a night at the auction
Auctions, as a way of selling property, have been around for a long time. Auctions of fine and decorative art on an international scale, however, are relatively new. Not so long ago auctions of art and objets d’art were included with household content sales, and were local or regional. Even less than a century ago, Sotheby’s was essentially a book-auction house, which, through to the mid-twentieth century, branched into fine art only now and again. Art auctions of significant value and stature only began to be held with any regularity well after the Second World War.
The first sale Sotheby’s held outside the United Kingdom was in Toronto in 1967. Over the following two years, Sotheby’s opened offices around the world, thus spreading its expertise and entreprise to more than forty countries. Sotheby’s first sale in New York, its future and present headquarters, was held the following year by Sotheby’s Parke Bernet (‘Parke Bernet’ was dropped in 1985). Several years after this, Christie’s, following the money and the action, crossed the Atlantic too, and then opened offices in various countries. A new chapter in the history of the auction of art and decorative objects had begun.
The phenomenon of the international art auction market, apart from being recent, was an
odd mixture of show business, smart marketing, extensive media coverage, an expanding art
market, faster travel, better publishing standards, digital cameras, and now the Internet. In relatively
short order, art auctions became a fixture in the visual arts spectrum, which included
artists, agents, critics, dealers, museums, scholars and students. The pervasiveness of the auction
spirit spread widely and rapidly; more and more people became afflicted with the “antique road
A widespread fascination with genealogy and history, combined with the expanding
population and general prosperity in the world, permeated popular attitudes about
art and other forms of valuable property.
Another shift that has shaped the auction business as we know it now was that gradually it
ceased to be an almost exclusively wholesale market for dealers. Inevitably, individuals became
their own buyers by educating themselves and saving a dealer’s commission. However, many
dealers still use auctions to refresh their stock — selling work they have been unable to sell and
buying works for inventory. They also attend auctions to act as agent for their clients, to meet
each other, or simply to keep themselves informed on the current state of the market. For the
general public, however, art auctions became a spectator sport; eighty percent or more of those
attending are there simply to watch people spending money.
Recently, the market has veered to contemporary art, but not to the detriment of Old Masters
or the Impressionists. And while the dominance of the United States and Europe continues
in this area, the burgeoning markets of Russia, China, and India have made a noticeable splash
in the last few years. In Canada, the market remains focussed on the traditional and historic
areas, and the emergence of contemporary art as a part of the auction market has been slow in
the extreme, which is a marked difference from the experience of most developed countries,
where the contemporary segment of the market is strong if not overwhelming.
Art auctions, because of their transparency, have also become the public record for prices
of works of the fine and decorative arts. They have also been the preference for many estate
sales, a traditional role, because of the open process they provide, at least in countries where
there is regulation, unlike Canada. Art auction results are regularly used by tax authorities,
cultural property guardians, dealers, curators, and estate lawyers, all of whom have to appraise
valuable property for legal purposes.
One interesting corollary of the ‘international’ auction was that it spurred both national
and regional auction houses as the overall market expanded globally. Canada’s regional and
local houses have been busy in recent years. And what has been of particular note is that such
categories as furniture and other antique items have found the local market a preferable one because
of the cost of transport. At the same time the market in the decorative arts —
silver, glass, porcelain
and textiles — has weakened. Stamps, maps, books and coins have become the domain of
specialized auction houses. The major international auction houses now focus almost exclusively
on painting and sculpture, or at the very highest level on items such as jewelry and rare antiques.
When we get to the auctions themselves, the most important factors for auction aficionados
are quality, authenticity, condition and price; close behind are provenance and the scholarship
that locates the work in the artist’s career or in a period or movement. Usually, the combination
of all these aspects of a particular lot are weighted in various subtle ways to determine whether
to buy and at what price.
When you are buying at auction, authenticity and condition are the first things to establish.
Authenticity is number one, because you want to know what you are buying. You don’t want a pre-
Columbian figurine that was fired just last month or illicitly exported; and you don’t want a nineteenth
century recasting of a Renaissance bronze. In painting, there are at least nine different
ways of indicating the degrees of distance from an original work by artist John Doe: attributed to
John Doe, studio of Doe, circle of Doe, in the manner of Doe, school of Doe, after Doe, etc., each
further from the hand of Doe himself. I’ve seen unbelievably ascribed work on the podium at
small regional houses, but the major houses are always thorough and cautious about establishing
the originality of a work. Making a mistake on this issue can be both embarrassing and expensive.
Condition is the next consideration, since you don’t want a work that is largely repainted by
a restorer or badly stretched. If a work has been repaired, relined, or otherwise worked on, you
need to know. Auction houses have condition reports drawn up for most paintings, and for the
more valuable ones an independent conservator is usually retained to do a thorough examination
and report. You should examine the work closely yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask a curator
or someone else for their opinion. The same holds true for furniture and other objects where
alterations and repairs may seriously affect both authenticity and value.
The auction catalogue may be your first glimpse of something you want to acquire and
most of what you want to know: title, size, year or period, medium, provenance, exhibition history
and perhaps a short description of its importance in relation to similar works, how it relates
to other work of the movement or period, what may have been written by scholars, or about the
provenance. All this useful information was not in the auction catalogues fifty years ago. All
you got then was the briefest of verbal descriptions, without estimates or illustrations. As publishing
standards rose in the 1960s, illustrations began to appear, and finally catalogues
became very informative, colourful, and glossy; post-sale information, which once listed all consignors,
buyers and prices, gave way to financial results only as we entered the age of privacy.
Auctions provide an entrée to a world of connoisseurship, history, taste and commerce,
among other things. Their supply of objects seems inexhaustible and at other times one wonders
when it will run out. And yet, great things continue to appear, periods and styles go in and
out of fashion, generations change, estates are liquidated, artists keep producing, and new
kinds of objects become the focus for new collectors. The art auction houses individually may
rise and fall, but it seems certain that, collectively, they are here to stay.
David Silcox is the President of Sotheby’s Canada, a Senior Fellow of Massey College, and an author of
award-winning books on David B. Milne, Tom Thomson, The Group of Seven and Christopher Pratt.
A Tsimshian polychromed wood face mask from The Dundas Collection of Northwest Coast American Indian Art at auction October 5, 2006 – Estimated at $700,000 – 1,000,000. Sold for $1,808,000
Photograph courtesy Sotheby’s
A rare Northwest Coast club Tlingit or Tsimshian – Estimated at $450/550,000 – Sold for $940,000
Photograph courtesy Sotheby’s