Time for jewellery auctions to shine again

Showroom auctions are allowed again but with new rules for inspecting jewellery

While April normally signals the start of antique jewellery sales across the country, this year Covid-19 put an end to the majority of Irish jewellery auctions.

With the easing of restrictions, antique jewellery houses and auction rooms are beginning to open their doors again, albeit under new rules to ensure the safety of their clients.

O’Reilly’s on Francis Street in Dublin, an institution that has been catering to buyers since 1948, stayed open, selling online only and with no physical inspections of jewels.

"We felt we had no choice as we wanted to keep everybody on," says chairman Martin Bernon in reference to his nine full-time staff. "We all worked from home with lots of Zoom meetings, and while they were all new to me, it was old hat to our younger employees. But it also meant we had to adapt to our customers' needs during lockdown."

When buying jewellery, the wow factor comes from trying on a piece. Does it suit the tone of your skin? Is the ring right for the length and shape of your fingers?

To assist customers, O’Reilly’s held video calls with clients where they could see items more closely, with staff often trying on pieces so their clients could get a better grasp of an item. It also changed from live auctions to timed auctions over a 48-hour period.

This worked to a point. The May auction had 120 new registered clients “who had never been through the showrooms” and Bernon admits feeling like a “lost soul, wandering around the auction house devoid of customers”.

But while sales of high-value items were down, lower priced items sold well and the auction house discovered that timed 48-hour auctions created a niche market for specialist sales, such as silver and lower value items.

This new approach has launched the house into the digital age in a way it had never envisaged, and at the same time offers its customers more flexibility.

“Before the emphasis was having people in the room, but now with our new online timed auctions, it suits our customers better. They can play around, keep up with the progress of a piece, get a notification if they have been outbid and shop for it on the final day.”

The only drawback Bernon sees with timed auctions are for customers who are not tech savvy. “Our more traditional customers want a live auction that is over in two to three hours, but from here on we will continue to work with traditional methods – holding real-time auctions in-house and online – in tandem with offering timed auctions [over a 48-hour period] which suit younger more technically aware customers.

John Weldon in Temple Bar took the decision to suspend his auctions entirely – the last was held in February. "We know our customers need to try things on before they make a purchase: it's like buying a car, you need to test -drive it before you buy.  We made the decision to ride it out and bide our time. But will we make a profit this year? Who knows?"

Likewise, Adam’s on Stephen’s Green decided to postpone its May fine jewels auction. “It was the wiser choice as the safety of our customers is paramount,” says Claire-Laurence Mestrallet.

Moreover, her sourcing of jewels involves travelling abroad, and this was restricted due to lockdown. However, she notes: “Over lockdown there have been a number of high-profile online jewellery auctions with successful outcomes, where prices appear to have maintained their pre-Covid-19 levels, which gives me great encouragement for the coming season.”

Both Weldon and Mestrallet note an increased number of enquiries from Irish clients wishing to consign jewellery for sale which is good news for stock in the coming year.

The catalogues for O’Reilly’s sale on June 17th and Weldon’s on June 16th are online, and for the first time since lockdown customers will be able to view items in person. (Adam’s will hold its fine jewellery sale on September 15th.)

But what are the new rules for visiting auction rooms to inspect items of jewellery?Following protocol guidelines from industry bodies, customers need to make an appointment to view specific items, and provide their name and contact details should the need for tracing arise.

"Our place smells like a Dettol factory at the moment," says Weldon, who is also a national officer in the Order of Malta. He has engaged in webinars with the charity "to learn new safety measures to ensure we are doing the utmost to protect our customers.

“We will encourage people to bring gloves, and we have a sanitisation programme whereby every piece will be disinfected between inspections.”

While the health crisis may have suspended sales, important life events such as birthdays, anniversaries and engagements continue, and customers in search of the perfect gift can go online and make appointments to view items in person.

O'Reilly's has a selection of rubies – in time for July birthdays – along with antique brooches, watches and engagement rings. Also featured are Cartier rings, a diamond bracelet by Harry Winston and items by Tiffany.

Hegarty’s auction in Bandon on June 14th, from the collection of Dr Harry Blake, has a few items of jewellery listed, including a rather nice sapphire and diamond ring.

Weldon has a selection of diamond engagement rings along with a George III Freedom Box given to the Right Hon Theophilius Jones in 1767. Freedom boxes were given to dignitaries to mark the honour of the freedom of the city of Dublin.

He reckons that an antique 14ct gold mesh purse will be purchased for its metal rather than its aesthetic value: “The price of gold has risen by 13 per cent in the past six months. That’s coronavirus for you – people are putting their money into something solid. While the EU central bank can print more money it cannot print more gold.”

oreillysfineart.com, jwa.ie, adams.ie and hegartyantiques.com