Valuations and the Art of Discovery

It is a source of constant fascination that items of major art-historical importance are still discovered from routine valuations. Every year, without fail, exceptional paintings, works of art, jewellery and even barn-find cars lost for generations are unearthed. The value of the appraisal itself, therefore, cannot be underestimated.


How are items valued?

Valuation is, first and foremost, a comparative exercise of matching as closely as possible the object to be valued with previous examples appearing on the market; an objective discipline of price checking databases and factoring the current market conditions.

However, the valuer must also consider subjective criteria, much in the same way as an antiquarian or collector would: authenticity, rarity, condition, provenance and, perhaps most subjective of all, the vagaries of contemporary fashion and taste. For this reason, hugely valuable items (that at first glance may appear fairly ordinary) can languish in collections, in certain cases unregarded, for generations.



The following example encapsulates everything one would want to find: an undiscovered, unique work of art by a world-renowned artist in untouched condition from a private family collection. In 2010 Bonhams was asked to value a collection of paintings by the 19th-century British artist Matthew Shepperson, for an Estate valuation pending sale. Among these works, there was a small portrait of a gentleman. From the outset, Andrew McKenzie, our Director of Old Master Paintings, believed it was not by Shepperson, but by the great 17th-century master, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), and possibly portraying Juan Mateos, Philip IV’s Master of the Hunt. Many months were spent consulting international experts and museums about the painting; technical analysis and an x-radiograph further confirmed the attribution to Velázquez.

Having previously had a nominal value associated with it, the painting realised its true potential when it went under the hammer at Bonhams and sold for £3,000,000.


Motor Cars

Given their size, one would think that cars would be harder to forget about, and consequently, owners would be aware of their potential value. Occasionally, however, we come across ‘barn finds’ that have ‘hibernated’ for decades. A 1929 Bentley 4½-litre, unearthed from a family barn after 30 years, sold at Bonhams Beaulieu in 2015 for £695,900. The vendor had found the car gathering dust in his grandfather’s garage. It was an incredible discovery: the chassis, engine, axle, gearbox, steering box numbers were all present and correct, and the interior still in original green leather. The vendor’s grandfather purchased the Bentley in 1935 and was known to have used it for family holidays (complete with fitted tow bar and caravan) throughout the 1930s and 1940s.



Small and often hidden away, jewellery is one of the most important things to remember if you are considering having an insurance valuation. Currently, coloured gemstones carry with them a considerable premium, and vintage emeralds from leading jewellers command strong prices. One of last season’s most talked-about emeralds caused somewhat of a stir when they went under the hammer at Bonhams London in April last year. 

The necklace, attributed to Hennell (one of Britain’s oldest and most venerable jewellers), featured a double-sided cabochon emerald crescent, of Colombian origin, weighing 12.13 carats. It is thought that the extraordinary cabochon crescent in the pendant was an old-mine gem, originating from a much earlier Indian jewel. The necklace hailed from the private collection of Louise Stephens, wife of Michael Stephens, scion of the Stephens Ink family. 

After the 1930s and the death of their former owner, the pieces stayed in the family but were hardly worn. As a result, they were in exceptional condition. Greatly admired during the auction house’s previews in New York, Geneva, Hong Kong and London, the necklace became the subject of a bidding frenzy, eventually selling for a total of £1,328,750 against an estimate of £150,000-200,000.


Chinese Artefacts 

There has been a phenomenal increase in the value of Chinese artefacts during the last 20 years, as collectors from the mainland China have set about repatriating major works of art that have resided in the West for the last three centuries. Bonhams has realized many multi-million pound prices for rare Chinese items over this period. However, there are still many less rare, but potentially undervalued, Chinese items in family collections. Last year, whilst on a routine valuation, our valuers were asked by the family as something of an afterthought to value a teapot which was still in occasional use for special occasions. It was a very good example of 19th century Yixing enamelware. Estimated at £5,000- 8,000, it surprised everyone when it fetched £47,000 in our Edinburgh salerooms.

Modern Chinese paintings of the mid-late 20th century period increasingly provide surprising buoyant results. We have seen many examples hidden in UK collections, collected by expats working in Hong Kong and the Far East in the mid-20th century, much the same as their forebears would have collected Ming porcelain. Today artists from this period, such as Zang Daqian and Fu Baoshi, can realise millions of pounds at auction. A rediscovered masterpiece by the Chinese master Fu Baoshi (1904-1965), Spring Morning at Mount Shao, painted in 1961 and unseen in public since 1968, led our Fine Chinese Paintings auction in Hong Kong.

The painting made its debut at auction since it was acquired in Hong Kong more than half a century ago by a distinguished private British collector, and fetched HK$2,740,000. 



All of these examples achieved exceptional prices, partly because of their rarity, condition and provenance. In the case of my final example, however, we have an item that has never been, and arguably will never be properly enjoyed, and yet collectors are currently prepared to pay six-figure sums to acquire it. I am referring to rare bottles of whisky, which, as a result of demand from China and the Far East, saw Bonhams set three world record prices in the space of the last year alone.

A bottle of the extremely rare The Macallan Valerio Adami 1926 60-year-old sold at Bonhams Whisky Sale in Edinburgh last October for a new world record of £848,750. Amazingly, it broke the previous world record Bonhams set five months previously when another bottle of The Macallan Valerio Adami 1926 was sold for £814,081. Although 12 bottles of The Macallan Valerio Adami 1926 were produced, it is not known how many of them still exist, and we can only hope they are stored away safely somewhere awaiting discovery.

The fascinating discoveries that professional valuations often provide are among the great pleasures of the job for myself and my colleagues. With a dozen offices across Great Britain, Bonhams’ Valuations team provides our clients with the reassurance of a local presence backed up by our internationally renowned specialist departments. 


A vintage wooden table and upholstered mahogany chair

R K Harrison clients are entitled to a discount from selected Valuers

Listed below

Please reference R K Harrison on all enquiries to these valuers. Details of other valuation services are also available, including suppliers of safes, water detection systems and alarms.



Catherine Mackenzie
101 New Bond Street, London, W1S 1SR
+44 (0)20 7468 8340
[email protected] |
International valuers of fine/decorative art, antiques, jewellery,& motor cars. UK valuation offices backed by 50 specialist departments. Quotes provided prior to valuation.


Coram James

Robert Coram James
+44 (0)7951 756 680 | +44 (0)207 857 8115
[email protected] |
Coram James is an independent firm of Art, Antique & Jewellery Valuers. 10% discount for R K Harrison clients.
Regulated by RICS.


Gurr Johns Limited

Anne-Marie Shaw
16 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU
+44 (0)20 7839 4747
[email protected]
Independent specialist valuations & advice on fine art, antiques & jewellery. 10% discount on half-day and daily rates for clients of R K Harrison.



Garry Batt
+44 (0)1305 265 080
[email protected]
10% discount to R K Harrison clients on their usual fee structure.



Caroline Whittock
+44 (0)1922 862 806
[email protected] |
We provide valuations for art & antiques, our specialist field being jewellery. 10% discount. Our rates for valuation are £950 per day and £550 per half day. All prices plus VAT.


John C Benjamin

John C Benjamin
+44 (0)1296 615 52
[email protected]
John Benjamin’s area of expertise is valuing, buying and selling jewellery which he has been doing for over 30 years and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to bear.


An emerald and diamond pendant/necklace, by the jeweller Hennell

Written by Harvey Cammell

Bonhams Global Director of Valuations