First impressions count; don’t judge a book by its cover; you can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig; quality shouts: contradictory aphorisms come thick and fast in many walks of life, but few apply as often as to the fine art and antique world, especially when it comes to auctions.
So what is the best advice to follow when confronted by a lot that piques your interest?
If possible – and this is often not the case now, thanks to the internet and access to auctions on a global basis – go to the view and look at the item in person.
Ask yourself a few questions? Does it look like the real deal? Does the estimate reflect its value? If you look past the flaws, damage etc, does the quality really shout out from beneath?
If you are an expert in your field, it’s true that first impressions really do count. You may immediately recognise the typical motifs or style of an artist that others have missed; or you may also spot that something isn’t quite right and the mark and period Qianlong vase you hankered after is actually a later copy.
But for the less expert among you, ignore what everyone else does and look beyond the cracked glass and the ugly frame – both of which can be replaced – and ask yourself: how good a picture is this and do I really like it? That is the way to snapping up a real bargain.
Are you a hoarder or a de-clutterer? Have you ever heard of anyone being both? Taken to extremes, both can have problems, and neither tends to have a great deal of understanding of the other. For the de-clutterer, it’s a case of tidy desk equals tidy mind, while the hoarder understands what the de-clutterer doesn’t: that tiny unidentified widget that you are about to throw out will obviously turn out to be the vital part of something much larger, and without the widget you won’t be able to use the larger machine / piece of furniture / whatever.
I’m not advocating filling your homes with rubbish or leaving a mess everywhere, but the well-organised hoarder ultimately has an advantage over the de-clutterer when it comes to auction. This is because, as long as they know where to put their hands on it, they are the one who won’t have thrown out that rare scrapbook of 1966 World Cup Player cards (as I did once when I moved house), now worth a small fortune, or 1950s tinplate toys.
The authorities at Durham Cathedral have learnt this lesson. They have just raised more than £125,000 by auctioning off superfluous parts of the building’s fabric, including old bits of masonry.
It’s worth doing your homework whether you are preparing to sell at auction or buy. One of the most important reasons is provenance. This is the history of ownership of an item. The more significant it is, the better, and if you can trace it back through solid documentary evidence to the point of its creation, all the better.
Many and varied are the tales of people who let something go for a song only to discover later that it was worth a small fortune. By the same token, experts and others who have bothered to investigate things that turn up in saleroom catalogues properly can snap up a bargain.
One of my favourite examples of this was a set of daguerreotypes – one of the earliest forms of photographic development – that came up for auction a number of years ago. Taken in Italy, France and Switzerland in the mid 19the century, they were attractive but pitched at no more than £80. They sold for £75,000, but, as it turned out, were worth a great deal more because it transpired that they were the lost images of John Ruskin’s European tour. As the pre-eminent art critic of the 19th century, Ruskin was fascinated by the art and architecture of places such as Venice and was one of the first to catch them in photographs. Although it took the eye of a Ruskin specialist to spot the link, the discovery was a sensation and the previously unknown images have now been published in a book.
So, one of the reasons that auctions continue to prove so popular is that on occasion they can be a bit like winning the lottery.
Any auctioneer will tell you that what they really dream about is the classic country house sale. These used to be an occasional but regular staple of the calendar, both in the early 20th century and in the decades after the Second World War, when families whose estates has been requisitioned for the war effort found that they no longer had the resources for their upkeep.
These days, such sales are few and far between; many of the great estates have now passed into the hands of wealthy entrepreneurs and foreigners who have the wherewithal to shape them in their own image, while other stately homes have now become the property of the National Trust or other bodies who have found commercial options for keeping them going.
Occasionally a gem of a country house sale does turn up, though, the latest being the contents of Athelhampton House in Dorset, a Tudor manor house whose contents have just sold for £1.5m.
From a £75,000 George II side table to a Charles I oak stool at nearly £34,000, the furniture was a delight, but equally enticing were the books, glassware and ornaments.
If you ever want to know why art and antiques have such an enduring appeal, just glance through the catalogue; it’s food for the soul.