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Tooveys: A Passion for Auction

Rupert Toovey

There is one day left until three days of auctions begin, and Toovey’s auctioneers in Washington is a hive of activity. Browsers make their way around dozens of paintings, with an oil painting by Arthur James Burgess of H.M.S Volage on passage to Barbados catching the eye of one potential buyer.

In the centre of the room, someone tickles the ivories of an early 20th Century baby grand piano and the sound reverberates around the large purpose built warehouse, while an early 18th Century walnut chest is attracting some interest.

But it appears that it is the Chinese ornaments at the far end that are attracting the most interest. One item, sitting rather innocuously on the second shelf, is a small Chinese jade table screen. To the untrained eye, it doesn’t look like much, but it caused quite a stir when Tom Rowsell - the oriental expert at Toovey’s - first saw it. He hopes that it will generate interest amongst an ever increasing number of affluent Chinese buyers.

Wherever you cast your eye, there is a story. But some stories are bigger and more important than others. That is why, 24 hours later, the piano will sell for £110, whilst bidding for the Chinese jade table screen will eventually stop at £120,000.

This sort of thing happens regularly at Toovey’s. It is a place where the employees, for all their years of experience, are clueless as to what each new day will bring. Another recent example was a Chinese inscribed blue and white porcelain brush pot. Its owner had failed to sell it at several local car boot sales for a few pounds, and no wonder - it doesn’t look like much. She was therefore rather shocked to see it sell at a Toovey’s auction for £32,000!

But there’s a rather nice story behind Toovey’s itself. For while Rupert Toovey, director of the Washington-based auctioneers, credits the cafe’s lemon cake for the company’s success, there’s a great deal more to it than that. Since forming in 1995, Toovey’s has come a long way, and now has some of the most eagerly anticipated auctions in the South East and world renowned experts among its consultants. Lars Tharp from the Antiques Roadshow is among its oriental consultants, Adam Langlands is the rare book consultant, and Gordon Gardiner is the toy expert. 

Yet at its heart, Toovey’s remains a family firm. The company started when Rupert, his uncle Edward and Rupert’s father Alan, combined their individual experience of auctions, marketing and accounting to launch Toovey’s at the Star Trading Estate in Partridge Green.Over the next eight years, the company flourished to the extent that a larger unit was needed. The perfect site was found just off the A24 at Washington, where the Toovey’s sign is now seen by 127,000 passing cars every week.

Since then, the family has extended. Rupert’s brother Nicholas is the art expert, while his brother-in-law Tom Rowsell is the in-house oriental expert, and Tom’s younger brother William has trained as a furniture specialist. Another member of the team, Chris Gale, has been with the company since it was founded.

Rupert Toovey has been involved with auctioneering for 27 years, but still retains an almost child-like enthusiasm for the business. He wears a trademark bow tie and an almost constant smile, like a kid in a candy shop, or perhaps a more fitting description would be a toy collector who finds a box full of 1931 Dinky toy cars…all in their original boxes. He said: “We journey alongside people and their things tell the story of their lives. We find that, however grand or modest people’s collections are, they fall into three categories of importance. Firstly, those items that prompt fond memories of their lives, and they’re beyond price. Then there are things they consider to be truly beautiful. It is part of our purpose in life, I think, to create beautiful things. And then finally, there are those things that we acquire by accident. It’s our job to enable people to dispose of the bits of the collection which are now surplus to their requirements, for whatever reason.

“You have to understand that human quality. At Toovey’s we have family firm values, as well as the ability to provide international expertise and marketing, and that is why we’ve built and maintained the reputation we have.”

Without witnessing Rupert’s flamboyant characteristics first hand, it would be easy to dismiss many of his comments about auctions as the words of an experienced businessman with his marketing head on. But in Rupert’s case, the enthusiasm is genuine. It’s as though he wakes up each morning excited by what could be lurking in the next loft or basement that the Toovey’s team are called to.

There are, however, many more cogs in the Toovey’s machine. Unlike other auctioneers which can feel like they belong to a bygone age, Toovey’s is attracting the next generation of buyers and sellers. Whilst the family ethos has not changed, the auction world has, and the auctioneers continually need to adapt to stay ahead of the game.
Rupert said: “There have been enormous changes to the industry over the past two decades, and part of that is because, increasingly, our lives have become busier and busier.

“We realised quickly that we would need more specialists and more direct marketing.  Toovey’s is one of the few auction houses in the country that does direct marketing to people with specific requirements, whether they are specialist collectors from all over the world or just looking for a dining table that’s the right size and colour for their dining room.”

Another obvious area of marketing that Toovey’s has had to grasp is the growth of the internet, and it’s an opportunity they’ve fully exploited. Nicholas Toovey said: “About 95% of our lots are catalogued and illustrated online. You can ‘watch’ items and place bids online. There is even an archive section so people can do their own research.”

Also central to the modern outlook is the contemporary art auctions, which have come about through Nicholas’ experience in the local art scene. Local artists are able to submit work and sell it at auction. Toovey’s has been doing this for several years now and has gained a reputation for contemporary exhibitions that reaches far beyond Sussex.

Nicholas said: “The fact that these contemporary artists are sold successfully at Toovey’s means they establish an auction reputation, which gives people the confidence to buy their works. We advertise which galleries they sell through, where they can be found, their websites, and so we’re genuinely trying to invest in what’s to come in the next generation. The really exciting thing is people who buy contemporary art are used to going to galleries, not auction, so it has introduced a whole new group of people to the auction world. It has also allowed people who would have collected quite traditionally to buy contemporary pieces, so is helping to break down barriers.”

There are, however, some things that never change. Still, much of the business of the modern auctioneer is the same as it has always been. The buyers may be sat at a computer on the other side of the world, but the sale is still not confirmed until the auctioneer has looked around the room and banged down his gavel. And despite TV programmes such as Flog It making us more aware than ever of the worth of various old items, every day at Toovey’s brings a new treasure, unearthed in an attic.

One such item mentioned earlier was a brush pot, with a beautiful poem in Chinese script all around it. Tom Rowsell, the oriental specialist, and consultant expert Lars Tharp, both gave a sharp intake of breath when they first saw it. The lady owner had never liked it and used it to pot-up her geraniums. She had taken it to two or three car boot sales and not been able to sell it, before it picked up its huge sale price at auction.

As Nicholas points out, these items - the ones that are of some worth and yet don’t necessarily hold much sentimental value for the owner - can make for a satisfying result for all the parties involved. “People forget that their stuff could be a prized possession to some generation - a prompt to wonderful memories - and if it sells for £30,000 it makes a difference to your life too.”

So what does the future hold for Toovey’s? More of the same, and something a little bit different. The way people buy is changing and new markets are emerging - particularly in the Far East. There’s also the excitement of the developing contemporary markets, and the renewed interest in traditional antiques. Rupert said “It’s lovely to be very traditional in one sense but also to have this cutting edge at the other. It’s brought in what I call our ‘post-IKEA’ generation who see the disposable commodities pushed into landfill sites every time people move house.

“We find this generation are saving up before they buy, which is a shift away from the ‘borrow and buy-now’ culture that we are coming out of economically as a nation. And we are finding that people are seeing the quality of older items. It’s almost a trend in fashion now with the ‘Vintage tea parties’ booming, having a unique cup and saucer for every visitor. It doesn’t have to match, and it’s how this generation’s grandparents did things.”

But for Rupert, the secret to the success of Toovey’s has little to do with customer care, the way they train young valuers, or how it promotes contemporary art. The café on the sale week is the heart of the place”, he said. “Our lemon cake is our secret marketing weapon – it’s the best in the county and that’s what keeps them coming back!”

For more information visit www.tooveys.com

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