Bid good buy
How to grab a bargain at a high-end auction; Roger Field proffers advice
Is it possible to bag a bargain at auction? Roger Field offers
his tips for success – and avoiding costly disasters
I’m about to be foiled at yet another arms and armour auction. I’ve been trying to buy a 16th-century breastplate for about five years now and failing, probably because I’m doing everything just right except, that is, placing the winning bid. I study the wording of the catalogue carefully: plenty of traps there for the unwary unless you understand properly “auction speak”. I consult the experts, both auction house and my outside adviser, and I persist in irritating them by asking how much the item is “worth”. Auctioneers hate that question and want you to “buy what you love” and not get hung up on the price. Their idea of a good day, obviously, is when something goes well over top estimate. “It’s only money,” is one expression I’ve heard as they tease out a stratospheric bid followed, sometimes, by applause as the gavel falls. Whether the room is clapping the poor sap who has just paid well over the odds or the skill of the auctioneer who kept the bidding going is a mystery. Finally, I decide my maximum figure, write it in the catalogue and then stick to it. Regardless. Which is why I am so often the auctioneer’s best friend – the frustrated under-bidder.
“Just one more bid” does not necessarily spell success as you will never know how high the winner was willing to go. At one Bonhams auction there was a fine looking “possibly late 16th century” dagger – note the use of the word “possibly”. The auctioneer started at £1,500, could not get a bid and went down to £500 – worth it even if it were a 19th-century copy. I raised a hand, hoping for success given the apparent lack of interest in the room. I soon dropped out as other bidders piled in. The hammer finally fell at £1,900 (and don’t forget to add the auctioneer’s premium on top). Why no bids at the opening £1,500? The trade had evidently decided it was real and was hoping to grab a bargain. Simple answer: decide what you are willing to pay and stick to it. If you get it cheaply be glad but be prepared to pay what you can afford and ignore the competition as they all have their own agendas. It is difficult to say what is a “right” price at auction. For example, the auctioneer may have been obliged by the vendor to put a high reserve and matching estimate on a certain piece as a condition of taking on a large consignment, not really expecting to sell it at that price. So, a low estimate winning bid may not have been a good price. Conversely, auctioneers love to publish low “come on” estimates. In these circumstances, a double top estimate winning bid might be a bargain.
However, there are most certainly wrong prices, which make auctions potential snake pits where lunacy can take over or where, conversely, a great buy can be had. I could have bought a breastplate years ago had I gone to a dealer. The rule of thumb with armour or weapons
– given you paid roughly the right dealer price at auction – is that the item will cost roughly twice as much in a shop; with jewellery, the mark-up can be five times.
Before you shout
“outrageous”, remember that the dealer has used his knowledge and time to find and buy that piece and that has a value. He has then had the capital cost of purchase, which may take years to realise. Finally, add overheads and the need to earn a living and you’ll appreciate why dealers have such a high mark up.
An auction, therefore, offers a genuine chance of beating the dealers and buying your heart’s desire for much less than the shop price. But an auction also offers the chance of making a fool of yourself as you are pitting yourself against both dealers and collectors: experts who know how to spot and avoid the wrong ’uns. In my time I’ve managed to buy both.
So much depends on what something looks like, or even smells like, as a chemically enhanced patina can mask some real evils. Experts are astonished that people will bid on something they have not seen. A detailed catalogue photograph(s) will show the item but a good photo can make anordinary item look great. Add the all-important description and the bidder has something they can rely on. The bigger, or more specialist, the auction house and the more valuable the item, the longer will be the description and the more photographs will be on offer. If the description is inaccurate or the photo(s) misleading – one shotgun in a provincial sale acquired a blueish
tinge in the photo, whereas there was no blueing on the gun at all – then a bidder has statutory comebacks. At the other end of the spectrum, a description in a non-specialist sale might only be a sentence: very much less chance of a comeback there.
On occasion the reverse is the case and the photo does not do the item justice. Sitting in the saleroom, looking for a new owner, it just looks brilliant. I saw two eighth-century, gold, Byzantine coins recently of the same emperor, in the same pose, both in “extremely fine” condition. One was from a rare mint and estimated at twice the value of the more common one. They looked indistinguishable in the catalogue photographs. On the day, the common one sold for twice high estimate and more than the low estimate of the rare one, which failed to sell. I had viewed them and the common one was much more sumptuous than the rare one and others obviously agreed. That simple. You’ll never see these all-important nuances unless you view items “in the flesh”.
If that is the golden rule for decorative items it is doubly important for working guns, which not only need to be looked at for quality and handled for fit but studied for defects. Working guns can be a minefield and the buyer hoping to get a gun cheaply at auction is pitting himself against dealers and experts who do this every day for a living. Our advantage is that we can afford to pay more than a dealer for the right gun as we do not need to sell it on at a decent profit. But we risk ending up with a turkey and there are some horrors out there. The first gun I bought at a provincial auction was a Cogswell & Harrison 12-bore, boxlock ejector. While it was in proof (it is illegal to sell a gun that is not), what the single line in the catalogue failed to mention, and I only discovered years later, was that it started life as a rifle and had had its barrels bored out. Value? Almost zero. I doubt my local auction house knew that but an expert should have spotted it.
Peter Smith, who will advise clients making top-end purchases, tells me that the barrels can be a horror story. A re-barrelled gun has to carry the marks of the new barrel maker. One trick for a top (let’s call it a Purdey) but shagged-out gun is to keep the lump and rib – complete with that all-important name and requisite proof markings – and weld on
Working guns need to be looked at for quality, handled for fit and studied for defects
new barrels, which are then artificially “aged” and polished. A good Purdey will be worth north of £20,000 but that gun with wrong barrels is probably worth less than £5,000. I’m not sure many would want it even at that price. A clever repair job will fool all but the experts, including a provincial house without a specialist gun department. In fact, Smith tells me, there are so many ingenious tricks now possible (including “helium welding”, which is near invisible) that he will no longer buy a gun that has been “polished” as he can no longer tell what defects that might hide.
The wood on a gun might have a miniscule hairline fracture. If so, the wood will require replacing, which is costly and will devalue the gun in the meantime. Faults need to be spotted. Smith makes the point – although some would insist that for a top gun it is essential that only the maker does major repairs – that if the repair or replacement is done to a superb standard then even an expert will not spot it. That in turn means that the gun should not be devalued. His beef is with welds and bodges that fool the innocent and destroy the value of the gun. With wood, he cautions about a modern tendency to “improve” the gun when restocking by using a better-quality wood than the gun had originally. It takes about 10 years and some use for the wood to mellow, so any replacement will be obvious in the short to medium term. A non-factory replacement – albeit a high-quality one – will drop the value by 10%-15%. His final point is a depressing one: a generation of gunmakers is dying or retiring and there are ever fewer coming on to do this vital repair work. So, buy a gun that is hiding problems and not only will you have paid way over the odds but you may struggle to get it put right, making it all the more important to buy a good ’un in the first place.
And that breastplate at Thomas Del Mar? Nicholas Mccullough, a friend who advises me – and will advise clients on top-end arms and armour transactions – really liked it, one of 42 helmets and eight breastplates from a “princely” collection. “Fabulous provenance,” he enthused. The helmets came first and sold at top estimate or higher, as did the first breastplates: cue deep despond. My two choices: numbers four and six, both estimated £1,400 to £1,800; number five, being of lesser quality, Mccullough said to ignore. Number four, the best, went for £2,000; number five, £1,300, near high estimate, to the internet. Six, my last chance, had to go top estimate or higher, too rich for me: “£1,400, anybody?” asked Del Mar. A firm nudge from Mccullough beside me. My hand shot up. Silence. Bang! It was mine. Miraculis mirabile: persistence and an over-abundance of goodies on offer had finally paid off. And it looks even better on my wall than in the saleroom.
Actress Kim Cattrall, Samantha in Sex and the City, no doubt bids to boost her gem collection
Above: a 20.35 carat diamond ring at Bonhams Right: 16th-century German armour at Christie’s
One of a pair of Indian 28-bore silver flintlock pistols up for auction at Bonhams in 2012
For consultancy services with purchasing high-end objects contact Nicholas Mccullough (email@example.com) or
Peter Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Clockwise from left: auction at Christie’s Mayfair; two-bore tube-lock punt gun, circa 1840, at Bonhams; a suji kabuto (1615-1868) in Bonhams’ Chinese and Japanese art sale; the gavel