Whenever I read the results of a sale that I did not attend, that I have seen only through photos, I am always surprised by a few items that sold well and a few that did not sell. It is a dealer’s job to identify value as I did at a sale several years ago of a piece that was, quite literally, filthy. I did the requisite restoration and made a handsome profit. That is what dealers are supposed to do, of course, but aren’t auction houses supposed to do the same?
Yes and no is the only correct answer. When a piece of furniture arrives to be catalogued, there are already limitations on it. The condition is certainly one, but so is the consignor. Some unknown dead person with a handsome chair and nothing else will get short shrift–not on purpose but because the cataloguer has so much work to do. And there is the knowledge that the cataloguer has. How good is the example he or she is looking at? It is hard to be an expert in everything and so, because of time limitations and whatever else might impede the piece’s progress through the system, pieces get lost in the shuffle. That is where dealers like to lurk.
The opposite is true as well. When auction houses decide to promote a piece, the excitement they can generate will actually over-sell it in regards to the market at large. The nature of markets, of course, is to vacillate according to demand and if an auction house can light a fire under two bidders, they will create a price level–for that one thing. But because all furniture is unique, it is not guaranteed that the next item that is similar will generate the same excitement. The variables of color, condition, materials, design, provenance and maker can always be hyped, but few pieces qualify as great in each of these categories. When they do, they should be sold, whether by dealers or auction houses, accordingly, the rest of the stuff should be sold for what it is.