Auctions and Dealers (A Perpetual Series)

Sotheby’s auction house had their fine English furniture sale the other day as well as a private collector sale of the goods belonging to Martin and Gloria Gersh. Martin was a remarkable man, full of piss and vinegar and unflagging intelligence. I met him when we was in his late 70’s and his dynamism¬† shone out.

Sotheby’s estimates of the Gersh goods was strong. A wonderful pair of walnut Gainsborough open armchairs were listed to sell for $600-800,000 and made $450,000 which with the commission adds up to $540,000. This was the reserve, or the price at which they were allowed to sell on agreement between the estate and Sotheby’s. The estimates were clearly designed to attract private clientele, better known as the retail trade, who could compare and contrast Sotheby’s prices with those of the antique dealers.

The ploy is generally a successful one as it allows the retail trade to believe that, at worst, they are paying retail to Sotheby’s and, if they are lucky, they can buy close to what a dealer would pay. Right? Not necessarily. Dealers have considerations that go beyond whether a piece is a bona fide antique. They include whether the piece is up to their standards as defined by condition and color and, in today’s market, rarity.

For example, the Gersh walnut chairs mentioned above were quite lovely. The carving was fine and the proportions were excellent. The color, however, was very bleached out, as if they had been stripped. This neither negates the value of the chairs nor does it make them unmarketable–they are still good chairs, but it does limit their appeal. Indeed, at the International Show, there are a pair of in mahogany with lovely color that I liked better than the Gersh chairs and they were not that much more expensive. The dance between the dealers, the clients and the auction houses continues.

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