Young heads in a grand old trade

Young heads in a grand old trade

Known as ‘The Boys’, Nick Davies and Will Farmer are dusting out the cobwebs from the conservative antiques business and attracting young fans with their passion – and tears. Bob Haywood reports

It’s not often that a businessman breaks down and cries on nationwide TV. But Will Farmer gave in to his emotions in front of nine million viewers on Antiques Roadshow in August 2013.

As one of the BBC hit show’s guest presenters, he was asked to value a collection of Russian ceramics inherited by three brothers and sisters still reeling from the death of their beloved mother.

Will just filled up – because the family’s palpable grief paralleled his own tragedy 12 months earlier when his dear widowed mum, Lesley, died.

He recalls: “I just couldn’t help it. The executive producer showed me the rushes before the piece was broadcast and asked if I was happy for the sequence to go out.

“I thought about it and decided the viewers and the wider public should know what I was going through – as so many others have suffered. The reaction from the viewers, the profession and our customers was overwhelmingly supportive and positive and my Twitter followers doubled. I’m glad I did it.”

Will’s outpouring of his inner turmoil came as no surprise at all to his business partner Nick Davies. They both know that life and death can arouse strong emotions.

The two men – despite being as alike as chalk and cheese – give their feelings free rein about the world of antiques, too. Will wears his heart on his sleeve and Nick takes a slightly steadier approach.

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As co-directors in Fieldings Auctioneers Ltd, of Stourbridge, West Midlands, they couldn’t be a better combination. Will is ‘the accelerator’ in the company’s dealings – and Nick ‘the brake’. And the duo have created an astonishingly-successful business: after just 13 years, Fieldings now has an annual turnover of £3m.

The firm started out modestly with a shop front – and cellar – in Market Street, Stourbridge, and monthly auctions at the village community centre in nearby Hagley.

Nick and Will ripped up the rule books by holding the auctions on Saturdays when non-dealers could also attend. But Nick and Will had to set up on Friday nights – and take it in turns to sleep in the hall overnight to thwart would-be burglars.

Will recalls: “Whoever, was ‘on duty’ slept on an airbed and had to wash and shave in the sink. We did that for five years. Looking back, I can’t believe it. We couldn’t get into the hall until the toddler group finished on the Friday tea-time and we had to be out by Saturday tea-time for the Saturday night dances.

“There was endless packing, unpacking, re-packing, loading, unloading and driving.”

In 2006, Fieldings moved to Mill Race Lane – a trading estate on the fringes of Stourbridge town centre – and now has 10,500 sq ft of space. There are 11 full-time staff and 10 casual employees.

Having all of the company’s operations under one roof seems like auctioneering and valuation heaven for the affable duo. They have no qualms about saying their staff are ‘the best’ on whom they depend heavily.

Nick and Will met in 1999 when Nick was working for Biddle & Webb auctioneers and valuers in Ladywood, Birmingham, and Will was a regular customer. They went out for a beer and friendship blossomed. Two years later, they started their own business by which time Will was at Weller & Dufty auctioneers and valuers in Bromsgrove Street, Birmingham.

Each put £20,000 capital into Fieldings, choosing the single titular name after looking at the big successful auction houses.

Nick said: “We thought of Farmer Davies but that just sounded like a cattle auction firm. We had a shortlist of three names and we came back after the weekend with our choice which we put inside an envelope. “We had both chosen ‘Fieldings’.”

Fieldings was like a breath of fresh air to the staid world of auction houses, often – rightly – associated with old, draughty, cold and damp halls. They were affectionately referred to as ‘The Boys’ by rival auctioneers – almost exclusively older men – because of their relative youth. When the company was formed, Nick was 34 and Will 27.

They are proud to recall when they set up their first tiny office – at street level, bright and modern – a respected local solicitor said they had ‘brought a spark’ to Stourbridge town centre. As well as going off-piste by holding their auctions on Saturdays, Nick and Will set about attracting a new generation of antique collectors.

They point out that many of their regular customers – and those of other auction houses – are elderly and even heading to the great auction house in the sky, so it makes good business sense.

Will says he doesn’t even use the word ‘antique’ with younger clients, but ‘vintage’ or even ‘pre-loved’. He is Twitter mad and the firm is huge on Facebook which they say considerably increases the firms ‘reach’, even internationally.

Both Nick and Will are big fans of TV which, they believe, has transformed the image of the profession massively and made the public much better informed, as has the internet.

Will is in his eighth season as an expert on BBC1’s Antiques Roadshow – taking up about 20 days a year of his time – and counts his fellow presenters and the programme’s production team as friends. He says Fiona Bruce is ‘every bit as lovely as she seems – an absolute and consummate professional’. He said: “She never turns down a request for an autograph.”

Nick is a regular expert on BBC 2’s Flog It! which attracts about 1.6m viewers. So does he love the show’s presenter Paul Martin as much as Will adores Fiona Bruce? “Absolutely,” he shoots back. “Paul is a nice bloke; what you see is what you get.”

Nick and Will think their TV exposure has helped the business, although they confess they are seldom stopped in the street. Although Will is a ‘half-full man’ and Nick a ‘half-empty man’, both just relish their work, which is also their hobby.

Asked about a ‘wow’ moment, Nick recalls spotting an early silver pocket watch – circa 1720 – during a house clearance in Stourton, near Stourbridge. It sold for a relatively-modest £1,500 but Nick still recollects its exquisite beauty and unrivalled workmanship.

Effervescent Will is all over the place with his ‘wow’ moment and trots off a very long list of ‘bests’. But he decides his ‘best’ best was spying a painting by Claude Monet – worth about £4m – on the wall of a house he was visiting ‘somewhere in Britain’. The owner knew full well what it was – and wasn’t selling, through Will or anyone else.

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The current Fieldings house record for a sale is £53,000 for a Cyril Power linocut, although Will and Nick fondly remember a Clarice Cliff May Avenue charger which went for a cool £24,000.

Fieldings hold a weekly valuation day (Tuesdays, 10am to 4pm) at their headquarters, and at other locations in the West Midlands. The firm values items – or complete collections – for insurance and for probate purposes and Nick and Will also wield their gavels at charity auctions – giving their services free of charge.

They say the majority of items they are asked to value are “pleasant, attractive, ornamental – but worthless”. But gently letting down the would-be seller is part of the job, they believe.

Fieldings is proud that 90% of its customers are non-dealers and that it would rather sell better class items than glorified bric-a-brac. Unless a piece is likely to fetch at least £50, it’s hardly worth putting into an auction by the time it has been handled, photographed and put in an auction catalogue, and a seller’s premium deducted.

They count many of their customers as fond acquaintances. And Nick and Will say that the business is ‘buoyant’ at the moment – quickly changing that to ‘phenomenal’.

They might be tempting fate by adding: “Recession-proof.” Well, Britain went into a recession – and is now coming out of it – and Fieldings has gone from strength to strength so far, so they are probably right.

Fieldings believes that keeping ahead of fashion in antiques is crucial for the ongoing success of the business.

Will said: “What was popular 30 years ago is now as welcome as the Black Death. We have to know what is going on and accommodate it, and we do.”

What is the best business advice Nick and Will have ever been given? Will cites the words of his late father, John, himself a businessman, who said: “Always remember it will take you20 years to make your name – and two minutes to lose it. Integrity is everything.”

Nick said: “Mine comes from my dad, too. He told me to marry my future wife, Christine.”

But, hang on, that was good personal advice but was that good business advice? Nick said: “It was because, as well as everything else, she’s a good businesswoman!”

Although they have different – but complementary – personalities, Nick and Will have built a successful business by believing in living to work, rather than working to live. They just love it – even if it does provoke the odd tear.