Ian Walter: Gift of the gavel

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Well-known Lincoln auctioneer Ian Walter has just boosted his already impressive CV – after bringing down the gavel on his most unusual job yet!

In addition to his wealth of experience in land and property matters, the senior partner at JHWalter is now also recognised as the man who auctioned the 25 colourful sculptures which formed the hugely popular Lincoln Barons’ Charter Trail this summer.

Bidders in the packed “saleroom”, at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, went wild for the statues and left Ian extremely proud to have raised a staggering £167,000 for the national food bank charity The Trussell Trust.

The trail was one of the highlights of the 800th Anniversary Year of Magna Carta, but 2015 is also a milestone year for JHWalter, as it has seen the firm celebrate 225 years in business.

Ian joined the firm in 1978 when he was 23. He went into the office on a Monday morning after his father Colin had died on the previous Friday, aged 51.

The Barons’ Auction marked the latest charity sale conducted by the firm – Ian also auctioned 12 lots at the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Dinner in Lincoln Cathedral this year, raising £30,000, and stonemasons’ sculptures created during the European Stone Festival, which took place on the Cathedral’s East Lawn in 2013 and raised £50,000.

He uses his most treasured gavel on such occasions and during the firm’s County Property Auctions.

“It was made especially for me and given as a gift by someone who had seen me conducting an auction. I was completely taken aback, but obviously delighted, although I’ve never seen that man again to this day!” said Ian.

So do you actually get a different kind of buzz auctioning Barons to when you are standing in a farmyard in the pouring rain selling tractors, combines or ploughs or rallying rival bidders to shell out good money for an unusual house or prime farm land?


Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Born for it

“I was born into a family of auctioneers and I am a seventh generation member of our family to be an auctioneer. We have been conducting sales in Lincolnshire since the 1790s, but I’ve certainly never sold anything like the Barons before. It was a unique experience,” said Ian.

“The sale certainly benefited from very good exposure. Many people were automatically sent catalogues and it was great to see the Lincoln Barons raise £167,000, when a concurrent auction of 25 other Barons in Salisbury raised £58,000.

“Before we started, I had no sense at all that they would go for up to £11,000. What I really expected was that the auction would make about £50,000 at the end of the day.

“There was a really good vibe and a fantastic atmosphere in the room as the auction got underway. Naturally, you try to make this sort of event fun. Charity auctions are all about engaging with people and it’s vital to establish an immediate rapport with potential bidders,” said Ian.

“There were a lot of friendly faces in the audience, but also many people I didn’t know. One genuine bidder particularly captured my attention because he kept bidding generously for several barons. I was rooting for him to clinch the last Baron, but he was unfortunately outbid.”

JHWalter sees itself as a key player in the local community. Ian conducts the charity auctions for free and sees them as a way of giving something back.

Bidders, relieved of concerns such as being able to top reserve prices and pay commission charges, tend to really get into the spirit of the occasion and they are willing to dig deep for a great cause.

JHWalter has grown and diversified tremendously over the past 225 years and now has property, business, planning and energy divisions, each offering a wealth of expertise.

“However, auctioneering remains a central activity for us and we are keen to stay loyal to our agricultural roots. On a more serious note, we have run The County Property Auction for more than 50 auctions. We can sell any type of property using that medium, which offers sellers another route to market,” said Ian.

“A lot of residential property is sold by private treaty, but when you have an unusual or one-off building or complex it can be difficult, even for a professional, to know what it is worth – so auctioning it can work well.”

JHWalter’s County Property Auction team celebrated a bumper year in 2014, when it offered 143 lots (50% more than in 2013) and brought the hammer down on 114, raising about £13.5 million for its clients.

Of course, many people have attended an auction, remembering a friend’s genial warning not to “rub their nose” or “nod their head” at the wrong moment, unless they happen to have a friendly bank manager in tow!

“I often say to people, ‘stay very still Sir, or Madam’ because there is always someone in the sale room who is fidgeting in their seat. They are not a serious bidder, but certainly risk being taken for one,” said Ian.

“I remember a man was sitting in the front row at a sale. A youngster of four or five was with him, and sat with his legs dangling over the edge of the chair. The man was totally absorbed in his catalogue and did not realise the young lad had been keenly watching bidders sticking their hands up.

“The next moment he decided to do the same. So I had to say, ‘excuse me Sir, are you aware that your son is bidding?’ For a moment the man looked terrified, then he grabbed the youngster by the hand and quickly led him out of the room!”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Getting it in the foot

The farming community know JHWalter for its agricultural machinery and equipment sales. Typically, Ian or a colleague can be spotted in a sea of farmers and dealers, valiantly encouraging brisk bidding whilst trying to keep an eye on who is actually after an individual lot.

It can be a bit of a challenge – with bidders coming at you from all angles and adopting strange techniques when bidding. Auctioneers always have to be prepared for inclement weather – but a wise man will also slip on some strong footwear!

“I remember one such sale, where there was lively bidding for a tractor plough. One farmer bid by pushing his stick down on my left foot. Another used his stick to prod me on the other foot and a third nudged me in the back. When I got it in the back, I sold it!” said Ian.

Lincolnshire’s farming scene is rapidly changing. An ageing population is seeing many farmers retire, but some are deciding to hold on to their land as an asset and let someone else farm it,” said Ian.

“Every year there are fewer farm machinery sales, because every time there is a sale there is one less farmer. Today, a lot of farmers are using contractors so they don’t buy equipment themselves.

“Farming concerns have also got larger, particularly on the arable front, and fewer people are going into dairy farming,” said Ian.

He constantly gets asked if the price of farmland will continue to rise or fall and that is down to the simple economics of price and demand.

“The supply of English farmland is finite and falling year-on-year, as land is converted to other uses. Supply will continue to fall as small units are absorbed into bigger ones, which is particularly true in Lincolnshire,” said Ian.

“For instance, along the Lincoln Heath, where there are farmers with large holdings, it is a rare thing for heathland to be sold. But Grange Farm at Brauncewell was sold in 2014 to Beeswax Farming.

“That was snapped by Sir James Dyson, through his farming vehicle, making him the man who hit the headlines after grabbing more 20,000 acres in three years.”

Today farmland is usually making between £8,000 and £12,000 an acre in Lincolnshire.

“There are farmers of course, who have decided against selling their property, but who are looking at newer ways of utilising their land to good effect by dipping their toe into the renewables sector – which can be tough, but also rewarding,” added Ian.

“This may include investment in solar photovoltaic panels, wind power and anaerobic digestion systems, and we can help with the relevant planning application processes.

“The past year has been a good one for our energy and planning team, with more projects securing planning permission and more installations commissioned – and not just in Lincolnshire. But, with the change in government policy, that is set to change.”

Ian enjoys taking a break from the business by rowing on the River Trent and collecting Lincolnshire art and ceramics.

He has a son Ben (24) and a daughter Eliza (22). Both are graduates of Bristol University. Ben is training to be a chartered accountant with Deloitte in Bristol and Eliza has just graduated and gone into business as a jewellery designer on her own account – a bold decision of which Ian is justly proud.