Overlooking the vast array of art and antiques that auction houses all over the country offer to potential buyers, and generally (despite all those odious charges) for far less than they would have to pay if purchasing from a dealer or high street retailer, they seem to imagine, that as the sellers also pay commission, the auction houses must be greedily raking in a fortune. Where can all this money possibly go?
It pays for visits to potential vendors (not all of which will produce items for sale). For a ‘man-with-a-van’ (more likely two careful and specialist-trained removal men) to collect the items for sale, take to the auctioneer’s storage facility and, just before the sale, to the saleroom.
It pays for an expert (and their lifetime’s knowledge and experience) to inspect, catalogue and value each item, to measure it and photograph it (for the internet – it may need professional photography if it’s to be in the printed catalogue).
It pays for the auctioneer’s premises (rent, business rates, utilities, maintenance etc).
It pays for all the staff – the porters, receptionists who field your queries, bids office, accounts department and all the other essential staff you may not see.
It contributes to the cost of the printed catalogues (usually more per unit than the cover price, and if you’re a regular buyer, will be sent to you free anyway). The cost of listing on internet bidding sites that enable bidders to buy from the other side of the world, or next door, wherever suits (did you imagine that the small percentage the site charges the bidder would cover its own costs? Huh!).
Also the phone bills so bidders who can’t be there can have a phone line and respond as if they were in the room… and so the list goes on…
…and part of that is the cost of the time it takes to do condition reports.
Jewellery condition reports
It’s a charming idea to prepare and include this in every catalogue entry, and I can see that an individual stamp (letter, ATG No 2374) might be assessed quickly and its condition summed up in a word or brief phrase.
My own specialism is jewellery, and the quality of auction cataloguing, as well as condition reports, varies hugely. Brevity risks being annoyingly uninformative, hopelessly anodyne, and verging on the negligent.
Even when the cataloguing is thorough, some potential buyers will make a list of all the extra information they want on each item: this may include measurements of individual stones (so, to 0.01mm, L, W and D).
Also, an assessment of the colour and clarity of diamonds, individually for the larger ones (maybe five or more per piece of jewellery) and collectively for the smaller ones.
And a nuanced description of the colour of a sapphire or emerald or ruby; evidence, if any, of a natural origin for the stone; perhaps an idea of its geographic origin; a detailed description of all the inclusions in principal stones and any external chips or abrasions; any treatments the stone may have had; an assessment of lustre in pearls and the colours of their overtones; the wear and tear of metal settings, and if they are not hallmarked (the vast majority of jewellery is not); results of acid testing; gross weight of the piece; and so on.
I have been asked for condition reports on 150 lots in one sale, and often a lot will have two or more items. This takes a LOT of time.
Of course, I am very happy to do this for higher-value lots or for regular buyers, but when one potential bidder asks for reports on maybe a dozen lots with estimates of £100-200 – especially sale after sale and have never actually bought anything (yes, this happens regularly) – they stir my irritation and perhaps merit a suggestion that nothing beats viewing in person to judge for themselves.
Not a rich picking
For those who are still smarting at being asked – on low-value items and by some auctioneers only – to pay a little for this service, ask yourself: do you know anybody who works for or owns an auction house whose work has made them rich?
If you want to be rich, be a banker, an actuary, a brain surgeon: don’t be an auctioneer.
Caro Flower FGA, DGA, BA (Hons)
Independent jewellery consultant