim Mary Kelly was disembowelled, and was found among a selection of cards put up for auction. The hammer price? £22,000, with a final price closer to £30,000 once an auction premium is paid.
“Macabre will always sell,” says Richard. “We’re thinking of doing an ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ sale in December; we had a pair of glass eyes come in yesterday and we had a false leg from 1910 at our last sale, so I want to do a sale of weird and wonderful lots. We get all sorts of strange things coming in, so I think if we can put together 100 or so lots, it’ll be a good talking point and people will come along just to have a look.”
The unpredictable nature of auctions, with bidding varying wildly from one sale to the next, means that punters should buy things for enjoyment, rather than any sort of long-term investment, stresses Richard.
“People ask me what they should buy to invest in but that’s the wrong thing to do; if you’re going into antiques, do it because you like it and want to enjoy it,” he explains. “For me, it’s value for money; if you go and buy at Ikea or places like that, furniture costs a lot for what it is and it won’t last. But if you go and spend a couple of hundred quid on a quality piece at auction that’s been built to last it’ll hold its price, or it won’t lose you much. It’s good value.
“It’s always interesting to see what things make, and it changes from sale to sale. What goes well one week might not be so good the next, it just depends who’s in the room and who’s online.
“And there’s a competitive element with bidding, so if there are two people after the same lot it can go up and up. But quality will always sell; it doesn’t matter what it is, furniture, pictures, the top end will always do well.
“The main concern of the job, for me, is handling people’s expectations. People bring items in for auction which they think are worth hundreds, when in reality they’ll make a fiver. Everyone thinks they’ve got something which is worth something, but we have to be brutally honest. We’re happy to sell it for them and it makes what it makes.”
Over the years, Richard has done his bit to raise the profile of auctions in Staffordshire, appearing on both BBC’s Bargain Hunt and ITV’s Dickinson’s Real Deal, two shows which have helped to popularise auctions among the masses.
“We’ve done Bargain Hunt for a very long time,” says Richard. “We were one of the first on Bargain Hunt and we did the very first live show, which was exciting I have to say. I was trying to sell and it was non-stop chatter in my ear from the production team, which is so difficult. It gives you new admiration for newsreaders and the like who have to do their job with constant talking in their ear.
“On our second live show, we had a lot which just went higher and higher, it made about £760; it was right near the end of the show and the bidding just kept going and the production team were saying ‘RIchard, we need to wrap it up, we go off-air in a minute-and-a-half and we need to do the wraps’, and I’m there with a live bidding going on, which you just can’t stop!
“Shows like Bargain Hunt and Dickinson’s Real Deal have opened up the world of auctions to a wider audience,” adds Richard. “They make auctions seem more accessible, which is what we need to get across.
“Yes, we have prestigious fine art coming into sale, but honestly there really is something for everyone. We don’t want people to feel afraid to come along. There might be a perception that auctions are a bit elitist, but they’re not in the slightest. You might even get a bargain.”
For more information, visit the Lichfield Auction Centre at Wood End Lane, Fradley Park, call 01543 251081 or visit the website at www.richardwinterton.co.uk