Auction Hunter: reflections on buying an antique mirror

Illustration of a woman looking at mirrors
© Zebedee Helm

Last month, while browsing the catalogue for Dreweatts’ fine furniture sale, I came across a large, 19th-century, Swedish Baroque-style mirror bordered by deep blue glass. It was crowned with gilded cherubs and garden urns, and adding to the romance was its provenance, having been acquired by Douglas Hogg, former Lord Chancellor, in the first half of the 20th century, and passed along to his descendants. I wasn’t really in the market for a mirror, but was so taken with this one that I decided to lob in a bid.

I needn’t have bothered. Estimated by Dreweatts to fetch between £1,200 and £1,800, a flurry of pre-bidding activity drove the price up to £11,000 before the auction even began. On the day, it hammered down at £18,368 with fees. For a 19th-century mirror done in an 18th-century style, it was a stunning price. What had I — and more importantly, what had Dreweatts — missed?

“It’s quite unpredictable,” says Ben Brown, head of the furniture department at Dreweatts. “But it ticked all the boxes: originality, size, appearance with the very distinctive blue glass. Still, we did feel it was 19th rather than 18th century [which would have lowered the valuation]. Obviously, the provenance helped.”

Generally speaking, valuations are informed by originality, age, provenance and what comparable examples previously fetched at auction. But there are prevailing tastes too. Some years ago, new mirror plates were preferred, for example; now there is a premium for original or at least older plates. Frames that have been regilded or heavily repaired will also knock down a valuation.

The nice thing about dramatically losing a lot at auction — versus being the underbidder — is you don’t lose sleep wondering if you should have gone just a little higher. But it did

Read the rest