Richard Westwood-Brookes, Mullock's Auctions interview (Part 2)

In this second half of our interview with Mullock's Auctions' Richard Westwood-Brookes, the historical documents expert reveals why Dr Who is popular with an American church, how Hitler is paying for one man's heating bills, and the secret to uncovering bargains on the collectibles market.

You can read the first part of Richard's interview here, in which he discusses Mullock's recent Gandhi sale, Royal collectibles and Nazi memorabilia.

PFC: How did your background lead to you becoming an expert with Mullock's?

RWB: I'm a journalist by profession and have witnessed many modern historical events first hand. My journalistic background taught me never to take "facts" or "attitudes" at face value but to delve behind the headlines. As a result I developed a personal interest in history in all its various shapes and forms and started collecting historical documents for my own pleasure.

Something like 20 years ago an auctioneer asked me to help him out with a bit of specialist knowledge on some historical documents he was offering for sale and the whole thing developed from there.

PFC: What makes your company different?

RWB: I like to think that my sale through Mullock's is one of the most important historical sales in the world - offering significant material to all at prices to suit all pockets - but importantly dealing with the issues of history in a sensitive and appropriate manner at all times.

You will find material in my sale which goes for £20 and in the same sale for whatever figure you care to name. I don't believe in "bottom end cut offs". The collector who can only afford to spend a few pounds today may be able to spend millions in years to come and it is important to develop a good relationship with all my clients to offer them material which they value as important, and also to offer a range of material to suit all tastes.

PFC: What is the most valuable lot you have ever auctioned?

RWB: On the sports side - which is the main activity of my colleagues at Mullock's - it was a painting of a boxing match which made just under £300,000. On the historical documents side it was a group of paintings attributed to Hitler which made £130,000. The Charles II "wanted" poster and Gandhi's spectacles have been the most valuable individual items. Then there was the stock book of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the Victorian artist, which a client picked up for £5 at a junk auction and which we sold for £30,000 four weeks later.

PFC: Which item in your auctions has surprised you the most?

Hitler paintings
A 1909 depiction of Vienna, attributed
to Hitler, sold for £5,000 at Mullock’s

RWB: The paintings attributed to Hitler. When they came in I thought of them as nothing more than curiosities - Hitler wasn't the best artist that ever lived after all. I asked the vendor how much he wanted to achieve and he told me that if I could get him enough to pay for his central heating he would be happy - so the estimates were set at around £2,000. In the event they made more than 60 times that amount.

PFC: Which artefact would you most love to add to your own collection?

RWB: The autographed full score of Elgar's Second Symphony or his Piano Quintet - impossible to obtain as they are both in institutions, but you did ask me to stargaze! Of an obtainable artefact I would guess a good document of Elizabeth I.

PFC: What is a typical day for you at Mullock's?

RWB: Start work at around 7.30am, researching and cataloguing for each forthcoming sale (one every six weeks), finish around 7pm. It's like that seven days a week (yes really) as I don't regard what I do as a job, it is so fascinating, absorbing and down right superb I just want to fill every waking hour doing it.

PFC: Do you have any funny stories from your career in the auction business?

RWB: A guy came in with a huge Dr Who collection - if anyone comes in with anything to do with Dr Who or Star Trek I usually run a mile, but this guy looked so down and depressed I agreed to see him. He told me that he had devoted his life to amassing his collection, but now he knew that he had to sell it. I thought, like many collectors, he'd come to the end of his finances and I sympathised saying that I'd been in that position many times, having to sell treasures to pay the bills, but he replied that he wasn't short of money but that he had been instructed to sell. "By whom?" I enquired (expecting him to say "the wife"), but he said: "By God almighty himself - he has shown me the way, the truth and the life and condemned me for my idolatry." Thinking I had a 10 gallon nutter in front of me I asked how he had realised this vision and he said that he'd joined one of these American cult churches and as soon as they'd found out about his collection he had been told that the Almighty didn't approve. So we sold the collection - and guess who we had to make the cheque out to?

PFC: What is your most memorable highlight from your years in the business?

RWB: Strange as it might seem it was helping an elderly lady buy a letter of Sir John Betjeman for £200. She came into the room on the morning of the sale, sought me out and asked if I could help her, saying that she had been a fan of his all her life and she had decided to get together what funds she had out of her pension to acquire a letter of his. She confessed she was terrified of bidding, so I had a word with the auctioneer and he deliberately allowed her the time to bid successfully when the item came up. Afterwards she wrote me a marvellous letter saying how much she appreciated what I had done for her and how obtaining the letter was the one thing which had made her really happy in her old age. It doesn't have to be the high rollers who make your day.

PFC: What can we look forward to from Mullock's in the rest of 2012?

RWB: I have two magnificent pieces of scrimshaw coming up in my next sale on June 28th - plus the original plans of Hitler's Berlin - these are unique and have never been seen before. The scrimshaw is regarded as some of the finest examples of this type of art to come on the market.

There'll be more Gandhi and Indian items, and no doubt many other fine historical documents as well. The historical sales will be continuing every six weeks or so right through the year, and then there are the sports and vintage fishing tackle sales, the toys, collectors and militaria sales and the book sales as well. We stress that we are "specialist" auctioneers so that every sale has a specialist slant to it.

PFC: Finally, what is your best piece of advice for collectors?

RWB: Do your research, and seek advice from professionals you trust. Never think you know it all and never listen to the advice of loudmouth "experts" who don't know what they are talking about. Collecting is a wonderful activity - it brings into your life often fabulous and unique items which are yours to cherish. They can also provide you considerable investment opportunities. So it is worth devoting your time to research and seeking advice - that way you get to know the market trends, best prices, people you can trust etc, and that will lead you inevitably to find bargains and wonderful unique pieces.

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