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Photo gallery: Keys Fine Art Auctioneers celebrates 60th anniversary year

PUBLISHED: 06:30 16 November 2013

Keys Auctioneers celebrating their 60th anniversary. Roy Murphy.
PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Keys Auctioneers celebrating their 60th anniversary. Roy Murphy. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2013

It started with chickens - “lots” of them.

Keys’ best prices

■ The item sold by Keys which has made the most money to date was a mid-19th century oil painting of a Mexican view by the English artist Daniel Thomas Egerton which went under the hammer in 2011 for £180,000. Roy Murphy believes it is now in the care of a Mexican museum of art.

■ A pair of Sheraton bow-fronted commodes sold for £135,000 in 1990.

■ Back in the 1970s a silver cup belonging to the Walpole family sold for £20,000, the equivalent of about £262,000 today.

■ Keys celebrated the best price ever paid for a book at one of its auctions in September when Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, with rare photographs by Peter Henry Emerson, sold for £66,000.

■ Churchilliana has become a bit of a niche market for Keys. In recent years it has sold an ashtray belonging to wartime leader Winston Churchill, one of his half-smoked cigars, a set of his ear plugs - and a pair of his false teeth.

■ Keys will hold its third annual East Anglian Art Sale on November 22 at 10.30am.

Works by Edward Seago, Eloise Stannard, Campbell Archibald Mellon, Ian Houston and a selection by the Norwich School painters Henry Bright, Thomas Lound, AG Stannard and SD Colkett are among hundreds of lots.

Anticipation is mounting over lot 402, the last in the sale, a painting by Norfolk’s “mini Monet” Kieron Williamson. It is the first work by the talented young artist, born in 2002, to come up for auction and its worth is estimated at £14,000-£18,000.

Earlier, from November 19-21, there will be a three-day sale of “fine quality” antiques.

Now, 60 years later, Aylsham-based Keys Fine Art Auctioneers deal in everything from assorted nails selling at £5 a box, to antiques, paintings and books which go under the hammer for multi-thousands of pounds to bidders from all over the world.

The firm, with a sale yard in Palmer’s Lane and eight estate agency offices around the county, is celebrating its diamond anniversary this year.

Founder Geoffrey Key’s original poultry sales ended in 2005, although one is still held every Christmas - December 20 this year.

But the weekly “country sales” of furniture and produce, plus a car sale, are still going strong and have become a much-loved Norfolk institution, creating a bustle in the market town every Monday. And once a month a “deadstock” sale of tools and other equipment is also held.

The late Mr Key first became interested in auctions when travelling to livestock sales with his farmer father.

He left school at 14 to work for AR Hunt auctioneers in North Walsham, paying a weekly train fare of 3/6d (about 17p) from his home in Salhouse, but only earning 2/6d a week (about 12p).

By 1953 he was ready to start his own business, making his own poultry pens out of telegraph poles.

One of his friends and contemporaries was turkey magnate Bernard Matthews who bought stock from the sales for a time.

Farmers began taking along other items to try and sell to the captive audience and the business expanded.

Keys, which amalgamated with estate agency Arnolds last year, now hosts regular specialist sales at its Palmer’s Lane yard in areas including pictures and prints, antiques, wine, ornithology, clocks and watches.

Roy Murphy joined the firm in 1970 as a sale room assistant and is now its fine art partner.

“I didn’t know it was going to be a lifetime’s work when I started,” said Mr Murphy, 60.

“It tends to be a vocational job - one of those interesting careers where you are always learning. You soak up information on artists, china, books and furniture like a sponge.”

Another long-serving member of staff, John Lines, joined in 1955 and retired in 2004. But the family tradition continues as his son Kevin is today Keys’ head of art department and an associate director.

Mr Murphy has fond memories of some of the Norfolk characters who have been regulars over the years.

They included Lenny Medler, from Hevingham. “He was a man of large stature who always announced his presence by buying three or four lots as soon as he arrived.”

There was Reggie Purple, from Norwich: “He was a dealer who went round all the sales. He might buy a spade from one sale and sell it at mine - it was like a revolving door.” And Ernie Lines, uncle of John, a “good old Norfolk boy” who always attended the poultry sales.

“I can remember one furniture dealer turning up with a huge roll of bank notes and peeling off £10 notes from it to pay a bill of £500 - he must have had three times that in the roll,” Mr Murphy added.

“We’ve had mole traps and vintage carpentry tools and some items which no-one knows what to do with. The old boys pass them around and ask each other and usually someone comes up with the right answer.”

Geoffrey Key died in 2001, before the arrival of internet bidding transformed his business.

Nowadays catalogues are viewed online by collectors around the world and one third of sales take place via computer.

The transformation has led to Keys taking on the equivalent of 2.5 full-time staff just to take digital photos and deal with online queries - a far cry from the days when Polaroid photos of lots were taken and posted off to enquirers, sometimes not arriving until after the auction date.

But Mr Murphy said there would always be a place for the Aylsham auction site, however much technology advanced. He added: “It’s about sociability. I can’t see people sitting in rooms by themselves and bidding for things on the internet. People like to have a chin-wag and they enjoy the thrill of being there - that’s never going to change.”

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