Catherine Southon has worked for 21 years within the antiques world, initially working for Sotheby’s New Bond Street for nine years as an auctioneer, specialising in Scientific Instruments and Maritime Works of Art, and subsequently as an expert on four BBC Antiques programmes for over 10 years. She set up her own auction house in 2012 and does regular valuations in her office at the Ripley Arts Centre in Bromley and around the South East. Her next auction at the Farleigh Golf Course near Croydon is on Wednesday 7 June.
Catherine Southon Q&A
What areas are currently selling well?
We’re seeing very good sales continuing in areas like 20th century design, vintage posters, Chinese works of art; fine jewellery, watches and costume jewellery. As always, our clients want good quality mixed with quirky and novelty. It’s getting increasingly harder to sell traditional antiques. Traditional items in the middle-end market are struggling a little, but on the positive, for the very best pieces it seems that money is no object and buyers will pay whatever it takes to secure the star lots.
What do you think are the current ‘good’ investment items or ones to watch in the future?
I wish I knew, but sadly I don’t have a crystal ball so I cannot predict! However, I always think it’s a good idea to buy fine pieces of modern art by living artists – those who have exhibited at well-known venues and are at the beginning of their careers. Choose wisely though, and make sure you like the painting or sculpture too! On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, I think we should encourage fans to start getting autographs of their idols just as we used to with The Beatles, The Stones, George Best, etc, rather than just taking selfies – it would be a real shame to lose the ephemera side of entertainment auctions.
What antiques do you have at home?
I buy what I like rather than collect anything in particular. I have some attractive clocks, quirky telescopes and microscope, globes, novelty inkwells and gavels. My most recent purchase has been a beautiful piece of 1920’s Lalique.
How is the industry changing and what will it look like in the future?
I’ve seen a massive change in the industry. 20 years ago, many more people used to come along to auctions and we only used to do about 20 or so condition reports on items. Today, there is so much more reliance on the auctioneer and we send out many more reports. As people are not coming to auctions so much anymore, people want you to provide every last little bit of information on a Worcester jug. Where as once upon a time one photo would have sufficed, now buyers request to see photos of items from every angle. It’s incredible what’s selling online. Having said that, it’s because there are so many auction houses now, so buyers can’t visit them all but will bid online or by phone rather than come to the auction.
Tell us some trade secrets – what are your top tips for buying antiques?
Don’t buy things just because you think it will go up in value. I know a gentleman who was advised to buy Georgian furniture, so furnished his house with it, even though he didn’t particularly like it, because he was told he would profit from it. When we did a valuation recently it was worth a fraction of the price it was bought for. So don’t buy for an investment, but buy because you like something. I’d also say to go to auctions, fairs, boot-fairs to handle items, smell the items and talk to the owners. And lastly, keep reading.
What antiques/artworks would you buy if money were no object?
I would buy a Patek Philippe watch for my husband, and probably an Alfred Sisley painting for me! I might treat myself to a piece of Cartier jewellery, too.
You’re down to your last £50 – what antiques/art would you buy?
Where’s a favourite hunting ground?
I love going to Ford Market in Arundel, West Sussex, which is rather like an upmarket carboot sale.
What are some of the biggest mistakes that buyers make?
Know your price and stick to it. Don’t get carried away in a bidding war because you can get a nasty shock when you get your bill and the reality kicks in. It’s so easy to get up in the drama of an auction and get carried away – I know I have! And then sit in your car outside and say to yourself: did I really spend all that? Write down on a piece of paper what you are going to spend.
How does the industry encourage younger buyers?
As an industry we need to do something about it. At the moment you won’t really find any particularly young people at auction, and most are over 35. The average young person thinks that an auction is all about traditional antiques, and they don’t understand how the market has changed. Perhaps we need to stop calling them antiques, even though we are still selling those, but also a lot of modern items. It’s about getting across the message that, for example, you can go to a shop and spend £5,000 on an engagement ring, or go to an auction and buy one for £1,500 to £2000.