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The issue of the importance of printed catalogues has been a lively ATG topic in recent weeks.

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I have been finding that many auction houses are providing less and less by way of lot information – other than the now standard online catalogue via the likes of thesaleroom.com.

In a number of ways thesaleroom.com and others have made aspects of the ‘searching’ experience easier.

My main gripe is that while I can look through a physical catalogue (or PDF – I will come to that) in minutes and note what I wish to look at further, an online catalogue is impossible to read in anything like a time frame that makes sense.

The reasons are obvious.

The online catalogue listing displays a preview line or two of information for each lot and it is necessary to click on an item to see the full description on the lot information page. Some auction houses know how to use that little space wisely, others ramble with pointless information and impart very little to help the buyer.

Again, this first ‘view’ of a lot does not always give an indication of how many items are in the lot. So you could easily view a watercolour, photograph etc lot and have no idea that there was a further group of similar items in that lot.

It will not be apparent until you open the link, which of course you may not do, thinking the description is complete. Having to click a link just to see a full description is far too time consuming.

Also, it is a great shame to think of the number of ‘collections’ that will be dispersed over the coming years where all sense of the whole will be lost. It is important to have a record of the entire sale – how the lots related to each other, etc. In a multi-owner sale it has become impossible to easily see ‘online’ which lots belong to which collector.

Printed catalogues

Examples of printed catalogues.

I noticed that Dominic Winter and some other houses always supply a full catalogue PDF for their sales. So it seemed likely that it was not an impossible challenge.

I contacted Dawsons ahead of the sale of the Nancy Fouts collection to bemoan the fact that there was no permanent record and no PDF, just the usual online catalogue.

At first they said that they were unable to supply a PDF for a number of reasons. However, and all praise to them, they felt that my point was valid and pursued it. The outcome was that they quickly found a solution and now have a clickable link to a full PDF. A potential buyer can now speed-read the PDF and then go to thesaleroom.com to ‘tag’ lots they are interested in and start the bidding process if they wish.

This also means that anyone researching the sale (and others) will have the full support of a downloadable PDF for now and the future.

Thanks to Dawsons for showing it is possible with comparatively little effort for auction houses to improve the online experience immeasurably. I hope others follow their example.

Pierre Spake


ATG replies: the following tips may help to speed up your web searching:

On thesaleroom.com you can use filters on a catalogue listing to display only the categories and/or the artists/makers/ brands and/or item type you are interested in. You can also filter by minimum or maximum estimate – or both.

So a specialist collector could very quickly filter an online ceramics catalogue to display only, say, Clarice Cliff jugs with a minimum low estimate of £200.

An abridged PDF of the online catalogue is available via the ‘Show auction details’ link on the catalogue page on thesaleroom.com – that’s not the same as the full PDF version of a printed catalogue that you are referring to but it may be useful for other readers.

Not a viable alternative

As permanent records of full listings, printed catalogues are invaluable. Until auctioneers can guarantee they will make digital sales catalogues permanently available and in their unabridged form, I don’t see how incomplete records documenting only sold lots preserved for post-sale reference can compare.

Furthermore, lot essays and additional images from original entries are sometimes condensed or deleted, leaving abbreviated records for posterity.

We can, of course, pre-empt this by downloading full catalogues ahead of each auction that might be of interest. Our groaning bookshelves will thank us for this foresight but we might miss a collection appearing in an unexpected venue or off-season.

Our due diligence is then seriously hampered by the incomplete data preserved online. Digital records, at present, do not offer a viable alternative to hard copies.

Cynthia Coleman Sparke

Russian works of art and Fabergé consultant