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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Antique Sales

All sales, whether in private houses or in auction rooms, tend to generate epidemics of their own peculiar disease - Sale Fever. There is hardly a collector who has not, at some stage of his career, been afflicted with an expensive attack of the disease. Its virulence varies with the skill of the auctioneer to set it raging, with the dictates of fashion, and with the social prestige of the sale concerned. And since it is almost impossible to resist at least one bout of it in a lifetime it may be as well to analyse its symptoms in some detail.

Every Auction (except the Dutch variety) is conducted on the principle of `the highest bidder to be the purchaser'; a full list of the conditions attendant on this principle is usually prominently displayed either in the catalogues of the sale or in the actual room of the auction. Once the hammer has fallen to your bid you become the legal purchaser. You are bound to pay the price you have called out or signalled agreement on and however dissatisfied you may subsequently be with your purchase you have no legal claim for compensation.

If there are cracks or flaws in the porcelain for which you have bid so lavishly, and you had not noticed them, that is your responsibility. If that boldly catalogued piece of `Gold Anchor Chelsea' turns out finally to be a Samson reproduction and you had innocently paid full Chelsea price for it, that is again your responsibility. All sales have preliminary times for viewing, normally the day before, and you are expected to satisfy yourself that the lots you bid for are worth the figure you run up to. Auctioneers, particularly in the smaller provincial sale-rooms, are not, as a rule, antique experts, and in any case they make no pretence to be infallible in describing the lots, either in the catalogues or during the actual sale. The things sold are, in fact, `at the sole risk of the purchaser,' and as he has made his bed during the bidding so he must lie on it.

It seems incredible that it should be necessary to state these simple facts. And yet all of us, tyros or habitues, are at various times liable to make expensive mistakes and find ourselves landed with something not really worth what we have paid. No doubt if you want an object desperately for your collection - the exact Chinese bowl you have always longed for, the precise pair of gilded wall brackets to blend with your wallpaper, the perfect ormolu and porcelain clock set -it is worth paying more for the things than they are commercially worth. After all, you are a collector and not a dealer. And if you desire an antique desperately in competition with other people who also want it desperately you must sometimes pay desperately for it.

But these are exceptional cases. They do not really come under the head of Sale Fever since the collector usually realises quite clearly what he is doing and knows that it will be hard on his pocket.

Sale Fever is different. It is the temporary loss of mental balance and judgement which sometimes afflicts the most cautious of men (and certainly women) when seeing the bidding rise rapidly among other members of the audience. It is especially liable to afflict you if you happen to know some of the dealers in the room by sight. You watch them nodding or waving their catalogues grimly as the bidding goes up and up. Perhaps it reaches $140. `If they are prepared to offer $140,' you think, `they must know there's a possible profit on the purchase and what's worth $140 to them is surely worth at least that amount to me.

You wave your catalogue, Delirium Vendens sets in, and the object is knocked down to you at the next price, perhaps $150. It may be a painting, a cabinet, a pair of Dresden candelabra or a carved screen, and from that moment it is yours to rejoice in-or bewail. You take the $150 purchase home and begin to get opinions on its value from knowledgeable friends, or possibly other dealers who weren't at the sale. You may be bitterly surprised to learn that its true value is nowhere near your $150 (`lucky if you get $90' may be the crushing average comment) and from then onwards you begin to loathe the unfortunate object.

It has conspired against you; it has lost you money. It has made you appear reckless and ignorant of values in the sight of your friends - and at once its aesthetic appeal begins to appear less than it did.

What could have so disturbed your judgement as to pay $150 for such a thing?

The answer is that it was an attack of Sale Fever. You did not really want the piece for your collection; you bought it under the pressure of the excitement of the sale and the artificial stimulus of seeing others bid for it. But, you may ask, how could I have gone so wrong in full competition with professional dealers? For dealer X had gone up to $140.And yet the piece is apparently not worth $90.

The explanation may be twofold. The vast majority of dealers are very honest men, but they are not philanthropists. If someone has commissioned them to find something which he badly needs and for which he is willing to pay up to, say, $154, then naturally the Dealer would himself go up to $140 for it, even though he knew it was not really worth it. He would then sell it to his client at a profit of $14 and both parties would be satisfied.

Clearly he would not think it worth while going above $140. $14 is a small enough profit to make for his time and trouble which might have to include delivery of the object. So he stops at $140.

And that may be why you have been landed with a price of $150 for something you did not specially want. The dealer, after all, knew what he was doing.

Another explanation, however, is that dealers themselves are not always infallible. They cannot know the absolute value of everything they decide to handle. Like other men they take risks, and like other men they make mistakes. It does not happen very frequently; no dealer could last long in business if it did. But it may happen in the particular sale where you are bidding, so do not assume that what is worth $140 to a dealer must always be worth $140 to you. It may not. Either the dealer has better means, of disposing of the object than you can have if you want to resell or he may be simply over-reaching himself.

Many dealers' shops contain objects which they have had in stock for a considerable time. Sometimes a cabinet or a pair of vases will be still there after a couple of years. Obviously they represent purchases which the dealer has made at too high a figure and now cannot sell, except at a loss. So there they stay until at last he is forced to put them back into another auction sale and this time they may fetch only their true value, the dealer having lost on the whole transaction.

This, certainly, is more likely to happen with pieces of a lower value than $140. As prices go up so naturally a dealer's caution will increase, but it can happen at almost any price level.

I once saw a small pair of Chinese vases in a dealer's window. They were interesting because, while the dark blue ground was overspread with a curiously Western pattern in gold arabesques, the panels were purely Chinese in style - well painted groups of figures in a garden in delicate pink and green. The dealer asked $18 for them. I said I would consider it and went away. I decided finally against buying them; the price seemed too high although the vases were certainly pretty.

Some time later the same vases appeared in a general auction of antiques at a public room which I attended and I decided then to bid for them. To my surprise they were knocked down to me for $8.40, less than half of what the dealer had asked. Obviously he had, in the first place, paid too much for the vases and wanted too high a price to cover his expenditure. Unable to sell them he had put them back into auction. He then only obtained a price which, with the auctioneers' commission of 25 to the dollar, would mean a loss on his original outlay.

(To counterbalance this small personal stroke of luck I should mention that, at a sale in the same room two or three years previously, I had been unfortunate or foolish enough to pay $48.35 for a vase which I now find to be not worth more than about $24.00. On the other hand its value may go up again if I keep it for some time and besides as a collector I do not buy mainly for monetary considerations. But no one likes to feel that he has paid more than a proper price for an object and I certainly seem to have done so in that instance - Delirium Vendens having clearly attacked me.)