Bid good buy

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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

(es­ti­mate £30,000-£40,000)

For con­sul­tancy ser­vices with pur­chas­ing high-end ob­jects con­tact Ni­cholas Mccul­lough (nicholasm­c­cul­lough37@ya­ or

Peter Smith (gunp­smith@fs­

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

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