Meet auctioneer Catherine Southon

Auctions are fun and if you're doing up your home on a tight budget you'd be mad not to go to a few, says auctioneer Catherine Southon - a familiar face on the BBC. And you can't really get more eco-friendly than antiques, she says

Catherine Southon

The antiques world is in pretty good shape, but it needs to get younger people on board, says Catherine Southon, who has her own auction house and is an expert on BBC antiques programmes including Flog It! and Bargain Hunt. She thinks the industry needs push the message that there's treasure to be had at bargain prices and that buying antiques is the environmentally-friendly way to furnish your home. Pictured above: Southon with a fine and rare Newton's pocket 2-inch globe (Newton's New Terrestrial Globe 1818). Est £3,000 - £5,000

Antiques. The word may inspire you or turn you off, and your age is likely to have something to do with your response. Older people may think of beautiful Georgian furniture, rich mahogany pieces with intricate marquetry, while younger people may well think antiques are big ugly pieces of brown wood that their great grandparents lived with.

Catherine Southon is not an elderly grandmother, rather a youthful mother, and she's the first to admit that the antiques business is missing a trick in not courting the young - but likewise the young are missing a trick because they could be doing up their flats beautifully on a shoestring if only they'd get along to an auction.

'I think antiques and auctions do have negative connotations for a lot of people..for some they're synonymous with Sotheby's and paintings and rare pieces that sell for vast sums, while for others it's a world of dusty old boxes of stuff no one wants,' she says.

'While I'm the first to admit that my heart sinks when people show me heavy old antique wardrobes or an ancient china dinner service, there is the most amazing array of wonderful pieces of furniture, art and decorative accessories to be had for a song at auctions up and down the country.

And buying antiques is, of course, recycling in action, says Southon. It's using what's already been made, and the fact that the piece is old is testament to its quality. (In case you're interested, the rule of thumb is that something must be over 100 years old to be called an antique, while vintage is over 50.)

A beautiful 1930s/40s Japanese Noritake coffee service, est £80-£120
For art deco fans, this 1930s Karl Palda cabaret drinks set would be a delight. est £200-£300
David Oxtoby 'Chuck Berry' aquatac on canvas, est £2,000 - £3,000
Gabriel & Co mid 20th century brass hanging navigation lights, est £150-£250

Southon will be familiar to you if you watch the BBC's auction programmes such as Flog It!, Bargain Hunt and Antiques Road Trip. She learned her trade working for eight years at Sotheby's, initially cataloguing sales in the Collectors Department before becoming Head of Scientific Instruments and Maritime Works of Art. She then became a freelance valuer and two years ago decided to set up her own auction house in West Wickham in Kent.

Why did she want to run auctions rather than set up, say, an antiques shop?

'Well, auctions are really fun and frenetic, and I love that. But when I was working as a freelance valuer I would go to valuation days at Rotary Clubs, that kind of thing, and then I'd have to suggest auctioneers where people could take their pieces to.. That got me thinking well why not run my own auctions, as people do seem to trust me, probably because they see me on the telly..

'So a couple of years ago, I organized my first valuation day...and we were amazed that 300-400 people came along. There'd been nothing like that in our area, so interest was really high. And when the day came for the sale itself - which we'd advertised in the local paper - several hundred people came including a coachful of WI members from Eastbourne! So it's grown from that and now we have our own offices and hold auctions roughly quarterly.'

If you're surprised that there are enough customers in one part of Kent to keep an auction house in rude health, don't be; because while we may not recognise it ourself, we do accumulate vast amounts of stuff during our lives and when the time comes to downsize, we need to off load it. And we may well have some fine things in the loft that we'd forgotten we ever had.

'Many of the people who come to us are downsizing and I never cease to be astonished at the incredible things they have in their possessions - beautiful jewellery, silverware, collectables, furniture,' says Southon. 

Catherine and the Bargain Hunt team. She says modern interiors can be enhanced by a few antiques, wh
George III mahogany foldover tea table. Antique wood furniture continues to be inexpensive
H Hughes & Son brass triple circle sextant..est £200-£300. A perfect gift for a nautical friend or r
Windsor elm stick back chair. Pieces such as these look great in modern interiors

So what's it worth?

That's the million dollar question anyone selling wants to know and it would seem we have an exaggerated view of how much our antiques should fetch, says Southon.

'Yes..I think people do have a tendency to think if something's old it's going to be worth a lot.. so I might go to a house and the owner will show me an ancient china tea service and look crestfallen when I say it might fetch £50.

'But there's no demand for tea services any more...not many of us have 'best china' that we get out for Sunday afternoon tea. So the way we live means unless the china service is made by a very revered name..such as Meissen..there isn't a market for it.'

While you might not become rich auctioning off the things you no longer want or need, conversely now is a great time to be a buyer and a trip to a local auction should be seen as a bargain hunt.

'Oh gosh, you can get great things incredibly cheaply,' says Southon, who impresses that now is the time to buy things such as mahogany dining tables, hall tables, trunks, chairs, chests and tallboyspaintingsjewellery and silverware. Looking through her latest auction catalogue, it is a very pleasant surprise to see how affordable things are. A fine looking elm Windsor stick back chair has an estimate of £80 to £120, while a Georgian design circular mahogany dining table with six Victorian chairs is valued at £200 to £300...a mere bagatelle...

'What's known in the trade as brown furniture is very inexpensive at the moment, so look out for useful pieces such as chests of drawers and tables and storage chests. And with antique chairs, reupholster them with a vibrant modern fabric and they look anything but old fashioned.

'Really, if I were doing up a flat and on very little money, I'd be going to the nearest auction to see what I could find. Because some things are fine quality - far better than buying furniture from the high street that will still cost more but won't last anywhere near as long,' says Southon.

Photograph by Linda McCartney of Paul McCarney and one of their children, set £300-£500

From a seller's point of view, if you happen to have Oriental/Chinese pieces this is a good time to sell because the Chinese are buying them back. 'The most expensive piece we have sold to date was a 17th/18th century libation cup made from rhino horn - and we did need a licence from Defra to sell it. It went for £18,000 to a Chinese buyer,' says Southon. 

And what are Southon's own likes and dislikes? In work mode, it's a thumbs down to dinner services and large gothic horror antique wardrobes ('would I want to hang my clothes in someone else's'). There's also little demand for ornate antique mirrors, she says. For herself, she has - not surprisingly - acquired a goodly selection of gavels and she likes globes. Perhaps surprisingly she's not that fussed about paintings. 'You can't touch a painting. I like things you can touch and feel.'

And she reveals it's not that easy for her to buy antiques because while she visits a lot of auctions filming for the BBC, the rules of the job mean she's not allowed to put in bids. That and the fact that her children 'hate auctions' mean her weekends can't be a busman's holiday.

Auctions aren't intimidating

Southon would like to add that if you think auctions are scary and that if you scratch your nose you could find yourself committed to spending £20 million on a painting, nothing could be farther from the truth. Auctions in towns and villages around the country are friendly and informal and 'auctioneers know when someone is making a bid and when they're tucking their hair behind their ear.' You can also bid online from the comfort of your own home.

So antiques. In for a penny and you can get a lot for a pound.