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Robert Bradlow Fine Art – Looking back on the First Five Years in the Art Consultancy Business

I thought that after five years in the business of being a consultant in Chinese art, I would share some of the experiences, successes and thoughts that have developed over this period.

A New Begining

I left Sotheby’s London at the end of November 2018 after running the Chinese department from January 2008. I had been fortunate to have worked in this position during one of the most interesting periods of the market – through the boom of 2010 to 2011 and the continued emergence of the mainland Chinese in the global art market over this time.

The change from the role of an auctioneer, specialist and manager of a busy department at one of the major auction houses, to working for oneself was certainly quite a transition. However, after over thirty years in the corporate auction world, I certainly felt ready for it.

I was fortunate enough in May 2019 to sell a fine 17th century rhinoceros horn cup by private treaty, in partnership with a top London dealer, to a major collector in Hong Kong. This early success gave me a boost of confidence and I was also to have some early successes offering pieces at auction at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which I have illustrated below.

What I immediately enjoyed in my new role, was the sense of freedom from the daily commute to London and the newfound ability to be in control of my time and the decision making process in the business. However that sense of freedom was also tempered with some sense of trepidation of having no safety net of a monthly salary or others to help in the decision making processes, which I had become accustomed to.

One of the things that I did enjoy in that first year in 2019 was being able to attend one of the Oriental Ceramics Society’s (OCS) field trips. I have been a member since the late 1980s and I had, over the years, always looked at one day joining on these.

In early June I was able to do so to their trip to the North of England, which included to the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, Wallington Hall in Northumberland and the Oriental Museum in Durham.

Two other notable museum and gallery visits that I was able to make in 2019 was the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, near Liverpool and the Buddhist art museum at the Tsz Shan Monastery in Hong Kong. I wrote an article on the former, which can be viewed in the Latest News section of this website and the latter I visited in October when I visited the Sotheby’s sales. The Monastery was built by the Hong Kong business tycoon Li Ka-shing and the Museum is located beneath the 76 metre high cast bronze figure of Guanyin.

The museum features over 90 pieces of Buddhist sculpture in bronze, wood, stone, cast-iron and porcelain from China, Japan, Korea, Nepal, India, Thailand, and Myanmar. They were purchased by Li Ka-shing from auctions and dealers over a number of years. The location of the museum is somewhat spectacular, set in the hills of the Tung Tsz, Tai Po District with the Pat Sin Leng mountain range behind it and a marvelous view of the Plover Cove Reservoir.

2020 and the Arrival of Covid-19

By early March 2020, the world was facing an unprecedented global pandemic. However, the UK was not to lockdown until the 23rd, just as the weather started to improve with arrival of spring.

The first lockdown was a rather surreal period and for the first time in history, there was no cars on the roads or aeroplanes in the sky. Living in a small village in Oxfordshire, one could clearly hear the birds singing against the background of a rather eerie silence. Without the ability to travel or to see clients, it became clear that I would need to find something to occupy myself over this period.

After some thought, I realised that during my work travels over recent years, I had taken a number of photographs of Chinese collections in museums. I therefore decided to write one article a week on what I had seen, which I undertook for ten weeks until the end of lockdown by later May.

I really enjoyed writing these articles and it was the first time I had written in quite some time. Once the first lockdown ended, my writing morphed into reporting on the Chinese international auctions in New York, Hong Kong and London which I did until June 2021.

2021 Selling Exhibitions

In the second half of 2021, I decided to hold two selling exhibitions on behalf of private clients. The first was an online only sale for an English collector in September titled – Jades and Scholars Objects from an English Private Collection. The other was on behalf of a Taiwanese collector – Reflecting Nature, 17th Century Chinese Ceramics for the Japanese Market: Kosometsuke and Koake. For this second exhibition, I printed a catalogue and held a pop up exhibition for a few days in Mayfair in November. I have outlined some sales that I was able to make below.

These exhibitions were by no means a sell out, however I was able to make a profit on each and it was a great learning experience, from producing an exhibition catalogue to organising the photography, marketing and handling of sales to new clients. In my previous auction house experience, I would have delegated some of these roles to their respective departments.

The Development of Online Sales During Covid-19

While I was preparing the two above sales, I was involved in a single owner sale from a Taiwanese collector, at Bonhams Sydney – Elegant Embellishments: Featuring the Hsiao Family Collection.

On my last visit to Melbourne prior to Covid in October 2019, I was introduced to the family who wanted to sell a part of their collection, which included gold ornaments and hair embellishments. The original intention was to look at selling in New York, Paris or London. However, the family decided to hold off once Covid struck in 2020.

After observing the phenomenal growth of live online sales across the globe during 2020-2021, the idea struck me that moving pieces to a main stream selling centre in the US or Europe, whilst few people were able to travel to the sales, did not make much sense. During this period, buyers had begun to make major purchases based on images and videos, where in most cases they had not handled the pieces in person. This phenomenon has continued post Covid and is now quite the norm at most sales.

It was thus decided that the sale would take place in Sydney in August 2021, where I was to liaise remotely with Yvett Klein from Bonhams, who was managing the sale. The result of the 73 lot sale was a total of AU$579,133 (£306,000) against a low estimate of AU$133,600, with all but 6 lots selling (91% by lot).

The second group of pieces was offered for the family over a year later in December 2022 (some highlights are illustrated below). The 83 lots realised just over A$235,000 (£121,500), which brought the total of the collection to around A$815,000 (£422,000) significantly higher than their presale estimates.

Resumption of International Travel in 2021

By the autumn of 2021 it became easier to travel internationally again and I visited Munich, Paris and Marrakech in October and November to see clients and undertake valuations. After a two year break, it did seem somewhat strange travelling once more, but it was good to meet clients face to face again.

Development of the Newsletter

From December 2021 I started writing a quarterly newsletter, which has continued up to today. I believe that it has become an effective way to communicate with my client base about various activities over each season. It has also given me a focus each season to relate events or museum experiences that would be potentially interesting to readers that might not be able to attend in person.

These have also covered a number of field trips and handling sessions for the Oriental Ceramics Society, such as the trip to Scotland in 2022 and Berlin in 2023.

Lectures and Gallery Talks

I began giving lectures from 2020, which I have published on the website in the Latest News section. In 2021 and 2022, I gave two lectures via Zoom: one was on the History of the Chinese Art Market, which I give annually to Cambridge University students and the other was Song Ceramics, A Literati Aesthetic. I never really got used to giving talks over the internet and I was therefore pleased to get back to these in person by March 2022.

Despite the concerns over meeting in groups during the pandemic in 2021, I was able to give two gallery talks at the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum in August and October. These talks focused on two collectors and their contribution to the appreciation of Chinese Art in Britain. One was Sir Percival David and the other was TT Tsui. I really enjoy giving gallery tours, as it is always fun looking at top quality objects, even if one cannot handle them.

2022 and Advising Clients Selling at Auction

2022 was a busy year and I primarily focussed on advising clients in the UK, Europe and Australia on selling pieces with the three biggest auction houses in London, Paris and Hong Kong and a couple of the smaller ones in the UK and Lisbon (please see images below).

By this time, the auction market had stabilised and buyers had begun to travel to the sales again. The two most buoyant periods of the market were after the lockdowns in China in September 2021 and March 2023. I give these specific dates as they coincide with the New York Chinese sales, which are the first sales of the new auction season and a good barometer for that period.

For these short periods, there was real pent up energy and an appetite to spend money after a period where no buyers could travel, or generally live a normal life. During this time and since then, as long as the pieces are rare and of good quality and the pre-sale estimates are sensible, the results at auction have generally been good.

Travel with the Oriental Ceramics Society

In 2022 the OCS began their tours again and I joined them for a visit to Scotland in September that year and a visit to Berlin in early June last year. I have written separate posts on these trips and they were both really enjoyable experiences that successfully combined visits to museums and country houses.

A Large Single Owner Sale in 2023

When I arrived back in the UK from Australia in late February last year, I was asked to inspect a house in Bedford that had belonged to Phillip Allen, a past Council Member of the OCS. I was not quite prepared for what was to follow as I arrived at a three story Victorian house crammed with Chinese ceramics and works of art.

The dining room at Phillip Allen’s house in Bedford.

I realised rather quickly that I would have to work quite methodically, as I only had two to three days to list the most significant pieces for museum gifts and potential auction. I thus started at the top of the house and worked downwards. By a twist of fate, the top of the house started with early ceramics and it seemed to work chronologically from there down to the ground floor.

Phillip Allen had been a real enthusiast and had bought many of his pieces at smaller local auction rooms and from agents who brought him things to examine. He was a knowledgeable collector who really enjoyed the process of buying, hence he owned so many hundreds of pieces.

After compiling a valuation, I submitted a report to the solicitor and executors outlining a potential sale strategy. This was accepted and I continued to advise the estate to sell the collection at Woolley & Wallis as a ‘no reserve’ sale in November.

John Axford giving an introduction to the Phillip Allen sale to the OCS.

The sale proved an overwhelming success, selling all of the 330 lots for £1 million, against a low estimate of £200,000. The sale took 9 1/2 hours, which illustrated how the internet and telephones now dominate the saleroom, with only a handful of people in the room bidding.

I have been very fortunate over the last five years to have seen some really great objects and collections and have worked with some very interesting clients and colleagues in the business. It has been quite a volatile time in the market, as it has responded to a world pandemic and wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

I look forward to another interesting five years to come!

Robert Bradlow, March 2024.


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