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Summers Place Auctions in Billingshurst

Rupert at Summers Place Auctions

Published on 5th November 2017

On 21 November, a family of four mammoths discovered in 2002 will be the headline-grabbing lot at a fascinating auction. It is hoped that this unique family of ice age giants will attract bids of over £250,000 when it goes under the hammer at Summers Place Auctions in Billingshurst.

AAH visited the auctioneers just before September’s sale, to find out more about the business and the astonishing array of artefacts it attracts from all corners of the globe and every period in history.

Sotheby’s Days
Summers Place was once an outlet of Sotheby's, one of the world’s oldest auction house, having been established in 1744, and still amongst the most prominent.Having been in Pulborough for six years from 1979, Sotheby’s bought the former convent school at Summers Place, along with 40 acres of gardens, in 1985. The grand site hosted its first garden sale the following year and over the next 15 years would be the setting for countless remarkable sales. A pair of Portland stone figural groups by Charles Sargeant Jagger fetched £245,000. In 1996, an 18th century breech-loading fowling gun sold for £34,500, whilst a white plush Teddy bear by Steiff sold for £8,970. But in 2002, it came to an end when Sotheby’s decided to close its Sussex outlet.James Rylands, who joined in 1979, said: “Sotheby's made the decision to sell Summers Place and one other regional centre and move everything to its Olympia saleroom in London. At the time, there were about 80 people working here. Some departments could relocate but because of the grounds here, Summers Place had become renowned for garden sales. There wasn’t space for us in London and it wasn’t seen as being core to its business.“We continued to host garden auctions at Summers Place in association with Sotheby’s until 2009, when having taken the opportunity to buy the land, we held our first sale as Summers Place Auctions.”

Room for a T-Rex
This didn’t have the negative impact that may have been feared. James and fellow specialist Rupert van der Werff found that some buyers preferred dealing with a smaller auction house that had the time to look after clients. Rupert recalls: “To continue as an independent was a gamble, but the alternative was doing something entirely different, so we had to try.“We were fortunate in that over the years we’d become known as Summers Place rather than Sotheby's anyway, so it was natural to name the business after the location. “However, it was clear that we needed to offer more than just garden statuary and our aim was to become world leaders in natural history sales.“At the time, we were just selling a few fossils, which came from my own interest in the field. We had very little indoor space, which we would need if we were going to bring in dinosaurs. So, we went to Horsham’s planning department and told them that we needed to create a building that could house a Tyrannosaurus Rex!”

Going Jurassic
Completed in 2012, the gallery was purposefully designed with an apex roof large enough to accommodate the most ferocious theropod ever to have walked the planet.Rupert spoke to wildlife writer and consultant Errol Fuller, to see if he could help attract a dinosaur to the saleroom. At its inaugural Evolution sale in 2013, the star of the show was a 57-foot diplodocus, 150 million-years-old, generating international headlines for the auctioneers. James said: “The specimen was like the one that was in entrance hall of the Natural History Museum. However, whilst that was a plaster cast, ours was the real thing. We sold the dinosaur to the Natural History Museum of Denmark for £500,000.“We’ve not yet had a T-Rex in the gallery, as it’s extremely rare that they come on to the market. It is the most iconic dinosaur, as it’s scary and the Jurassic Park films have raised its profile even higher. In 1997, the Fields Museum in Chicago paid $7.6million for a T-Rex (which remains a record) and it looks incredible. It has generated about $15 million worth of additional visitors, so it’s worth every penny!” 

A Mammoth Sale
Whilst a T-Rex hasn’t made its way to Billingshurst yet, the auction house has had an incredible array of extinct beasts - including an allosaurus.In 2016, a composite dodo skeleton, the first to be sold for a century, went under the hammer for £280,000. Summers Place hosts four sales a year, with November’s Evolution event dominated by natural history. This year, lots include a rare skeleton of an aurochs, a cave bear from the Urals and a three-dimensional plesiosaur found in Lyme Regis. But it is the family of mammoths, that are attracting most attention. Whilst mammoth discoveries are not rare in archaeological terms, a baby mammoth is unusual.Rupert said: “As far as we can find out, this is the only actual family of mammoths discovered. They came from south-western Siberia near Tomsk, where most mammoths have been found. Usually, they are found in the tundra but these were found in gravel, so the bones have retained colour. Something dramatic must have happened to wipe out two mature adult mammoths, an adolescent and a baby at the same time. It might have been a riverbank that collapsed or perhaps the beasts were trapped in a gorge during a flash flood. We’ll never know, but it was certainly an extraordinary occurrence.“No museum in the world has such an exhibit, so I would hope that they are bought by a museum as I’d love to see them on public display. We are selling the family as one lot, as it would be criminal to separate them when nothing like this has been found before.” 

Communist Lots
Whilst extinct creatures may capture the imagination of the public – and those of us in the media – Summers Place Auctions made its name selling garden sculptures and ornaments.With 40 acres of beautiful gardens to host collections, it wasn’t long before the Billingshurst site was attracting buyers and sellers from all over the world.Highlights have included a Roman Imperial 1st Century AD marble altar which sold for £163,000 and a bronze head by Dame Elisabeth Frink, which sold for a world record £180,000.With such space available, it wasn’t long before Summers Place was selling everything from Cold War rockets to paneling from the RMS Olympic, the sister ship to the Titanic.The garden has even welcomed icons of communism. James said: “Not long after the fall of communism in the Eastern bloc, a dealer called me from a town square in Latvia. He had been offered a bronze bust of Lenin but didn’t know what it might be worth.“I found out the scrap value and agreed a price. It was bought by Michael Heseltine, who was Deputy Prime Minister at the time. Most of our buyers prefer to remain private, but he has it on public view and has described it as one of the best things that he ever bought!”

Defending Criticism
Certainly, there are elements of the Evolution sales that are not to everybody’s taste. As well as fossils, items for sale in the upcoming auction include a 19th century narwhal tusk and tiger skins from the early 20th century. “We do see people who look at the taxidermy and don’t like it,” said James. “There are a lot of beautiful works of art, made hundreds of years ago, that incorporate ivory and I think they have a very valid place. ‘If these items were being made now, then it would be a different story. There is legislation on what you can and can’t sell, so we would never have uncut elephant ivory, for example. Whilst some disapprove of particular items, there are many more who are amazed by how beautiful they are. There is also often a conservation aspect within people’s interest. Most people who buy such items tend to be very knowledgeable.” 
Rupert expresses a similar opinion. “We have seen children in the gallery and they have stroked a polar bear skin and seen into the eyes of a tiger. “They can't do that anywhere else. By doing that, they are only going to have a positive experience and gain a sense of the importance of these animals. “When children hear that these animals have been shot, they usually say that they cannot believe such things once happened. From that moment, the world is a slightly better place and they might be inspired to do something.”

Heavy Artillery
The Eastern Bloc has unearthed a wide variety of intriguing items since the fall of the iron curtain, including weapons and artillery.  September’s sale included a Lavochkin V-760 with a dummy nuclear warhead. At 10.9m long, it wouldn’t fit in most lounges, but buyers usually have inventive ideas. James said: “The range of people or companies that buy such items is diverse. There is a Soviet-era rocket in the atrium of Hiscox Insurance’s office in York, as it’s used to demonstrate that they ensure everything. Another rocket went to a distillery making premium vodka, as there’s a link to rocket fuel. “These rockets are remarkably cheap, as they cost millions of dollars to make and whilst they have been disarmed, at auction they sell for between £10,000 - £50,000. “We’re certainly seeing some nostalgia for the Cold War era. People don't care as much as they did for traditional decoration, so Victorian and Georgian furniture isn’t fetching a high price. People prefer a contemporary interior, so what we are trying to promote is an element of ‘toys for boys’. “We sold a 1930s French football table for over £12,000, which shows the current generation is looking for a nostalgic element, in the same way that people buy vintage cars that they remember from their youth.” 

Not so Nerdy
Another asset of Summers Places Auctions is a fascinating - if occasional unnerving - array of tribal art pieces. A recent sale included a collection of 56 masks and figures gathered from the Sepik River area of Papua New Guinea. November’s sale includes a Dayak ancestor human skull decorated with feathers and a carved orangutan skull.Rupert said: “We’re offering an increasing amount of what used to be called tribal art and is now called African and Oceanic art. There are some wonderful decorative sculptures that have a lot more presence than the price tag would suggest. “Most of these pieces came to this country during the Empire days, primarily from Papua New Guinea. We also see items from smaller islands like Tonga and Fiji. The stories behind them are incredible, especially with some of the clubs, spears and other weapons.“Some of the minerals that we have are mind blowing too. I have always been disappointed that there is a slightly nerdy perception to mineralogy and geology generally. If you look at these pieces as art, as opposed to scientific specimens, they are incredible.I cannot comprehend why people pay millions for a blue painting by Yves Klein when you can buy a phenomenal Lapis lazuli metamorphic rock for a fraction of the cost. One is real and one is an imitation.“They make beautiful pieces of decoration and I hope that more people come to realise that.”

The Evolution auction -  featuring a family of Mammoths - will be held on 21 November. For viewing dates, visit www.summersplaceauctions.com