'Sleeper' Shows Value Of Expert Advice

'Sleeper' Shows Value Of Expert Advice

09/09/2022     General News

There was only one story talked about in the auction world last week: a picture entered for a sale and given a pre-sale estimate of £50-£80 (mainly because the auction house in question failed to realise what they were dealing with) ended up selling for £160,000, after more than one bidder detected in the painting the hand of a 16th century Italian master.

Obviously for the vendor, this was a happy ending.  But just imagine for a moment that only one bidder had noticed the valuer’s mistake.  They would have quietly bid for the picture and probably snapped it up for far less than it was worth.  The vendor’s considerable loss would have been the buyer’s massive profit.

To be fair, putting pre-sale estimates on items is not an exact science.  An auction house will take many things into consideration, including provenance, condition, and what similar items have sold for at previous auctions.

The process is also complicated by the fact that even fine art antiques are subject to the waxing and waning of the market: a ceramicist or painter who is fetching top dollar today could be difficult to sell at all in five years’ time, and vice-versa.  So those guide prices can only ever be estimates.

There are also unforeseeable factors which come into play.  At a recent picture sale, we had a number of paintings by the Norfolk artist Violet Clutterbuck (1869-1960).  Her pictures are lovely, but seldom sell for big money.  Our pre-sale estimates were all in the range of £30-£50, and almost all her pictures sold at around the top end of that range, or for slightly more.

But one work, a painting of the Golden Temple at Amritsar (pictured), stood at £3,000 when the hammer fell.  Two bidders in India were determined to buy the picture, and so it exceeded the estimate by many times.  This is the kind of unforeseeable bidding war which happens occasionally (and is also a testament to the online promotion undertaken by our digital marketing department).

But there really is no excuse for an auction house failing to spot an Old Master, and potentially depriving the vendor of the price they deserve to make.  The auction house in question has talked in the trade press about the lot being a ‘sleeper’; this is disingenuous.  They simply failed to apply the right level of expertise.

We place great store in knowledgeable and experienced experts to ensure that we catalogue lots correctly.  For example, our head of pictures, Marc Knighton, has not one but three Masters degrees from Cambridge and University College, London, and has been responsible for cataloguing the collection of a leading Cambridge College. 

Not all auction houses are prepared to make such an investment in experts, and the results for vendors can be catastrophic.  Knowledge of both their subject and the market are critical if proper value is to be realised for sellers – and clarity to be given for buyers, too.

The ‘sleeper’ story made for good copy in the trade press, but if I was the valuer who had catalogued that picture, I would be hanging my head in shame.  The old adage says ‘caveat emptor’ (buyer beware), but in the auction world it’s a case of ‘seller beware’ as well.  Proper expertise is ultimately priceless.

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