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.