Who dares wins for the auction experts at SAS
Owners of successful auctioneers talk about their journey to new premises
When Neil Shuttleworth was travelling around Australia, he got a job helping a man with house clearances.
It was his first experience on the rostrum and he sold 10 lots at the end of an auction.
He now oversees around 48 auctions a year as a director of SAS – Special Auction Services.
His business partner Thomas Forrester, on the other hand, has wanted to be an auctioneer since he was a boy.
Thomas grew up on a farm in the West Country, where he spent his days watching his father at the cattle auctions and having “a lovely time”.
A trip to see Indiana Jones at the cinema with his grandmother cemented his desire to pursue a career involving antiques.
Both men studied for a Fine Art Valuation degree in Southampton, but their paths didn’t cross until a chance meeting at a fencing club.
It was here that they decided to begin working together and in 2006 – after weighing up the options of starting a business from scratch or buying a going concern – they purchased SAS.
Thomas is now a well-known face on television, having starred in the BBC hit series Bargain Hunt since it started.
That was more than 20 years ago and he says he still “loves it”.
While he was at university he indulged his passion for jewellery and gemstones, gaining diplomas in both specialisms.
After graduating he spent some time working in Rome, before returning to the UK and joining Philips, in Bath, as a porter.
Here, he worked his way through the ranks to become an auctioneer and valuer, before leaving after seven years to join a Sussex firm.
Thomas, who lives locally with his wife, spent three years there before his chance meeting with Neil led to their new business venture.
Neil admits that he “was not an academic person”, so after leaving school he trained as a chef, having worked in kitchens “peeling potatoes” since he was 13-years-old.
He worked in conferencing and banqueting for a number of years before heading off to travel around Australia.
After his first experience at an auction Down Under he was told he “had an eye for it” and this ignited a new interest in him.
He returned to England and began his degree at the Southampton Institute – a course that he says sadly no longer exists.
“During my degree, I worked for a summer at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam,” he explains. “I then worked in the shipping department after university portering and that’s where it all started.”
He spent four years in Amsterdam with Sotheby’s, working in a number of departments, including European ceramics, before moving back to the UK, where he spent several years as a business planning and strategy development specialist.
Then in 2006 he joined forces with Thomas and together they bought SAS.
The company was based on the Bath Road for the first few years, before they moved into their well-known spot on Greenham Business Park in 2010.
During the early years, the company’s high-levels of professionalism were recognised by the industry when they were invited to become accredited to the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers (SOFAA). They are still members.
At the beginning of this year SAS relocated to new premises on Plenty Close, off Hambridge Road, Newbury.
They will now be able to bring together all of their specialist departments under one roof and are already settling into their new home (below) very well.
I join them on a busy Wednesday morning, when they offer a free drop-in valuation service to anyone who pops into their new home, and the building is packed full of eager visitors.
A number of sales have taken place in the new auction room already, with the BBC filming five episodes of Bargain Hunt there just last week.
“When we first started, we had six auctions a year,” Neil says. “Now we sell around 40,000 lots each year and this year we have 48 auctions in the calendar.
“Part of that growth has been doing it all as organically as we can.
“We have strong links with Christie’s and they refer people to us if they contact them about areas they no longer deal with, such as toys, cameras, and rock and pop.
“It is a very competitive market at the moment, but men’s watches are bucking the trend, especially classic Rolexes.
“We have had to evolve and we have had to change the way we present.
“We have at least one photograph of every single lot and there are around 600 to 800 lots for each sale.
“During an auction we will sell approximately 100 lots per hour.
“We advise people what is best to do with their stuff and we are always very truthful.
“There are some things we are very good at selling and we have a global presence to do that.
“We have a lot of specialities here so we can make sure we place things in the right specialist sale for people.
“One massive positive for this industry is that we are the very top of the recycling chain. Antiques are green.”
Both men have fond memories of particular lots they have sold during their careers.
Having cemented his love of antiquities while watching Indiana Jones, Thomas was delighted to sell Indiana’s hat, worn by Harrison Ford in the classic movies, in an auction of film memorabilia.
Neil also takes to the rostrum for film sales and will be heading to LA later this year to conduct one.
One of his most memorable sales was the boots worn by Michael J Fox’s character, Marty McFly, in Back to the Future II, which sold for £52,000.
SAS’s house record for a single lot currently stands at £169,763 and included a rare Leica Rifle, which sold on July 23, 2019 and which Thomas drove all the way to Sweden to collect.
With more sales planned every week and the additional space their new premises have gifted them, Neil and Thomas are determined to break that record once again in the not too distant future.