A French Walnut Armchair with Original Needlepoint Upholstery, circa 1640-1660
Advice to Collectors
By Helen Costantino Fioratti
This is why reports of auction prices mean very little, unless the item is purchased independently by a private collector.
Many people enjoy buying at auction; they feel that they are buying at the source, some erroneously believing that they get bargains at public sales, and are avoiding the payment of a dealer's profit. The excitement of an auction is tremendously stimulating, with some of the elements of a horse race. The thrill of winning out over an opponent leads many to stretch a point and pay more than they had anticipated.
The previous owner's name plays a great role in stimulating interest in a collection and keen competition at a sale. The same objects offered without the glamorous name of a socially prominent owner fetch a much lower price. Perhaps the fact that there is always an "under bidder" who is willing to pay almost as much as the purchaser himself, inspires confidence, but after the excitement of the salesroom is over, it is often difficult to recapture even the under-bidder's offer. This is frequently demonstrated when a few odd lots are purchased in error or there is some confusion concerning the bid. When offered a few weeks later, after the excitement of the sale has died down, they generally bring less money.
The question of provenance, or pedigree, of a piece is, of course, extremely interesting but of far less importance than is generally attached to it. Big collectors have been known to possess some poor things, even forgeries, and certainly most of them have made some errors in taste and judgment. I have heard it said with great wisdom that one must buy with one's eyes and not with one's ears. Stories connected with works of art are very intriguing and they fire the imagination, but alas, not all of them are true, and the only safe judge of merit is careful observation and examination.
At auctions many prices have soared because two or more people have fallen in love with one item which they each want at any price. Had the same piece not been exhibited at an auction gallery, which hundreds of people attend, these enthusiasts might never have troubled to look for the piece. Furthermore, they know that they must act at once or lose the object forever, whereas when seen in a gallery, innumerable vacillating characters temporize for months or years before making up their minds.
If a sale is advertised as being "unrestricted" it is against the law in America to put a reserve on a piece, without writing it in the catalog or announcing it in advance. A "reserve" is the price set by the seller below which the piece will not be sold. However, there are various methods employed by consigners to protect their things if they do not reach the minimum goal. It is, therefore, not always what it seems to be, if a piece is knocked down for a ridiculously low price. In all probability it simply was not sold at all. After a lapse of time the same item may re-appear, again and again, until it is finally disposed of at a reasonable figure.
There are habitués seen regularly at auctions who rarely, if ever, make a purchase. For them, it is a free spectacle and they enjoy watching others spend their money, often foolishly, according to their views, while they themselves remain aloof, enjoying a vicarious thrill. A good deal can perhaps be learned by attending sales regularly if one has a certain knowledge upon which to base observations and conclusions, or if one is keen and learns readily. But listening to the drone of the auctioneer's voice for hours and hours each week is more stultifying than educational unless one is very alert and especially interested in certain pieces.
The psychology of an auction is a curious phenomenon. When a person wishes to sell some possession, he feels certain he will obtain the highest possible price at auction. On the other hand, people who want to buy bargains attend auctions avidly because they are equally sure that they will be getting things more cheaply than in a shop!