Monday, February 04, 2008

A tale of two auction houses

SOTHEBY'S aim of cutting out lower value lots bore fruit in the first half of 2007 with record sales of $2.9bn, compared to $3.25bn at Christie's in the same period. Sotheby's set the bar at £3,000 minimum lot value, and achieved its results by selling half the number of lots sold by Christie's. The total lots sold with a hammer price over $1m were 391 lots by Sotheby's and 358 lots by Christie's. Total sales for 2007 ended at $6.3bn up 36 per cent on 2006 for Christie's and $5.4bn up 44 per cent on 2006 for Sotheby's, which sold 42 per cent fewer lots. Top lot was at Sotheby's, this was Mark Rothko's White Center painting at $72.8m, just beating Christie's which sold Andy Warhol's Green Car Crash for $71.7m.

In 2007 Christie's South Kensington started weekly 'Interior' sales, aimed at decorators. A recent example (see photo) of an unsold lot with high ambitions at one of these sales was for a pair of old and incomplete cast iron inserts estimated at £300 with a typical Christie's 'possibly Coalbrookdale' catalogue description. This was the kind of lot that even Gaze's would probably not have wanted. These sales specifically target retail buyers.

The love hate relationship between the architectural garden and decorative antiques trade, and auctioneers, especially Sotheby's and Christie's continues. Generally the trade seems to want to sell at Christie's and buy at Sotheby's. One of the auction houses is happy to handle one-off dealer clear-outs with quality and clever photography, and catalogue descriptions which might arguably include glowing descriptions irrelevant to the item concerned but miss detail on condition and repairs or reconstructions. Another auction house might be more honest in its descriptions, tougher on trade consigners, and have a longer lasting reputation with its customers. But all auction houses sail close to the wind with respect to honesty. For example, chandelier bidding is commonplace - is this deception, or a legitimate device to keep an auction's momentum running? When an auction house is selling your lot, every device in the book is fair game to maximise profit, but when you are buying from them cries of unfair and deception echo resoundingly.

There have been successive moves in the past twenty years towards sanitising auction houses so to conform to consumer retail laws. The old style dangerous auction with sleepers and misdescriptions or no descriptions played into the trade's hands and was an excellent vehicle for moving things along. Ebay and other online auctions have taken their place, but their cost base is low that an unsold rate higher than any live auction is deemed quite acceptable.

Some punters believe that Sotheby's will not stick to its £3,000 limit or that Christie's will be forced to join it. Rylands and Werff have taken an alternate tack - live auctions with high value lots and sealed bids auctions for the rest. Will that work? We will see in 2008.

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