Opinion: Why the most unexpected antiques often have the most value

Black and white photo from Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads by Peter Henry Emerson

One of the photographs from Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads by Peter Henry Emerson, which sold for £66,000 - Credit: Keys Auctioneers

Tim Blyth of Keys Auctioneers and Valuers, says that the most unexpected items sometimes turn out to be really valuable.

Those lucky people who have paintings by Seago or Munnings hanging on their wall, or whose display cabinets are straining with exquisite Dresden tea sets, or whose bookshelves are home to rare first editions, are all generally well aware of the value of their possessions. When such items go under the hammer in the saleroom, there is always a frisson, but no-one is especially surprised when they make good money.

But perhaps the most satisfying occasions for auctioneers are when something which the vendor thinks of as mundane attracts frenzied bidding, and achieves a hammer price far beyond expectations – and you would be surprised just how often this happens.

Every antiques dealer and auctioneer will tell you the apocryphal story of the chap whose dog has been drinking for years out of a bowl which turns out to be Ming dynasty. But ridiculous as that urban myth sounds, it is very much rooted in reality.

Just last week we sold a wooden ‘bench’ in our monthly Antiques and Interiors sale. Bidders may have been slightly surprised to see a large oil stain on the seat; this is because the owner had been using it as a tool bench in his garage, believing it to be a mundane and cheap piece of furniture. Fortunately for him, an expert from Keys spotted it as a 19th century elm settle; even with the oil stain, it sold for £3,200.

19th century elm settle, which sold for £3,200 at a Keys auction

19th century elm settle, sold for £3,200 - Credit: Keys Auctioneers

On Monday what looked like a couple of ornate but old cigarette boxes sold for £1,000, after we identified them as Chinese calligraphy boxes, much to the surprise and delight of the vendor.

And in this month’s Picture Sale, a pencil drawing of a stag, picked up by the vendor in a charity shop, sold for £900 after our head of pictures was able to attribute it to Alfred Munnings.

A pencil sketch of a stag by artist Alfred Munnings, which sold for £900 in Keys Auctioneers sale

An Alfred Munnings sketch, which sold for £900 - Credit: Keys Auctioneers

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Perhaps the biggest surprise (for the vendor, at least) happened a few years ago, when a box of books was brought in by someone clearing out his late father’s house. Most of the books held little value, but hidden away was a volume of photographs of the Norfolk Broads, dating from the Victorian era.

Luckily for the vendor, our expert immediately spotted it as a very rare copy of Peter Henry Emerson’s Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads – which sold for a whopping £66,000.

Pair of Chinese calligraphy boxes, which sold at a Keys Auction in Norfolk for £1,000

Pair of ChinPair of Chinese calligraphy boxes, sold for £1,000ese calligraphy boxes, sold for £1,000 - Credit: Keys Auctioneers

You do wonder how many of these hidden treasures simply don’t make it to the saleroom. I know of one occasion when someone threw a whole box of printed advertising for vintage tractors in a skip, believing them to be worthless. Had they been saved from being pulped, they would have fetched a five figure sum.

The lesson here is that even the most mundane-seeming item could have the potential to be a saleroom star lot. Too many people go for the easy option of allowing house clearers to simply take everything away, without consulting experts about its true value. As you can see, this could be an expensive mistake.

Full details of all of Keys Auctioneers and Valuers forthcoming sales can be found at www.keysauctions.co.uk.

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