Auction Surprises

Auction Surprises
By: Richard MacFarlane

There have been auction surprises in my life. I bought privately an oil painting of a Continental scene in Europe. I sold it at an antique show and it turned up at Waddington’s.

A portrait painting from my wife’s family purchased at a house contents sale was discovered eight years later at a Toronto Queen Street gallery. My grandmother’s antique balloon side chairs sold at auction were displayed at an antique shop on Queen Street.

An 1878 Florence Rogers watercolour of Ned Hanlan winning a sculling match was for sale at D. & E. Lake Ltd. Galleries and Fine Antique Books in Toronto. From 1880 to 1884, Hanlan was world champion and Canada’s first hero known worldwide. Being an oarsman for 50 years, I had to purchase this. The identical regatta scene, an oil painting by Rogers in 1879, was auctioned in October 1970 and May 15, 1996. Sotheby’s had titled it, “A Sculling Race along the Lakeshore”. Rogers liked Hanlan so much, she returned to the regatta. From my research, I re-titled mine “Ned Hanlan’s Victory on Kempenfelt Bay, Barrie, Ontario, August 12, 1878.” Now the watercolour has value. I wonder who owns the 1879 oil painting?

With auctions, there is also shock and disappointment when you lose the winning bid. Anticipation and then despair. But there’s always the next auction.

Some storekeepers lament collectors. They feel they are out bid and can’t compete. Bids sometimes don’t reflect the marketplace. Two bidders want an object almost at any price. House sales, bidding wars can be like that. Unrealistic, unfair, some argue. But collectors keep the economy going and inspire others.

There are currency differentials which impact bidders. I have sold an oil painting at Bonhams in England. British sterling against our dollar earned me considerably more. Today, £612 is $1,000 Canadian.

I arranged for a rare Louis XIV marquetry boulle bureau, Lot 438, only three reputedly in Versailles, auctioned March 28, 2007 by Christie’s New York. Its estimate was $7,000 to $10,000 U.S. André Charles Boulle (1642-1732) was a famous French cabinet maker. With the exchange, I covered insurance, moving costs, and fees.

On the other hand, when buying antiques in England, I saw reduced funds from British sterling to Canadian dollars. There can be greater costs when buying at auction in the United States compared to bidding in Canada. Despite this, personal connection to an antique can be a determining factor.

What about the fairness of auction houses?  A famous instance was when Taylor Thomson, Lord (Ken) Thomson’s daughter, bidding against Ann Getty who wanted the ‘ancients’ for the Getty Museum, purchased twin gilt and porphyry urns in December 1994 for $3 million.

She believed they were 18th century, Louis XV. In fact, they were 19th century Victorian reproductions valued at $47,000. Thomson sued Christie’s and won. The catalogue: Lot 56, “a pair of Louis XV Porphyry and Gilt-Bronze Two-Handled Vases designed by Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot circa 1760 for his patron Philip Duke of Parma or one of his leading courtiers”. The High Court ruled the description was “inflated” and “misleading”. This was one of the costliest legal defeats for an auction house in 30 years. Miss Thomson declared, “This case rested on an important principle: whether a buyer of goods at an auction is able to rely on the auction house’s claims for those goods.”

Provenance and the accurate write up are key. Also important, buyer beware proclamations. A bidder should read carefully Conditions of Sale, Buyer’s and Seller’s Premiums, and Commissions. Ask questions. Attend the preview. Inspect the contents thoroughly. Ask for documentation. Never bid on an object that you have not researched and viewed.

Consult magazines, collectibles books, auction catalogues, and price guides to determine value. Visit shops. If relevant, research a well-known citizen who collected or built antique furniture to evaluate cost. Do your homework.

Another aspect is validating your ability to pay, particularly for expensive antiques. Overseas firms want proof of identity, driver’s license, passport, and bank statements. I suggest two weeks prior to the auction and ensure you are approved in writing.

For on line auctions such as, there are specific requirements. Read the fine print. This includes storage costs after sale, delivery costs if an antique is bought overseas. Know deadlines for lot removal.

If an object does not meet a minimum or has no bidding, the auction house can ask the seller to take back the item. They might hold the item and try again at a future auction. After two attempts, usually the object is returned. There are deadlines for picking up unsold contents.

A Condition Report can be requested. You should view the object in person. Previews are offered one or two days before the auction to allow buyers time to examine the antique and ask questions.

Watch for the clause stating that the auction house cannot be responsible for the catalogue description. Speak to appraisers, historians, researchers who specialize. Their advice can be invaluable. Good fortune to you who bid at auctions.

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