Julian Thomson is director in a business which is transforming the world of antiques with the latest digital technology, as Peter Jackson discovers.
ONE of fine art auctioneer and valuer Julian Thomson’s most exciting finds was in Glasgow where he had gone to value the contents of a house.
He listed all the items for removal and the owner pointed to objects under a sideboard, which were old photographic plates.
At the time Thomson worked for Bonhams, the big London auction house. He took the plates back to London in his car.
“I showed the people in the relevant department and their eyes were popping out of their head when they saw what they were,” he says.
They were the work of mid-Victorian pioneering photographer TR Williams, old daguerreotype glass plates of Royal Marines relaxing on Portsmouth Dockyard. They were sold for £50,000 to a famous rock guitarist.
He tells me the story in a windowless room at Anderson and Garland Auctioneers in Westerhope. Thomson, 45, is a friendly and unassuming man, his handshake is firm and his accent middle-class with no discernible regional inflection.
But he is North East born and bred, coming from Whitley Bay where his father was a GP.
He was educated at King’s School in Tynemouth and left school at 17.
“I didn’t get the O-level grades that I wanted. I was either going to resit my O-levels or go into the world of work. I didn’t enjoy school, I wanted to see what was out there and see what was about.
“It's slightly embarrassing; my brother’s a lawyer in London and my sister’s a chartered accountant in Barcelona, so I kind of bucked the family trend, I think my father probably wanted me to go towards the medicine line but I don’t think I would have enjoyed law or medicine half as much as I have the auction business.”
Having no clear idea what he wanted to do, when he saw a job advertised in the local paper with JC Featonby auctioneer and valuer of Whitley Bay. He applied and got the job expecting he would do it for 18 months or so until something else came along.
“Within two or three months I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do,” says Thomson. “It was the goods coming in, the stories behind the goods coming in, going out to people’s houses with my then boss. You never knew what was behind a front door. Even on that local level we had some interesting finds, interesting people.
“On the sale day itself, the people who came to buy included some amazingly colourful characters. And there was the cut and thrust of the auction.”
He worked there for two years and then went to Southampton to do a fine art valuation course, funding it with part-time work at a local auction house. He qualified as a chartered arts surveyor.
Following that he worked for a year in Staffordshire before returning to the North East to work for Anderson and Garland in the early 1990s where he stayed for two years.
“Then, as all my college friends had gravitated towards London I – with my superiors’ blessings – got a job in the valuations department with Bonhams of Knightsbridge.”
He was there for five years, during which his girlfriend – and now wife of 16 years – Sandra came to join him.
“It was fantastic and the learning curve was amazing,” he says. “I was in a big centre of population so the experience gained there was invaluable and stood me in good stead.”
He laughs: “I was a general valuer, like my father, I was a GP of the fine art world. I knew a little about a lot rather than a lot about a little. “I always thought that would stand me in greater stead as far as job opportunities went in the fullness of time, which came to pass.”
At Bonhams, apart from the discovery of the TR Williams photographs, Thomson also found a Chinese vase which sold for £45,000.
In 1997 he was approached by Phillips to come back and work in the North East as their representative.
“I just happened to bump into Andrew McCoull [current md of Anderson and Garland] and I told him what I was doing and he said: ‘Don’t go and work for them, come back and work for us’. The rest, as they say, is history.”
He joined the firm as a partner and his role was to help develop the business and introduce new technology. Now, apart from the traditional sales days, Anderson and Garland has online sales with tens of thousands of potential buyers.
“We normally have 20,000 to 30,000 hits per sale,” he says. “Everything goes on our website and we have a huge mailing list of people who subscribe and receive catalogues.
“Via our internet partner we put our sale catalogue online and the software runs so that on the day it shows an image on the screen for the internet bidders. The computer operator will click up the increments in bidding and the subscriber will be asked if they are interested in bidding.”
The operator can detect levels of interest as computer mice hover over a bid button and can hold the bidding process.
“It’s amazing where the bids come in from, they come in from the US, China, literally right around the world.”
It has transformed the business.
“It’s much quicker now for local customers and overseas. We sell right around the world, that’s the beauty of the internet. Whereas 15 or 20 years ago I suppose there was an argument for saying the best prices were London-centric but in the last two years we have got several world records, culminating in a world record price for a Lalique vase of £280,000 in September, which probably wouldn’t have happened in the past but we can now, here in Westerhope, get world record prices.
“There are more customers coming with high value goods because we can sell them just as well and our costs are a darn sight lower.”
Goods are obtained from predominantly within the North East but he travels extensively, in the past few weeks having gone to Keswick and London.
“We don’t like to see ourselves as purely North East based. If people have goods we’ll go to see them wherever they are if we feel it’s beneficial for the client and ourselves,” says Thomson.
In December he is travelling to China with a delegation of other provincial auctioneers to forge links with a Chinese live bidding company called epai and which will give the firm access to another 100,000 high net worth individuals.
Now the firm employs 17 people and shifts between £4m and £5m worth of goods a year. It moved into its present purpose-built premises in Westerhope in 2003, from Marlborough Crescent in the centre of Newcastle.
“Newcastle was impractical from a parking point of view. Customers are the lifeblood of an auction house, you need people to get to you, so we made the decision to move out of town. We were one of the first auction rooms to do it and it now seems that every larger provincial firm has either done it or is thinking seriously about it. It has been very good for business.”
Even though he is in a senior managerial role the business does not cease to surprise and delight him. He discovered an oil painting in Jesmond of Roundhay Park in Leeds by Atkinson Grimshaw, a Victorian artist famous for his city night scenes and landscapes.
“Finding the Atkinson Grimshaw was a real goosebumps moment for me. I knew as soon as I saw it was a major picture.”
The owners believed it to be worth between £10,000 and £20,000. It sold for £206,000.
The record-breaking Lalique vase which went for £280,000 and came from Morpeth, was originally valued by Thomson at £20,000 but research revealed it to be a rare limited edition. It now resides in New York. On another occasion he was called to a barn near Berwick where some fittings from the Titanic’s sister ship SS Olympic, which had been broken up on the Tyne in the 1930s, had been discovered. These things were in terrible condition, left in the barn at the mercy of the weather and the chickens and they didn’t look pretty. We sold this pile of fittings for £50,000 to the Titanic Historical Society based in California.
“When we don’t know, we have a network of contacts and specialists around the country and around the world we can call upon and talk to,” he says.
Has he ever come across any forgeries?
“Certainly we have got to be on our guard against fakes coming in from the Far East, because people will try to fake things of value.”
Thomson lives in the Tyne Valley with Sandra, daughter Abigail 13, and son Angus, 10, with an easy commute every day to Westerhope. And it’s a journey he looks forward to every day, having no regrets about his accidental choice of career back in Whitley Bay.
He says: “I really enjoy coming to work every day. Every day, you have the chance of finding something new. It’s not the big ticket items, it’s the people, the houses you go into.”