2021: a year of continued change and opportunity

By Geoff Harris

For our first antiques blog of 2021 we consider some of the key changes – and challenges – that will be affecting how we buy and sell in the next year.

While it’s easy to feel downcast about the ongoing economic damage caused by the pandemic – particularly as some very skilled specialists at auction houses and dealers have ended up losing their jobs – there are reasons for optimism too, and some exciting new opportunities.

Online auctions are now the new normal

While online auctions were already well established in 2020, the pandemic has expedited both their growth and public acceptance. Sure, most of us would rather mooch around an auction room or dealer than stare at a computer or phone screen, but live sales and specialist timed sales have proven understandably popular during the various lockdowns. Sotheby’s, for example, held over 400 timed auctions in 2020, generating sales of $570 million – more than seven times the value achieved in 2019.

Physical auctions are likely to return once the restrictions lift, but online auctions are definitely here to stay.

Online auction. Credit: Gildings

If you are still a bit nervous about taking part in an online auction, don’t be. You usually need to register in advance, including your payment details, but auction houses will have staff to help you and answer any questions. Make sure you are clear about the Buyer’s Premium and other hidden charges, but don’t let these put you off; some big auctioneers, such as Gildings, have reduced their fees while customers are unable to attend in person, for example – so it’s a good time to dip your toes in the water.

A big fear for many online auction newcomers is the quality (or lack of it) of the items they are buying – after all, you can’t see the goods in person before committing.

In reality, if you are buying from a reputable auction house or online service, you are unlikely to get sold something that is much worse than its description, or accompanying photographs. Auctioneers have their reputations to think of, and it’s simply not in their interest to sell you a pup – particularly with the risk of instant negative feedback on social media and review websites. You can often ask for a more detailed description of a particular item, too.

When it comes to the actual bidding, it’s not much different online – have a clear idea of the maximum amount you are able to spend, and bid strongly when the sale looks like it’s slowing to a conclusion. The beauty of online auctions is that you can watch as many as want to familiarize yourself with the process; it will also give you a better idea of how each auction house operates. Christies has put together a good beginners’ guide here.

Dealer portals will get bigger and bigger

It’s been a bumper year for major online antiques portals, which offer customers easy access to a wide range of dealers. Loveantiques.com, for example, is very easy to navigate, and only features antiques from certified dealers, with all listings approved by its in-house team before going onsale. Other good portal sites worth a visit are 2covet.com, and www.sellingantiques.co.uk. These are a great starting point for online buying if auctions seem a bit intimidating.

Brexit’s impact

While a Brexit deal has now been agreed, it is still not entirely clear how this will affect the antiques trade – whether you are buying goods from the EU or selling them over there. There is likely to be more customs paperwork, but on the positive side, buyers in the EU are likely to benefit from low VAT rates on purchases – so watch this space. And at least you will still be able to pop over to the continent to go hunting for antiques without needing a visa (unless you stay longer than three months…)

Ivory and money laundering

Well-heeled antiques buyers should also be aware that they are likely to get asked more questions when buying works of art and antiques valued above 10,000 euros – this is the result of the 5th Anti Money Laundering Directive coming into force. In other words, you will have to show where the money for that Old Master came from, before you are allowed to load it into the van.

It is also likely that 2021 will see a near total ban on the trade of items containing ivory, which will obviously affect a lot of antiques. While the law has yet to be clarified, you can understand the concern in the trade – solid ivory items are one thing, but what about furniture containing small pieces of ivory decoration, for example? The proposed exemption for items of “outstandingly high artistic, cultural or historical value” is also likely to be open to a lot of interpretation and counter-interpretation. Interesting times indeed, but on the positive side, it’s never been easier to buy antiques!

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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