By Caitlin Kelly
I’ve been going to auctions for decades, mostly small regional ones in Nova Scotia, England, New Hampshire and Ontario. I’ve scored some great/lucky deals, both in the room and bidding by phone, buying (gulp!) almost sight unseen, beyond a small thumbnail image on a website.
I’ve even bid in Swedish (!) on a visit to Stockholm and came home with a large antique tray.
On holiday this past summer in Berlin, I stumbled upon an auction house there, Grisebach, and now get their catalogue as well.
My best auction buy ever is a large teal-stained armoire, possibly Quebec in origin and possibly 18th century — as evidenced by its form, its hardware and its construction, (all of which I’ve studied so I had some idea what I was buying!) I bought it over the phone from a New Hampshire auctioneer I know and trust; even with delivery charges to New York, it cost less than new junk made in China.
This week I went into Manhattan to Swann Galleries, a 66-year-old auction house on East 25th. St., hoping to acquire a print from 1925 by Raoul Dufy or a lithograph from the same year by Maurice Vlaminck.
We’ve sold photos at Swann, so I get their newsletter with upcoming sales and carefully examined everything on-line for this one. So many gorgeous things!
This sale was of 19th and 20th-century prints, including drawings, lithos, etchings, engraving, monoprints, by everyone from Picasso to Thomas Hart Benton to Diego Rivera, whose pencil portrait was something I so wished was in our budget. The estimate was $20,000 to $30,000 — and the price rose quickly from $14,000 to the hammer (final) price of $32,000.
(It’s called the hammer price because, like a courtroom judge, the auctioneer knocks with a small piece of wood on his podium to audibly finish the bidding and announce the piece is sold.)
If you’ve never attended or bid at auction, it can seem terrifying and mysterious, but is neither.
My paddle and the catalogue; (the cover painting, a watercolor by Feininger, sold for $38,000)
You really do have to do some homework, though, to know what it is you hope to buy and whether it’s a limited edition, its rarity, in what condition, and who owned it before, known as provenance. That can add a huge boost to the perceived value of an item, for example, a Cartier watch that belonged to Jackie Onassis, estimated at Christie’s for $129,000 sold for $379,500.
The auction preview — all of this free — allows everyone to carefully examine and note the condition of the item(s) you might want to bid on; if furniture, it’s quite normal to take a small flashlight or blacklight, (which can show evidence of repair), even a threaded needle to see if “wormholes” are fake.
If you’re looking at furniture, you also need to know that a “marriage” means someone has added new material to an older piece, reducing its value, even if it looks great.
At Swann, I saw immediately that both prints I liked had some acidic damage to the surrounding paper, something I wouldn’t have known by bidding online and I learned that a conservator could clean it and what that might cost.
You have to set a budget, as there’s almost always a buyer’s premium, in Swann’s case an additional 25 percent, (plus New York City tax) so the final cost was just over 33 percent more than the hammer price.
Several others might be bidding against you, driving up the price very quickly. Decisiveness is key!
You register and are given a paddle, (a sign with a number), to signal your bid. Each time someone bids the price rises, by increments each time of $100, $1,000, $2,000 or more. (At smaller sales, those can be much smaller.)
Others might also be bidding against you on-line, by a left bid, in the room and by telephone, and the auctioneer has to stay on top of all of it; at Swann, there were four people handling phone bids, one handling on-line bids and one with orders, bids left on paper.
Every item also has a pre-sale estimate — i.e. what they think it might sell for, at the lowest price, but it can go for less, (usually not less than half of that) or for much, much more. It just depends how badly someone wants it.
As the final bids came in, the Swann auctioneer gently said: “Fair warning…Are we all through?” When someone won a piece who was in the room, he said: “Thank you. Congratulations.”
After I won both images (!), he smiled and said “You’re cleaning up today!”
The Swann saleroom was empty most of the time I was there except for a few dealers, with all the action happening on-line and by phone. There were several dogfights and one piece, (by Picasso), started at $60,000 and quickly soared to the hammer price of $100,000.
Matisse works went for $8,000, $13,000 and $12,000 — but one also went for only $550. A work by Paul Klee began at $19,000 and sold for $24,000.
Not every auction is this pricey! At smaller regional auctions, I’ve carried home armloads of loot for $20 to $50.
Who attends, and bids at auction? Collectors, dealers, interior designers shopping for clients.
Sometimes ordinary people like me.
Have you attended or bid at auction?
Did you enjoy it or buy anything?