Robin Butler on Twitter

December 2010

I am often asked about the pricing of antiques, and following the recent sale in a minor English auction house of a Chinese vase for over £50,000,000* (about $78m.), this general subject has been the focus of much discussion. It is perhaps understandable that the greatest examples of fine art - a painting by Cezanne or a sculpture by Cellini - will sell for jaw-dropping sums, for the simple reason that the mega-rich will always want to beautify their homes with acknowledged masterpieces which they see as investments - quite apart from their own enjoyment of looking at their purchases. One has only to consider where the greatest source of wealth has developed in recent years, to realise that it was inevitable that the market in Chinese works of art would boom. And it has. It has been a burgeoning market for some time; who knows where it will end? Perhaps we should now be contemplating finding artworks from India and Brazil, both of which have rapidly expanding economies with increasingly rich entrepreneurs. However trends can be very fickle.

The basic principle behind the prices of antiques is one of supply and demand. Some rich Chinese have created a market for works of art from their own country, and the market has risen to supply them. With the information of hundreds, if not thousands, of auctions internationally being sent around the world on the Internet, dealers, collectors and museums are able to know what of interest to their speciality is coming to the market. Only 2 days ago, I was sent an e-mail by an auctioneer 5,000 miles away in Kentucky, because there were a handful of wine-related items being sold. I had never heard of the auctioneers, and what they were selling would only have been of interest to me if it had been a local saleroom, but nevertheless it is indicative of the marketplace in which we live. The auctioneers had presumably seen my website, and thought I was a good target for promotional marketing.

Supply and demand creates all kinds of anomaly in prices. Why for example should a small Georgian silver wine label, weighing about a third of an ounce, sell for £500, say, while a finely crafted decanter on which it was originally hung sell for half that amount? The answer is, of course, supply and demand. In this instance, silver wine labels are much collected, and the Wine Label Circle is a very active organisation worldwide. Good examples with uncommon names engraved on them are eagerly sought and aggressively collected by a sizeable number of collectors, making them difficult to find. It seems however, that the number of collectors of decanters is decidedly small, and today good 200-year-old examples sell for an amount comparable to the price of a new one. There are a very few collectors of antique decanters, but the market would stand a few more without any difficulty.

There is much more I could say about the price of antiques, but some of that will have to wait for another occasion.

* I wonder how much the man who made the vase was paid during the reign of Qianlong in the 18th century.

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I would like to draw your attention to a development - this time as it affects what we drink! A strong recent trend in London is the burgeoning number of tapas bars. What to drink with tapas may be a question to which few in Britain have given serious consideration. Perhaps you haven’t either. The answer, in my opinion, has to be the most undervalued alcoholic drinks on the market - sherry.

Sherry was highly popular in Britain before about 1960, indeed, like most ‘fortified’ wines, it was probably invented by the British during the 18th century as a way of making Spanish wine able travel here. In the days of my youth, sherry could be, and often was dreadful - particularly Cyprus and South African sherries. (Those countries are not allowed to call them sherry any longer.) But sherry can be a fine accompaniment, as well as a superb aperitif.

I clearly remember visiting Jerez for a one-day trip with the West of England Wine and Spirit Trades’ Benevolent Society in the 1990s, and being amazed at being served luncheon in the Gonzalez Byass bodega with different and delicious sherries for each course. It was a delightful , informative and highly satisfying day. There are so many different styles of sherry, from the bone dry to the lusciously sweet, with many in between, and it is not before time that this noble wine is enjoying a resurgence in popularity in Britain, particularly among younger age-groups. That reminds me; I must pop out and buy a bottle or two of my favourite Palo Cortado....

Happy Christmas !

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