Offering an antidote to the super-high-value specialist sales of the larger auction houses, pop-up Modern auction ‘The Cabinet Rooms’ was developed by established mid-century dealers Philip Thomas and Christian Quinlan with the aim of providing an accessible shopping experience to enthusiasts and collectors alike. Housed in a 1950s hall on Primrose Hill in London and now in its second year, the auction has around 150 lots, each item displayed in such a way as to demonstrate how the pieces work together.
Midcentury magazine talked to co-founder Philip Thomas to find out more about the Modern auction as a consumer experience.
What was the idea behind creating the Modern auction?
The idea came around 2008 when the recession was starting to bite and our London shop rents and business rates were becoming harder to maintain. We wanted to create a selling environment where dealers as well as design enthusiasts could offer their latest finds without needing to add huge margins to the price to cover their overheads.
Around this time many online portals, like 1stdibs.com, were starting up and creating a buzz around mid-century furniture. Information about designers and manufacturers became more freely available to online buyers, but the prices were not always accessible.
We wanted to offer the best quality items we could at reasonable prices and, most importantly, we wanted to offer a physical preview of what we were selling. The effects of age cannot be accurately judged online and the patina of scuffs, marks, and scratches can really only be properly considered when standing in front of something.
Can you tell us a bit about the venue for the Modern auction?
The Kennedy Hall at the Cecil Sharp House is fabulous and as soon as we saw it we were desperate to book. The walls are wood-panelled, the ceiling is double height and the room is decorated with 1950s Brutalist chandeliers and a mural spanning one wall by Ivon Hitchens. Perfect for showcasing mid-century design!
Where do most of the Modern auction bidders come from?
The catalogue is offered on auction hosting sites thesaleroom.com and liveauctioneers.com, giving the sale a truly global reach. In our last sale we had a great deal of interest from Japan and the USA, for the Danish furniture in particular, as well as bids from London clients that I have known for years.
What is the price range of the items in the Modern auction?
The price range starts at £200 and rises to £5000-£6000, although most lots fall somewhere in the middle of these limits.
What are the most unusual pieces that you’ve seen in the Modern auction?
In the last auction we offered a taxidermy giraffe, who instantly became the star of the show and the most talked about lot. I tend to find that the most interesting pieces are those that have been in the same family since new. I particularly liked an Italian Afra and Tobia Scarpa ‘Artona’ dining set that the consignor had been given as a wedding present in 1972, which came with many photographs of the family growing up around it.
How would you characterise the buying experience at the Modern auction?
Ultimately we wanted our auction to be accessible. Buyers are able to browse the online catalogue from their PCs or tablets whenever it suits them. If anything catches their eye, they have three viewing days in which to find time to pop in to check out its condition. Many people enjoy the atmosphere of the live auction, but for those who can’t make it on the night, the sale is live on liveauctioneers.com and it is possible to bid live from anywhere with an internet connection.
Is the Modern auction restricted to dealers as a selling space or can anyone sell an item?
We tend to work principally with dealers, because over the years we have developed a network of contacts throughout Europe who can be relied upon to offer authentic, reasonably priced and inspiring stock. However, we also wanted to give homeowners the opportunity to edit their collections, offering a market place to those looking to sell on pieces that are no longer needed. There are no restrictions on who can sell at our auctions, though we do ensure the quality remains high.
What kind of response has the Modern auction had to date?
There’s been a positive reaction to the three previous auctions and I think the market for this type of furniture is only going to strengthen as more people come to appreciate the quality of vintage furniture as an affordable alternative to contemporary design.
Find out more about the venue at the Cecil Sharp House here