Behind the scenes at Canterbury Auction Galleries
PUBLISHED: 17:43 02 March 2014 | UPDATED: 17:43 02 March 2014
Owner Tony Pratt on his love of collecting and history
Everyone loves a bargain and now the increasing number of shows like Flog It! and The Antiques Roadshow also offers us the possibility of five minutes of TV fame. “It’s taken the myth out of auctions too, that feeling of ‘if I scratch my ear I’m going to end up buying something’. That always was a myth!” says Tony Pratt, owner of Canterbury Auction Galleries
“It’s opened up our business to the public and helped expand it by making people much more aware of both how to buy and how to sell at auction.”
Tony’s office overlooks a public car park opposite and Canterbury West, from where I’ve just alighted – making it a brilliant location however you choose to travel.
There’s a lot in the room that gives a clue to the boss’s fascination with discovering treasures. As well as a much-loved desk brought with him from his previous office, there are dramatic paintings by his favourite artist Kenneth Newton, who lived at nearby Harbledown, and a very fine regulator wall case clock made in 1820.
“I am an inveterate collector, my passion is my career,” he admits. “My wife says if we go to a friend’s house for dinner I’ve valued the contents within the first five minutes.”
Aged 12, Tony realised that dealing in stamps rather than just collecting them could help bolster his pocket money; a year later, he’d moved on to digging for glass bottles (preferably coloured Codds with their internal stopper intact) around Sittingbourne, Folkestone and Merstham.
At 15 he attended his first auction and was immediately hooked, joining Burrows in Ashford after A-levels as a trainee auctioneer and staying for 14 years, including through the period when General Accident acquired the company.
“I learnt to develop respect not only for the item you are selling but also to remember that it belongs to a person and that is their treasured possession,” he says.
The current building, which Tony moved into in 1988 as fine art director, was built in 1911 by Kennetts, and it transformed a formerly disjointed way of working.
“Having a permanent base was such a boon, everything has to come from a client’s house to the auction rooms, has to be photographed, catalogued, looked after, then eventually sold and the person who buys it takes it away. So it was key having the premises, it changed everything.”
Further change was to come in 1990 when Tony got the chance to buy the business and in April 1991 he became the owner. However, the building was leased, a descendant of Mr Kennett still owned it and she really didn’t want to sell.
“At that time I did – and still do – the inventory and advice on conservation work for the Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral and the Dean gave me a reference. That opened the gates!” reveals Tony.
“She agreed to sell and I went ahead and purchased the freehold in 1995, which was a huge step and a huge commitment.”
It was indeed, especially as the building wasn’t fit for purpose and much extending and reconfiguring, including putting in a new staircase and hoist, all had to be done while the business was in operation.
“The main work took eight months and it was a bit fraught, but we ended up with the building we have today, with a secure room, a private viewing room and a much more comfortable, heated main gallery – a massive investment, but much needed. The only downside is that it’s on four storeys.”
Regarded today as Kent’s leading auctioneers and valuers of fine art, antiques and collectables, The Canterbury Auction Galleries is renowned for achieving London prices while retaining local professionalism and attention to detail.
Six two-day sales of 1,200 to 1,400 lots each are held a year, the oriental sales tending to be in spring and autumn, to tie in with the London Asia Weeks, while December focuses more on gifts and toys.
There are viewing sessions for each sale and all the auctions are available online – another indication how much the profession has changed. “We thought as the internet got involved, numbers in the auction rooms would reduce,” admits Tony.
“But it has gone the other way: we have more people in the rooms, more telephone bids and more people bidding on the internet. It’s a whole change of buying pattern; we may be based in Canterbury but we are selling goods across the world.”
The old ways are still hugely popular, however, and on Friday free valuation mornings, staff never know how many people will be on the doorstep, 20 or 100, nor what’s going to ‘come out of the box’.
“Just like The Antiques Roadshow, in they all troop with their treasures. A minimum of three of us conduct it from 10am to 1pm and I can guarantee we are busy throughout that time,” smiles Tony, who will ‘never judge a book by its cover.’
“When I’m doing home valuations, I can turn up to a client’s house and the address doesn’t mean a thing then see the most wonderful collection. The most obscure things have come from the oddest places. I need to keep an open mind with every client.
“For me, it’s that finding of a thing, correctly identifying it and finding the right buyer, and if you’ve done all those jobs correctly, then hopefully it also makes the right price. Then everybody is happy.” GET IN TOUCH
The Canterbury Auction Galleries
40 Station Road West, Canterbury CT2 8AN
Coming up: 8-9 April 2014, two-day sale of fine art and antiques