Newbury auction house MD Jonathan Pratt knows the true value of art
JP tells us about his career as a valuer
For anyone who loves beautiful objects and fine art, valuation can be an ideal career. Jonathan Pratt came to Newbury to take up the position of managing director at Dreweatts in 2018, but how many realise the popular valuer ‘JP’ from Bargain Hunt was returning to his roots. Arts editor TRISH LEE spoke to him about his rise in the business, sparked by schooldays in the Elizabethan manor of Shaw House, and how the auction industry will move on post-pandemic
JONATHAN Pratt – known affectionately as JP – first left Newbury when he went to college in Southampton in 1991and again in 1995 to work at Phillips Auctioneers in Edinburgh. “I returned to Newbury to work at Dreweatts and it’s lovely to be back.”
JP’s parents moved to Stoney Lane when he was nine months old – coincidentally the day he also started to walk – but there were no early signs of his future career, no youthful collecting. He was too busy climbing trees.
“I had a happy childhood. The 70s and 80s were completely different to the world today – long days spent climbing trees, playing football and out on BMXs.
However, his nursery, primary and secondary schools were all within a mile of Dreweatts – Winchcombe, then Shaw House and St Barts.
And there were inklings there in his schooldays.
“My first and second years at Shaw House were in the old building. We had lessons in the Elizabethan rooms and would sneak into the attics. I discovered a love of architecture and ornament.
And so his passion grew. “I’ve always loved art and architecture, but it was probably my mother’s influence, taking me on trips to the Hungerford Arcade when I was young.”
It was a 1986 TV comedy-drama about an irresistible rogue-cum-detective with a keen eye for antiques – the first series of Lovejoy – that set him off on his career path. As a ‘divvie’, Lovejoy – played by Ian McShane – was a dealer with a special talent for guessing the real value of antiques. “I loved this programme, particularly his understanding of everything. This is what I wanted, to be able to identify everything or at least know how to find out.”
It wasn’t until he first moved out and needed furniture that he bought his first antique, but “I have always loved English furniture”.
His career path began in Southampton. “I studied a diploma in Fine Art and Chattels valuation run by ISVA [Independent Surveyors & Valuers Association], which became a degree run by RICS [Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors].” This was followed by a diploma in Gemmology while he was working at Phillips.
“I started my working life in Edinburgh as a furniture porter and continued to study.
“Every two years I found a new role with more experience. I qualified as a gemologist in 2000, enabling me to value jewellery, and in 2005 was offered the role of MD of a Sussex auction room, which I ran for 13 years before taking the MD role at Dreweatts in 2018.
“All my career choices help me with the day-to-day challenges I face running a vibrant business like Dreweatts.”
All valuers have specialisms, which make them experts in particular areas, although at first JP had his sights set on general valuation, with a broad knowledge in all areas. “The ability to identify almost everything I saw was the main attraction.
“However, my first real interest was oriental carpets. It seemed that most general valuers didn’t understand them and I loved the way that each carpets had characteristics that
specifically identified it to the village, town or city in which it was woven.
“But it was jewellery that dominated much of my career. My interest was born from needing to know more – and its value and portability made it an attractive business.”
JP has handled many beautiful and desirable objects over the years but which was the most memorable?
“A tough question... probably a £20m blue diamond, although I didn’t discover it!”
From an outsider’s view, Dreweatts seems to have functioned well through lockdown, maybe because it embraced online bidding. “We reacted quickly to the challenges and updated our systems to accommodate remote bidding and
working from home or in bubbles.
“Many of the changes will be permanent – lockdown has highlighted the need for the auction industry to move with the times, adopting new technologies such as virtual tours and AI algorithm marketing software.”
In recent years auctioneers, valuers and dealers have become celebrities due to TV shows like Flog It! and Bargain Hunt – JP included – but has it been good for business? “In the past they were hugely important, but much less today. I do them for the enjoyment – with four children it’s like having a mini-break every now and then.”
While valuers have their eye on the past, they must equally anticipate tomorrow’s antiques. Dreweatts recently held a sale of photographs capturing important moments of space history. “Artefacts of man’s exploration will always continue to be of interest, particularly photographs.
“There are collecting areas that are completely undervalued right now, such as 18th-century English porcelain and traditional pictures.”
Jonathan advises: “Always buy quality and what you like. Get advice and don’t be afraid to buy big every now and then.”
The future of the antiques trade is looking extremely healthy as society moves towards more sustainability.
“We are natural recyclers. Antiques are the ultimate sustainable product – green credentials and good investments.
“Why not consider everything as an investment – tables, chairs, carpets, lighting, jewellery, handbags? You can enjoy them and save money while collecting.”
JP’s advice for any young person considering a career in valuation and auctioneering is that there are many different careers in the art and antiques trade and the best way in is to talk to auctioneers and dealers and start at the bottom, gaining as much experience as possible – but “Do it. It is immensely interesting and you will never be out of work.”
Finally, I was curious as to whether JP can go to a party without people asking him to value something, just as doctors are cornered about ailments?
“It happens all the time and if they don’t know me, I say I’m an accountant.”