Turn on the TV or radio these days and the news is filled with people turning dramas into crises; it’s amazing how an inadvertent word or gesture can suddenly explode in your face.
Far more unusual are events that turn the other way, where a scandal or slip transforms into something positive. That’s why I was rather taken with the tale of the MP whose wardrobe malfunction in the House of Commons defied media and keyboard warrior outrage to become a very good news story.
You may recall that Shadow Culture Secretary Tracy Brabin took to the dispatch box in the House of Commons on an urgent point of order recently only to find the shoulder of her dress slip down her arm to reveal an eye-brow raising amount of bare flesh.
With every word and blink broadcast live on TV these days, the slip – soon dubbed #shouldergate – became the media highlight of the day, with the inevitable ferocious social media debate on just how much this did [or did not] matter.
The Member for Batley did the right thing and rose above the mudslinging by putting the offending dress into auction, where it attracted 180 bids before selling for £20,200. The money will go to Girlguiding. Well done!
It used to be said that consignments to auction were fuelled by the three Ds: Death, Divorce and Debt. House clearances from the former, as families sold off heirlooms and furniture they no longer wanted, have long been commonplace. Likewise, one of the side effects of divorce is that the separating couple have to find two places to live and that can mean offloading furniture and works of art that no longer fit the new space or look. Realising the value of an asset to pay of a tax bill or other debt has also been common practice down the years.
All three of these three situations continue to apply, but I would argue that we are now dealing with the five Ds, because we can add Decluttering and Downsizing to the mix.
I suppose Downsizing is similar, in some ways, to the factors involved in Divorce – it’s really about things that no longer fit, while Decluttering is a relatively new phenomenon; generations gone by tended more towards hoarding than having a clear-out.
Another – albeit rarer – circumstance that can lead to bulk consignments at auction is the makeover; a case of out with the old and in with the new as tastes change. Could this be the sixth D? Only if you titled it re-Design.
There can be a significant difference between purchasing retail and buying at auction. It’s as much about the process, the subtleties of bidding and developing the expertise required for winkling out the hidden gems as the objects themselves. In short, the whole auction experience has a connoisseurial element you don’t get from general shopping. I suppose that at its best a parallel would be the difference between popping down to the supermarket for bottle of plonk and embarking on a wine-tasting evening with a view to acquiring a case or two of top quality burgundy.
Of course, it’s not all about mastering a process – getting a bargain and finding something unique or unusual are as attractive aspects of buying at auction as anything – but it’s amazing how the thrill of your first successful bid never leaves you and buying at auction, both online but especially in person in the room, can become almost a compulsion.
Why is this? Firstly, it’s a competitive sport and there is both art and science to the bidding process as you try to outwit the competition. Secondly, often bidders are competing for something unique; if they don’t win out against everyone else, they may not get another chance to acquire the piece in question. Thirdly, sometimes you can get a real bargain.
Even before the bidding starts, there is the thrill of the hunt, as you root through items at the view, looking for that elusive treasure. What’s not to like!
What makes something art and gives it value? I don’t like to spend too much time getting philosophical, but a couple of events recently have jogged my curiosity on this one.
The first was the contemporary art “happening”, where a man ate a banana stuck to a wall with duct tape that had been presented as a work of art at an art fair by Maurizio Cattelan and priced it at $120,000. The man turned out to be a performance artist, so one form of art became another, a bit like when Banksy shredded his own work when it sold at auction last year. Cattelan can always stick another banana to the wall, so not much damage done there, I’d say.
However, there is a more general point about how items that are created for a specific purpose (banana = food), can turn into art when that purpose either becomes redundant or non-essential. Folk art pieces, such as duck decoys, which can make hundreds of thousands of dollars as works of art in the US, are good examples.
Just this week I saw that two vintage tractors sold for almost £30,000 at auction. Surpassed by modern machinery for farmyard use, they are loved by collectors for their cultural and artistic quality, from the engineering through to the overall aesthetic of their look.
It’s wonderful to think that something can have a new lease of life as a work of art after its practical purpose has diminished.