Sarah Duncan heads up London auction house Chiswick Auctions‘ Jewellery Department. Prior to taking up the role, she spent six years working in the jewellery department at Bonhams. Her professional interests include posy rings and British jewellery designers of the 1970s.
What was the first antique you ever acquired?
That’s a really tricky one. Both my grandmothers had a passion for antiques. One ran an antique shop in the US and the other was an avid collector throughout Europe.
Our family homes were permanently full of antiques. But the first piece of proper piece of jewellery I ever bought at auction was a vintage gold Lalaounis ring. It wasn’t so long after I got married and moved to London so it was a big investment. I still wear it all the time.
Why, and when, did you start?
After studying archaeology and classics, the auction world seemed like a logical move but jobs were competitive so it took some time. I started with Bonhams in 2011 as an administrator and worked my way up.
Who influenced you most when you started in the business?
My parents both have an amazing eye for quality and workmanship; I’m very grateful to have inherited that.
In the auction world, I was lucky enough to work with some amazingly knowledgeable colleagues and I just absorbed as much as I could – like a sponge.
What piece would you like to find?
I’m a huge fan of 19th-century archaeological revival jewellery and there were some spectacular pieces made. The beauty of the craftsmanship is breathtaking, as was the knowledge of the jewellers at the time. By having access to the original archaeological finds, their jewels were wonderful examples of period reproductions of classical works. I’m pleased these works are still holding their value and can be highly sought after. Having said that, in terms of value and beauty, I’ll never stop hunting for Cartier art deco pieces.
Best buy and biggest mistake?
As part of the auction world, I don’t buy very much, just the occasional personal treat. In terms of mistakes, I think the biggest is to buy something you don’t enjoy, or wear. I once bought a beautiful art deco emerald ring, which I am too scared to wear, so it sits in my jewellery box not getting the attention it deserves.
My best buy may be my dinner set. We spent an hour digging it out of boxes at a car boot sale. The dealer had brought it in France and, clearly, it had been left to rot in a shed for decades. It is a lovely porcelain set made in Belgium in the 1880s and I use it every day. We paid £3 for the lot.
What do you like most about today’s antiques business?
I’m lucky enough to work in a discipline which is burgeoning. I’m thrilled to see the strong prices jewellery is making at auctions worldwide. Academically, I’m so encouraged by the new research that treats jewellery as a serious subject. Symposiums like Jewellery Matters in Amsterdam last year indicate there is a real change in the air in terms of thinking about jewellery.
What do you dislike most about today’s antiques business?
Making antiques appeal to younger people can be challenging. It’s disheartening to see that some would rather fill their homes (and their jewellery boxes) with mass produced items instead of something that’s been hand crafted and will stand the test of time.
Do you attend fairs, if so, which?
I find myself at such a broad spectrum of UK fairs every year – from Masterpiece to Sunbury Antiques Market in Kempton. However, I’m only there as a spectator, never an exhibitor. There are certain fairs which I’d love to attend, such as the Tucson Gem and Mineral Fair and the Miami fairs. They’re on my to-do list!
What is the reference book you couldn’t live without?
Probably Understanding Jewellery by David Bennett and Daniela Mascetti (published by the Antique Collectors’ Club). I don’t know a single specialist or dealer who doesn’t have a copy on their bookshelves. It’s a wonderful guide of jewels over the last 300 years.
What is your favourite everyday non-antiques activity?
It would probably be food and wine related. I’m lucky that my husband is a wonderful home chef and we really enjoy the London culinary scene.
What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
Probably a bigger house so I can buy more beautiful pieces to fill it (and a puppy).