Marc Allum: live auctions very much alive

Antiques Roadshow presenter Marc AllumAfter taking part in a three-day, 2,242-lot sale, Antiques Roadshow expert Marc Allum is pleased to report the live auction is very much alive

I’ve recently coined a new saying: the ‘Wither’s effect.’ You might remember I recently wrote about working on one of the biggest single-owner collections I’d encountered in recent decades (owned by George Withers) and the thrill of discovery as we worked our way through tens of thousands of old school antiques. Well, it seems my faith in the attraction of ‘proper’ antiques has been well and truly restored.

The resulting auction, at Dore and Rees in Frome, Somerset, was a ‘white glove’ sale, which in saleroom jargon means that all of the 2,242 lots sold. No mean achievement, although it was a ‘without reserve’ sale.

Armchair collectors

What soon became apparent as the sale went online, was that the late great George Withers was going to generate his own momentum and, as the condition reports started to roll in, the curse of the online armchair shopper started to take effect.

We were swamped with thousands of condition reports. Many were extremely demanding and the man hours required were cheerfully subsumed by the team, all of this on top of conducting a physical view, too. It took three days to sell the lots with a non-stop rotation of myself, Lisa Lloyd and Lee Young working 13-hour days on the rostrum.


Also, spare a thought for the clerks and backroom staff who were at some points running four online platforms, telephones and continual relentless enquiries. The sale’s top seller, hammering at £14,000 was a set of Elizabethan sycamore ‘trenchers.’ Dating from the late 16th or early 17th century; they gave us a wonderful insight into 500-year-old dining traditions.

The roundels would have been used as a plate and then turned over to reveal a verse which diners might read or sing – a bit like today’s cracker joke. Another lot which attracted a lot of pre- sale publicity was made up of two Ancient Egyptian lizard coffins, dating to around 500BC, which were expected to sell for £150-£200 but made £1,100 on the day. Both hinted at the breadth of George’s eclectic collecting range and his wonderful world treasures.

Old school dealers

What I did particularly enjoy was the nostalgic sense of occasion. In a modern saleroom environment where views can be very quiet, this was completely different. Hundreds of people came to look at the lots. It seemed everybody wanted a bit of George’s collecting and dealing legacy and I was constantly having conversations with people I hadn’t seen for many years, even decades.

Old school dealers, the real eccentrics of the antiques world and collectors from all walks of life, plus all the different strata of the art and antiques world came through the doors and generated a premium atmosphere for high prices and objects which hadn’t seen the light of day for decades.

Many had tales to tell about George. But for us, one of the main pleasures, despite the enormous amount of work, has been putting the collection back into the marketplace and the hands of collectors.

Temporary blip

Being a collector myself I’ve never been of the opinion that the items are mine. They’re mine for a while and I hope that George would have had the same opinion, too.

Part two of the sale, although smaller, will I am sure attract much attention with plenty of interesting items still to go under the hammer. This is to be followed by some superlative Asian Art items in May.

Let’s see if the ‘Wither’s effect’ was just a temporary blip feeding some real connoisseurship.

Because, despite the often gloomy appraisal of which antiques are popular, or not, the sale demonstrated beyond doubt that George had a discerning eye for what collectors really want.

Marc Allum is an author, lecturer and specialist on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. For more details go to