DESIGN: Going, Going ... ; What's It like Buying Furniture at Auction? Easier, and Cheaper, Than You Might Imagine. Albert Hill Joins the Eager Bidders on the Hunt for Modern Classics at Bonhams in London. Photographs by Philip Sinden
Hill, Albert, The Independent (London, England)
AT FIRST Dan Tolson is suspicious. Tolson, head of modern design at Bonhams Auctioneers, has seen countless articles claiming its readers could have an insanely valuable design classic kicking around their kitchen, and they wouldn't even know about it. "The result," groans the 29-year- old Tolson, is that he gets "bombarded on a daily basis" by people convinced that their chipped egg cup from Ikea, circa 1990, is worth the same as an 18th-century Chippendale cabinet. "Ninety nine per cent of the stuff people bring in to show me," he admits laughingly, "is complete crap." And the last thing he wants is another magazine article bringing fresh hoards of hopefuls to his door.
Let's get something straight then. There are thousands of pieces of furniture and glassware "in the style of" the established design classics by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames and Poul Kjaerholm, but very little is the real thing; the ones people will pay considerable prices for. And while we're on the subject, there's another common misconception about his business that Tolson would like to consign to the wastebin too. Bonhams, Christie's and Sotheby's, Britain's principal auction houses, do not just endlessly auction multi-million-pound Rembrandts to aristocrats and fat cats. The far less glamorous bread-and-butter sales that you'll find taking place in cramped rooms on any given day at these places will, almost certainly, have things selling for silly prices but, far more commonly, bids will hover around surprisingly accessible estimates, usually far less than you would find in antique or f vintage shops. And sometimes the clientele is aged below 50.
Tolson insisted I come along to his next Modern Design sale and see for myself. So, on a wet, windy Tuesday evening I arrived in Knightsbridge. The inside of Bonhams looked as if it had been hit by a hurricane. There were no gents in black brogues or ladies with pearls, only builders hammering away at a "refurbishment". When directed by an electrician to the saleroom, the scene there was no less hectic. Dan Tolson was standing surrounded by a sea of chairs, sideboards and dangling pendant lights as he looked over the lots for the last time. There were the Eames lounge chair and ottomans that Tolson, the previous day, had described as his "bankers". "I could put 200 of these in a sale and have no worries about shifting them". There's the Alvar Aalto trolley that he had enthused was "crazy business. As rare as hen's teeth. I have only seen three of them in the last 10 years." The birch wood trolley was produced in 1935 and it has aged considerably, acquiring what Tolson lovingly describes as "a really rich, warm patina". It appears far more humble and battered than you would ever imagine an icon of modern design to look, and it's no surprise to learn that Tolson has had to tolerate numerous porters, receptionists and even colleagues laughing disbelievingly at his pounds 1,500 estimate for the piece.
Aside from these well-recognised pieces, though, it's lot 65 that really gets Tolson twitching with excitement. He shakes his head in awe as he looks at what is listed as "A Rare Springbok Dining Suite by the [English] designer, Ernest Race", with an estimate sale price of pounds 4,000-pounds 6,000. "That will make someone a lot of money one day," he says, almost ruefully. "The table might be the only one of its kind, and Race is a hugely underrated designer."
Slowly the public trickle into the saleroom. Horrifyingly, many of them immediately plonk themselves down on the assorted chairs. Surely that's not allowed? I wait for the loitering porters to shoo them all off, but no, this is obviously the way it works. Early birds include an elderly couple …
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Publication information: Article title: DESIGN: Going, Going ... ; What's It like Buying Furniture at Auction? Easier, and Cheaper, Than You Might Imagine. Albert Hill Joins the Eager Bidders on the Hunt for Modern Classics at Bonhams in London. Photographs by Philip Sinden. Contributors: Hill, Albert - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: November 2, 2002. Page number: 74,75,76,77. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.