I started Toovey’s Fine Art Auctioneers twenty years ago this month, with a dedicated team of people who remain passionate about the company and the work we do. We opened on a stormy Valentine’s night in 1995 and were delighted when more than 700 guests braved wind and rain to support us and celebrate this new venture. I set out to create a family firm where people are valued, both clients and staff – a regional auction house providing a centre of expertise for the valuation and sale of art and antiques, with leading specialists and international marketing. Today, the salerooms are on the A24 at Washington, in sight of Chanctonbury Ring and the Sussex Downs, though we travel across London and the South East of England advising clients on their possessions, and our website attracts hundreds of thousands of potential clients from around the world.
Reflecting on the last twenty years, it is the passionate collectors who stand out. These individuals often collect in the pursuit of knowledge. They are continually refining and adding to their depth of understanding of a particular field or period, while training their eye to the subtle details which set apart exceptional objects. In an age which increasingly confuses information with knowledge and understanding, this is an exciting and refreshing group of people to accompany.
The De La Rue Collection from Rusper gave Toovey’s its first truly world-class results in 1998. The remarkable collection came from the famous De La Rue family, who printed money and stamps for the British Empire. It had lain undisturbed for some seventy years. Among the wonderful paintings, furniture and objects was this late 19th century oil on canvas of a young woman gathering tulips in a garden by the American artist George Hitchcock (1850-1913). Although the canvas was holed and in a poor state, it broke all records for the artist at the time when it sold to an American buyer. His agent flew in on Concorde especially for the sale and, against stiff competition from a telephone bidder in London, bought it for £345,000. The news of the sale was reported in the New York Times.
Many of the most memorable collections speak of the particular collectors. Take, for example, our Little Thakeham House Sale in 2000. I wrote in the catalogue introduction that the contents of Little Thakeham were in keeping with the stylistic quality of this important Edwin Lutyens house. They reflected the passion which this Arts and Crafts period building inspired in Tim and Pauline Ractliff, who had preserved and celebrated the property for many years. The auction was packed, with people parking in the orchard. On the lawn the marquee filled with bidders and a bank of telephones. Pre-sale estimates were quickly overtaken as prices soared and the gavel fell.
Toovey’s has remained the first choice for the sale of single-owner collections in Sussex. In 2006 our sale of The Bolney Lodge Collection saw buyers spend well over a million pounds on furniture and works of art from the estate of the late Judge Coles QC.
Single-owner sales often reflect a very personal and particular insight into the lives of the individual collector. Take the sale of The Library Collection of The Late W. Leslie Weller MBE, DL, FSA, which Toovey’s held in December last year. The books, pictures and effects reflected a man whose lively mind was directed towards his love of Sussex, its history, countryside and people. A generous and encouraging man, he worked tirelessly for the auctioneering profession and art world, as well as numerous charities. His friendship, support and advice I valued highly throughout my career.
Provenance and the human story behind individual objects or collections add a frisson which, though unpredictable, always has an important and positive effect on the prices achieved for them at auction. This has been reflected at Toovey’s sales again and again over the years.
I remain a passionate advocate for art, heritage and culture, sponsoring Pallant House Gallery, Shipley Arts Festival and the wonderful Horsham Museum and Art Gallery, amongst many others, through Toovey’s. Our company continues to invest in the Sussex community which I love, supporting numerous charities and groups with talks and fund-raising.
Twenty years on, I am proud that Toovey’s has fulfilled my hopes and aspirations. It remains a family firm employing a team of specialists and it now has a long-established reputation for expertise in valuing, marketing and auctioning art and antiques. None of this would have been possible, though, without the generous support and encouragement of the collectors, our clients, friends and supporters. Thank you all for the first twenty years!
By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 4th February 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.