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The Antiques Sale Room
( Originally Published 1913 )
Whether he buys or no, a wise collector spends an hour in a sale-room now and again, never mind whether it be a dingy place where the auctioneer makes sixpence for himself on each article sold, or a sky-lit hall where the rap of the hammer on the desk may mean a commission of a hundred pounds. Perhaps the small suburban auctions, in private houses vacated by death, afford the thrifty collector the best chances, for there the assembled dealers are often few. But people who own collections, which will some day go to a sale-room proper, ought to know by the experience of others what to expect, and to observe for what prices the kinds of things they collect are knocked down or knocked out.
The "knock-out" is the ghost which silently haunts many auctions. If the group of dealers present have agreed that only one of their number shall bid for certain "lots," those lots are likely to be knocked down very cheaply; I have known a collection of Oriental china auctioned off for one fifth of its worth. If then the group of dealers proceed to some private place together, and put the same "lots" up to auction among themselves, the real buying value will be obtained, but not by the owner who sent the things to the sale-room. A notable book was lately auctioned off for L60 or so, half its trade value. The difference-L60 or so-would be divided among the members of the "knock-out," as reward for not having competed during the public sale.
Men of Straw. To counteract this a little, experienced collectors usually employ a dealer to make their bids. But that is a transparent device if the collector stands next the bidder, especially so if he prompts him audibly in the intervals between bid and bid. Often a hangeron kind of dealer is employed in this way, whom the dealers with capital know to be a man of straw The proper thing to do is to go to the "view" the day before the sale, and mark your catalogue with your maximum prices; then watch the proceedings at a distance from your man of straw. Your commission to him must be such as to make it less worth his while to stand in with the "knock-out" than to bid for you.
Prices. The effect of the "knock-out" system is to keep apparent prices low, except in those cases where a "lot" is particularly coveted. The "knockout" cannot always operate, because often a dealer has a customer whom he knows to be ready to buy at a fair price a certain kind of "lot." The small dealers often lament the "huge prices," as they call them, which "articles of bigotry and virtue" often realise in a sale-room; but that is because there are dealers with capital present, who have a certainty of selling the "lot" again to a particular client, at any price almost, if the article be really choice. There are collectors who never visit a "view" or attend an auction; they leave all that to their trusted dealers. There is a case in which a dealer buys pictures at between 2,000 and 3,000 for a wealthy parvenu, who knows nothing about art, but likes to say to his guests: "There isn't a picture in this house that cost me less than two thousand pounds." Several private owners of really valuable pictures have asked me to advise them how to get their pictures sold for proper value, privately, direct to the buyers, and not through a dealer. It is an almost impossible thing.
Auctioneers and Adroitness. Auctioneers are students of human nature-no better place for the study than a sale-room-and they handle their audiences with much skill, as a rule. Attend a picturesale, when, say, a "head of a man, attributed to Holbein," is placed on the easel. A dealer near you whispers that it is quite genuine; another growls that it is "a dub," a daub, a fake from Munich or the environs of Sheffield. But the bidding has begun; the experienced auctioneer allows it to begin humbly with "Five pounds!" though he says, in a tone half sarcasm, half wail, "Five pounds for a Holbein ? Gentlemen, gentlemen, Please!" A private collector present thinks he sees a chance. Five pounds it begins with, instead of five hundred! For a Holbein ! He nods. "Five ten," says the auctioneer, and nods seem to shower awhile, till "Ten pounds" is reached. Then the hammer pauses in air, and the private collector thinks the picture is his. But the hammer pauses long enough for a nod to come from elsewhere. "Eleven pounds!" says the auctioneer, for a nod means a pound or a guinea after the ten pounds minimum has been reached. The private collector gets angry that at the last moment he should be interfered with, and bids wildly. The picture is run up to forty pounds against him, and at forty guineas he is allowed to secure it, the dealers guessing pretty well at what point he is likely to stop. The collector may for years rejoice in his possession of "a Holbein," but the thing will never sell for forty guineas again.
And thus the merry, skilful game goes on.