Whats it like to sit in an auction where millions of pounds are being spent

Picture from the back of the Auction Room
Picture by: Richard Holmes


Ming Cup within a glass box for viewing
Picture by: Richard Holmes

When I found out that I was one of the students chosen to fly out to Hong Kong to cover the sale of the Thornhill stem cup, I felt a mixture of nerves and excitement. Surely there wasn’t much that could top being flown over to Hong Kong for four days and representing both the university and my course. However I’d never flown so far from home before and I would have to put all of my learning from the past year into practice to achieve a truly memorable set of images.

The Thornhill collection and Stem Cup were familiar to both myself and Film student Laura, after we had previously documented an event a few weeks beforehand called “A Potted History”. This was a prelude to the sale which allowed the general public to not only get their own items valued and appraised, but also to find out more about the valuable collection that the university was bequeathed during the Second World War. The Stem Cup itself is a small pot from the 15th century, which features a distinctive blue & white colouring and dragon design on the side. It is only around 10 cm tall but is very striking to look at.

After leaving Manchester on the last Sunday of May, we arrived in Dubai and transferred to our connecting flight to Hong Kong. After more than 24 hours of travelling, we eventually arrived via taxi at our hotel in the centre of Hong Kong – the Butterfly on Hollywood. We had arranged to meet Deputy Vice-Chancellor Rosy Crehan at the Liang Yi museum the next day at 11.30am – this would be the venue for the auction.

Liang Yi Museum sign
Picture by: Richard Holmes

One of our first jobs when we arrived at the museum on the Tuesday morning was to get footage and images of the auction room, viewing room and interview some members of staff who would be involved in the auction. Representatives from both auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull and Freeman’s were in attendance, as well as Staffordshire University and the Liang Yi Museum themselves. The auction itself began at 6pm and the room gradually began to fill up as the audience arrived in time for the Stem Cup’s sale. The Stem Cup was lot 84 of around 150 items in the auction, so approaching the mid-point of the auction, the room was at full capacity.

View from teh front of the Auction Room
Picture by: Richard Holmes

When the bidding began, it was surprisingly slow. I had never experienced a high-value antiques auction before but Lee Young, the auctioneer, wasn’t going to rush through the sale after more than two years of planning and preparation! The price slowly rose until the only remaining bidders left were two men in the venue itself – one on the phone and one bidding personally.

Picture from the back of the Auction Room
Picture by: Richard Holmes

Eventually, the auction fell the way of the gentleman in the front row as it sold for HK$36 million, which in pounds sterling and including the buyer’s premium, is £3.6 million. The moment the hammer fell I went to upload my images from the camera and send them back to the university press office.

Seeing the Stem Cup sell was an amazing experience – a high-profile auction is something that I didn’t expect to be photographing and documenting whilst I was at university, but to do it in Hong Kong was equally special. The item reached the top-end of its estimate so when the gavel finally fell, it was great to see the reactions of those connected with the Stem Cup. For the university itself, the media interest that was gained from the sale and the response has been really good. It has helped in the promotion of both the university and Stoke-on-Trent’s relationship to ceramics and pottery. Personally I am really glad that the item made the amount that it did – it will be great to see the display of the rest of the Thornhill collection when the permanent display venue is complete. Additionally, to be able to experience such an amazing place as Hong Kong is something I will never forget!

Richard Holmes

Photojournalism Student

Hone Kong Street
Picture by: Richard Holmes
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