Thursday, 10 November 2011

Everything must go

As an account holder of Christie's auction house (don't blame me, it wasn't my money I was spending) I receive about 3 or 4 very glossy catalogues for forthcoming sales through the post every week, and have been for a few years now. They must think it worth the investment.

Every now and then, I come across a stone or marble item which I seem to know intimately, then realise that I actually restored it many years ago and it has obviously has been either floating around the antiques trade - homeless - for ages, or the person who bought it from the antique dealer who was my client at the time, has fallen on hard times and decided it had to go.

I opened a catalogue for a sale in New York this morning and came across such a thing - an 18th century stone fire surround, bought from a dealer in London (they call this 'provenance!), shipped out to the USA and now pulled off the wall and offered back to me for the estimated sum of $10,000 to $15,000 plus 28% commission and tax - just so long as I can be bothered to have it crated up and sent back home in a container ship for an extra $3,000.

In the heady days of the 1980s, every catalogue of every international auction house in the UK and USA always had at least 3 or 4 items which I had made saleable for dealers - I was that popular, believe it or not - and American buyers would send their agents over with a shopping list, either for their new-build in New England, or for their new antique outlet in Manhattan or Texas. This surround which has turned up on the circuit all these years later would have sold for pretty much the same as it is now being offered, and that was before devaluation, so the owner must have taken a hell of a nose-dive.

Simple stone surrounds were selling for thousands about 20 years ago, and I had to turn down many offers to make fakes for the market. This was an imprisonable offence and a senior director of a big, New York auction house was sent to jail for allowing such a fake to pass through her showroom - either knowingly or not. I think she got 5 years.

One day, a New York dealer and his agent brought around a massive stone lion (it weighed about 3/4ths of a ton) for me to repair. It had been bought from a dealer in Morton in Marsh, and was destined to be the centre-piece for all the glossy advertising for the dealer's new shop which was opening in Manhattan in about 2 months, so I needed to get it ready for the photo-shoots which were to take place before printing in a matter of weeks.

I completed the job, and the dealer and his man came around to look at it before it was crated up and sent over by sea. They liked what they saw, and casually asked what sort of age I thought it was. I knew it to be Italian, from a region called Vicenza on the mainland off Venice, where they still produce this sort of statuary in vast quantities, very cheaply. I thought that - being professionals - they knew this too. You have probably seen (or even owned) the cheapest and most prolific object they produce - the basket of fruit in the photo above. The whole place is like a factory for carved stone, and all the houses in the locality have examples of it in the gardens and on their gateposts.

I said that I estimated the age of the lion at about 20 years, and both men actually went white. I could almost hear their mouths drying out. This short period of silence was broken by the dealer almost having a fit as his agent shouted above him, trying to preserve his position as a trusted advisor.

It turned out that the dealer in Morton had sold it to them as 17th century, and charged them about £50,000. Now they were faced with attempting to get their money back and - at the same time - trying to find a replacement item with which to launch their new shop in New York, with only a matter of days to spare. They got their money back and saved face. More importantly, I got paid for the work, though I did have to take the lion back to the seller, who - far from being sheepish - actually blamed me for not helping him pull the scam off.

This sort of thing happened a lot in those days, before the average collector learnt the difference between 17th century and 20th century Vicenza. Dealers being dealers, they simply could not resist the lure of hoodwinking a customer for an extra £45,000 by simply lying, no matter what the consequences.

These days, they don't even have to lie. I was sent to an auction to buy a set of four 'term' brackets (like caryatids) which were made about 5 years ago by casting in concrete from the modern, Vicenza stone originals. They were estimated at a reasonable £5,000 - £8,000, but I was sent with an unreasonable budget of £45,000, even though my client knew them to be modern 'composition'. I felt pretty confident I would get them, but little did I know the power of good salesmanship.

Within about 10 seconds, they went over my massive budget and I dropped out. The bidding went up so quickly and fiercely, that everyone came out of their offices to see what all the fuss was about.

The hammer came down at £189,000.

When you realise that their is almost another 30% to pay on top of this hammer price, you start to think that there are still many people out there with more money than sense. I wonder if the buyer ever tried to get his money back? I looked at the wording in the listing very carefully, and decided that if they tried this, they would have no legs to stand on. I very much doubt if they will come back on the market any time soon.


  1. Brings a whole new dimension to caveat emptor.

  2. All very interesting, and how nice to see your own work doing the rounds. Maybe you should amalgamate your two areas of expertise and make exquisite stone candlesticks to sell to all those rich people?

  3. At least 'caveat emptor' is a warning, Jacqueline!

    I know as much about candlesticks as those dealers knew about Vicenza, Mise - sadly.

  4. perhaps I should sell the berlingo and invest in something old stony

  5. I once sold a serious number of matched duelling pistols at Sotherby's. It was written up in the catalogue as being 'The Collection of a Gentleman'. I've never looked back!

  6. They never could get their descriptions quite right, Cro. Now, if they had said, "Property of a Nobleman" I would have been impressed.

  7. I really think that if they took all the antiques programmes off the television there would not be a lot left Tom. I think these programmes have given folk a sketchy idea of what is good value and what is not - a case of a little learning is a dangerous thing maybe?

  8. Definitely, Weaver. It is a pass-time for bored antique dealers to watch these shows, then laugh their heads off at the inflated estimates that the celebrity experts give to the old door-stops of vulnerable, ill-informed people.

  9. Fascinating. It is partly this that puts the ignorant like me off attempting to buy anything "antique". If I buy direct from a modern craftsperson the main question for me is whether I like the item enough to part with the money, not whether someone is lying to me as to the age or provenance of an article. I agree totally that the huge number of tv programmes on antiques just make things worse. Everyone is a half baked expert now!