Down to a Fine Art

Annabel Denham
Follow Annabel

Annabel Palmer talks to Patrick van der Vorst, the ex-Sotheby’s art expert who used a £100,000 investment from Dragons Den to build online valuation service Value My Stuff

THE INTERNATIONAL art market is having a ball, as investors flock to the perceived safer asset. A Sotheby’s sale last month totalled £163m, with demand coming from both emerging markets, and longer-established markets in Europe and America. The previous day, a Christie’s sale had notched up £177m – a record for any sale held in London by an auction house.

Patrick van der Vorst, founder of online valuation business Value My Stuff, thinks the industry has done “remarkably” well out of the recession. “When times get tough, people want to put their money in tangible assets rather than financial products. With wobbly markets across the globe, it has been viewed as a good alternative investment.” But the concentration of money and activity only sits in certain areas of the market, he tells me. “Contemporary and modern art have been incredibly buoyant. Traditional collecting categories, like furniture, silver, carpets – they’re still struggling.”

Having grown up in Bruges, surrounded by Medieval architecture and Flemish paintings, art always held an interest for van der Vorst. His dream of studying art history at university never materialised, as his lawyer father insisted he “study something more serious first”. But upon graduating, van der Vorst moved to London, where he found a portering job at Sotheby’s. It wasn’t especially glamorous. “I was hanging paintings, vacuum cleaning carpets.” But he steadily worked his way up to his dream destination: the furniture department.

Soon after, however, Sotheby’s changed its strategy. “It was 2006, and the powers-that-be realised that 90 per cent of turnover was coming from 10 per cent of clients. So why sell low value items? They set a minimum £5,000 rate, and turned down anything under that.” The department where van der Vorst worked was one of the hardest hit. “Many experts in furniture or ceramics were asked to leave.” But it presented the Belgian with a business opportunity: he handed in his notice, got in touch with his former colleagues, and launched Value My Stuff.

Working at the auction giant had made van der Vorst aware of how “intimidating” these companies can be to consumers. “A lot of people don’t know the value of their stuff at home. They could have a Chinese vase worth £500,000, but they would never go to a large auction house because they find it daunting.” But van der Vorst wanted to give the business a friendly face. So his customers can have their possessions valued by highly-qualified experts, within 48 hours, from the comfort of their own home.

In the past fortnight, the business has expanded to include sister company Auction My Stuff. “It was a natural progression, driven by customer feedback.” Value My Stuff charges an upfront fee of £10 per item. If the item qualifies for auction, Auction My Stuff will take a 10 per cent sellers’, and a 10 per cent buyers’ commission. “So whereas before we would have made £10 on a £200 item, now we will make an additional £40.” Larger auction houses, by comparison, charge 15 per cent to sellers, and a 25 per cent buyers’ fee.

Rewind to 2009, however, and van der Vorst was struggling to get customers onto his website. Marketing was exclusively through Google Pay Per Click, at a cost of between £300 and £400 a day. And where better to raise his profile than on BBC’s Dragon Den, where entrepreneurs can present their varying business ideas to a panel of investors in return for financial investment? Peter Jones wasn’t impressed – while the website was valuing 35 items per day, it was losing money from its marketing spend. Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis, however, spotted an opportunity. They invested £100,000 in exchange for 40 per cent of the business. But it also showed van der Vorst’s colleagues how determined he was to drive the business forward. The week the show was aired, Value My Stuff had 2m hits.

So why did he take the investment, in return for such a sizeable chunk of the company? “At that stage, I didn’t know anything about the business world. It gave me great comfort to have two shrewd businesspeople behind me.” Now, he sees at least one of the Dragons once a month, and they talk every fortnight. What surprises him most is not their commitment, but their determination to “take things slow”. Three years ago, van der Vorst had the idea for Auction My Stuff, but the Dragons insisted on waiting until Value My Stuff had established a market presence. “I thought they would come in guns blazing. But it was the other way around – they wanted to build solid foundations, and grow slowly and steadily.”

The Dragon duo also taught van der Vorst the importance of a business plan. “When I went on the show, I still hadn’t written one. It was the first piece of advice Deborah and Theo gave me. And it’s the advice I would give to any entrepreneur. Writing a business plan makes you more diligent with yourself.”

Value My Stuff has been profitable for a year and has priced over half a million items. It uses 64 experts, of which 58 are either ex-Sotheby’s or ex-Christie’s. What’s been the most talked-about item Value My Stuff has priced? “A medieval chastity belt. The owner thought it was a horse implement, so it was initially sent to a sporting memorabilia expert! It was valued at £2,000-£3,000, and the client subsequently sold it at auction.” The business has also valued a Monet, at £2m. “The client was hoping it was a Monet, but he came to us because he felt intimidated by the larger auction houses. It shows our friendly approach is working,” he says.

Company name: Value My Stuff

Founded: 2010

Turnover: £1.2m

Number of sfaff: 7

Job title: Founder

Age: 42

Born: Bruges

Lives: Victoria, London

Studied: Law at the University of Louvain, Belgium

Drinking: My nightly ritual is a strong G&T followed by a glass of red wine

Eating: Burrata cheese and tomato

Currently reading: No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone, by Tom Bower

Favourite Business Book: Common Sense Rules, by Deborah Meaden

Talents: Amateur photography, and I adore cooking!

First ambition: To be an interior designer

Motto: Conceive, believe, achieve!

Most likely to say: Plan the work, and work the plan. Do it, do it right, and do it right now!

Least likely to say: We can’t do it