Alison Ross, Kilshaw’s Auctioneer Ltd.

Dust off those 40-year-old stoneware dinner plates, trendsetters — pottery tableware is back. Alison Ross is seeing the signs of it at her auction house as surely as she saw the stainless steel trend of the late 1990s and the “over-the-top gilt” period before that.

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Ross is a jewellery buff herself, and makes a point of looking at every piece that passes through Kilshaw’s Auctioneer Ltd., her Fort Street auction house. But housewares are the staple of the business. Just being part of the ebb and flow of hundreds of such items through the door every week for the past 14 years has made Ross something of an expert in spotting design trends.

“Vintage oak pieces and antiques were big 20 or 30 years ago. Today’s market is different,” says Ross. “The really high-end antiques still sell, but mid-century design is what people want now, things like Danish modern. The trend toward pottery dishware is part of that, too — we’re all looking for a simpler way of life. If you’re living in one of those tiny condos downtown, you don’t want anything big.”

Ross worked alongside former owner Don Kilshaw for nine years before buying the family-owned business from him in 2006. They met when she was teaching a collectibles class in Victoria and bringing her students to the auction. She clearly made an impression: years later, when Kilshaw was looking for a new “right-hand man,” he called Ross to offer her the job. She learned all aspects of the business, including auctioneering.

The auction house still occupies the Fort Street building where it first opened in Victoria in 1949. But its roots go back to 1790, when William Kilshaw launched his family into the auction business in Kendal, England. A later generation of Kilshaws landed in Winnipeg in 1908 before moving west to Victoria.

Much of what went on in an auction house in those days is still the same today, except for a couple of striking differences: the volume of sales, which were almost $2 million in 2010, and the Internet. Even 20 years ago, nobody could have imagined the growing online presence and international sales that are now part of the daily routine at Kilshaw’s, says Ross.

“We ship around the world now. You could be living in Australia and looking for a specific Moorcroft vase, and if you put that into a Google search, Kilshaw’s comes up. The Internet has made the world much smaller.”

Anyone with an ounce of packrat in them loves an auction house, says Ross. Kilshaw’s draws more than 1,000 people through its doors in a typical week, including 300 or so buyers and sellers taking part in the regular Thursday-night auctions. Some 21,000 lots — each of which may include dozens of smaller items — were sold at Kilshaw’s last year.

From art history to auctioneer — how did that come about?

I’d designed a community-education course on antiques and collectibles and was teaching in Victoria. I’d bring my students to Kilshaw’s, and Don would walk us through the auction process. When he called me about a job, I started out doing cataloguing. It wasn’t long before he said, “Why not try auctioneering?” Then I started coming up with some suggestions about the business — “Don, I’ve been thinking…” — and he was really open to making changes. We made a very smooth transition into me becoming owner in 2006.

Is there anything distinctive about the Victoria auction scene?

Interesting people have interesting items, and we tend to have a lot of interesting people living here. So we have an anomaly of phenomenal items appearing regularly. The people who retire here often have high educations and good incomes, and the things they bring with them to Victoria are exceptional. It’s unbelievable what little old Victoria has.

What ones stand out in your mind?

We sold a beautiful art-deco nude. She didn’t sell for a fortune, maybe $12,000, but she was just gorgeous. I think one of the most exciting was a painting of Czar Alexander III. We don’t see a lot of Imperial Russia items showing up here, and this one was a more personal portrait by the artist who taught the czar’s children to paint. I was in contact with galleries all over Europe about that painting. One of the auction houses in London told me I was “off my rocker” for setting a price of $50,000 to $100,000. Then it sold for $80,000 — kind of nice to show the big boys how it works!

How did a painting like that end up for auction in Victoria?

One of the things I do is written evaluations for estates, divorces, that sort of thing. I did one for a local lawyer handling an estate where there was no family to inherit, and this painting came to auction. It ended up being bought by a lovely couple who own a gallery in Tallinn, Estonia. What made it even more special for me was that my mom wanted to go on a cruise in Europe and I was her escort, and one of the stops was Tallinn. I e-mailed the buyers and was able to visit their gallery and see the painting.

Have TV programs like Antiques Road Show affected the business?

I think those kinds of shows have made people aware that there are treasures to be found in ordinary households, and that they need to get in touch with experts. Unfortunately, it has also led them to believe that there are special treasures in every house. But we’re definitely seeing a more informed buyer.

What has surprised you about the auction business?

You deal with a lot of people in this work, and it’s not possible to please everyone. I’ve found it hard not to take somebody’s disappointment personally.

Are people emotional when they bring items in for auction?

Death, divorce — it’s rarely a good moment when we’re called in. One day, I saw seven clients and every one of them broke down in tears as I visited their homes. I hope we make it as painless as possible. People also imbue the things they live with, and sometimes it’s difficult to put a financial price on it. There are two different values you can put on things: sentimental value and auction value. Sometimes the two don’t meet.

You have a special interest in ceramics — how did that develop?

We have to know a little about everything in this business. But one big trend in collecting is all things Chinese, partly because their economy is so strong that it’s driving up prices. In particular, there’s an interest in Chinese ceramics. So I’m going to a conference next year at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to learn more about that. Personally, though, I love jewellery. I handle every bauble that goes through this place.

Have any spectacular gems turned up?

One day, I found two diamonds, each a karat. In the one case, the ring was mixed in with a lot of costume jewellery that a woman’s son was going to have to sell to pay for her funeral. He was really upset about it. Luckily, that diamond ring paid for it all, and he got to keep the rest of the jewellery.