'The best items continue to become more and more fought over'

Stephan Ludwig is Chairman at Bloomsbury and Dreweatts, the new alliance of two great British auctioneers which is intended to widen their range of expertise and increase their international influence.

Having been a part of the sale of countless beautiful pieces, and with a personal interest in silverware, Stephan is especially interested in the ever greater opportunities provided for auctioneers and collectors using the internet.

What is the most enjoyable part of your job?

The variety; no two days are the same is an understatement - no two hours are the same!

What are the greatest challenges of your job? 

Communication.  Our business has been created out of the amalgamation of a series of smaller companies, each with its area of specialisation, geography and personalities. 

The key to operating at the upper end of the auction industry is offering the broadest spectrum of expertise and choice to vendors - and this requires all the components within our business to speak as one.

Stephan Ludwig with a Gainsborough and piece of silverware
Stephan Ludwig with a Gainsborough and silverware

What first attracted you to this field?

The commercial attractions of the Anglo-Saxon auction model are self evident - time has however, taught me that the apparently large commission rates do not necessarily lead to a profitable business! 

What would you say are the key changes taken place since the merger?

The Dreweatts team have embraced the competitive advantages afforded by the inclusion of the world-leading expertise and international presence of Bloomsbury's Books and Manuscripts franchise.

For Bloomsbury, the opportunity to offer clients services across the whole range of their collections has significantly increased their competitive edge.

Dreweatts is obviously a very different company than when it first started. What would you say are these differences? 

The Fine Art Auction Group, Dreweatts' holding company, was established in 2001 with a strong technology-led vision. 

Our integrated systems platform has been maintained with a view to pushing as much of the business online as is feasible, and the past 2 years' explosion in online live bidding activity is a testament to the future direction of this industry. 

We are, and intend to remain, at the forefront of this revolution. Today I can, using my mobile phone, watch the progression of a consignment from first valuation, through cataloguing, sale and payment, from anywhere in the world...no abacus, no paper, no complicated book-keeping systems - that is progress!

How do you see the growth of Bloomsbury and Dreweatts business moving forward?

The two core businesses (Dreweatts' regional estates business and Bloomsbury's London books and works on paper business) will remain largely unchanged - they already operate in the top quarter of their respective markets.

Where we intend to expand is: (a) in the internationalisation of our core specialisations; (b) a structured and selective push into the contemporary art market; and (c) the pursuit of alliances with leading specialist auction houses in other international markets - eg, Germany's Hermann Historica.

What is your 5 year plan for the business?

 My unequivocal goal is to grow hammer turnover beyond £100,000,000 and achieve a global top 5 ranking.

What is the key to the overriding success of Bloomsbury and Dreweatts?

The quality and dedication of our staff worldwide.

Do you see a growth in the number of collectors? 

There is always a flux in collecting tastes and the communities that any genre supports. 

Do I feel that there are more 'collectors' today than two years ago? No, but in many areas the more experienced collectors recognise that the current economic climate offers few competing investment products, as an opportunity to expand their collections and increase the quality within these collections. 

As a result we are seeing very strong prices in some sectors.

Have you seen, or do you see, an influx of collectors from any particular countries/nations?

With our enhanced presence on the internet (we accounted for £1m of the-saleroom.com's £8.6m 2009 sales) we are seeing a huge international diversification of our buyer community.

Benelux and Italy seem to be particularly well represented; a reflection of their solid and historic collecting pedigrees.

What items do you think will be harder to collect in the future?

There is a continuing flight to quality in all sectors - therefore 'the best' items continue to become more and more fought over and invariably harder to acquire.

How has the Internet impacted collecting?

It must be the collector's dream.  Web spiders and collector portals have removed so many barriers to information exchange over the past 10 years.

Are you a collector? If so, what do you collect?

In a very amateur way I have a love of English silver.  My budget does not sadly extend much before late 18th Century, but the joy of using hand-crafted silverware that has been doing the same job for generations, gives me immense pleasure.

I enjoy entertaining and have the great privilege of living in a William Chambers designed house whose circular dining room is lit solely by candles.

George Raper Watercolour as sold by Bloomsbury Dreweatts
Midshipman George Raper Watercolour

What is the most memorable item you have seen sold at auction?  

A collection of 18th C watercolour pictures depicting the flora and fauna of Botany Bay. 

An enormous body of research spanning 12 months allowed us to prove that these had been painted by Midshipman Raper during the first fleet's voyage to Australia, the collection was subsequently sold by private treaty, to the National Library of Australia for an undisclosed six figure sum.

An important part of this research hinged upon the ownership association (from the same estate) of a selection of hand-coloured bird prints by William Hayes - which I subsequently bought at auction.

Midshipman Raper Flower Painting
Midshipman George Raper watercolour: Waratah

What is your favourite book?

Anything by Ben Elton - I share his views on social politics and (I should probably be ashamed to admit) his wickedly cynical outlook on the poisonous excesses of our consumerist culture.

Who do you most admire in your field, past or present?

I have great admiration for the knowledge and encyclopaedic recollection of specialists and their incomprehensible ability to retain information about  past items - no matter whether they saw the piece last week or 50 years ago!'


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