PR, Selling at Auction, and Expertise

It is instructive for the antiques trade to see how auction houses market themselves. Their techniques are great for a host of reasons, but the foremost is that they are consistent in branding their expertise. This is not to say they crow about how great they are, but that they allow the assumption of their expertise to be reaffirmed when high prices are realized. It is akin to Tom Sawyer taking credit for his white washed fence. Yes he can, but no, he didn’t.

This branding is necessariily independent of the merchandise itself, since the goods to be sold are essentially filler. This is the weakest link for the auction houses if only because mediocre items can produce mediocre sales. Of course, good marketing can make even mediocre sales seem great. But it is the great items which sell spectacularly that prime the publicity pump and that is where the brand truly gets its luster.

There is irony here, however. Selling something for a big price means very little when the shouting is all over. But what happens when a heavily touted piece fails to sell or sells for very little? Curiously, no one ever seems to want to know much about the items that failed, it is the high points that are talked about and there is no culpability, save for the economy’s fits and starts. It is a great position to be in.

The question is how can dealers learn from the auction houses? Can they actually join in on the upside of the equation as most of the goods that are sold most likely went through dealer hands at one point or another. Furthermore, it is also likely that dealers are as responsible for the high prices in sale rooms as either as successful or under bidders. I remember seeing Richard Feigen, the old master dealer, on TV after his unsuccessful quest for Kenneth Clark’s JMW Turner. He turned the situation in to great publicity for his business.

For dealers, however, it remains that the auction houses have branded themselves as experts when it is only partially true. Yes, they have some great people working for them, but the dealer world is almost solely about expertise and not about PR. Dealers want to sell the best of the best because it is their product which sustains them, nothing else. That they buy at auction would seem a coup for the auction houses, but in truth, if they didn’t, would the auction houses be nearly so successful?

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