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Going, Going, Gone!

Before Auction Fever Sweeps You Away, Make Sure You Know What You're Buying
Andrew Decker
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 2)

How can you prepare for the auction buzz? Some houses, like Christie's East and Sotheby's, periodically hold mock auctions to give newcomers a chance to get the feel for the process--the anticipation, jumping in early on the bidding to make a statement, waiting until other bidders might have played themselves out, the feeling of losing and winning. Participation is more expensive, but most anyone can sit in on all but the glitzy evening auctions, where tickets are doled out to established customers. Attendance is always free, though catalogues (scorecards, if you're a spectator) usually cost around $40.

Other methods of preparation include going to bookstores and libraries. A buyer should also look things over at the pre-auction exhibitions. Leslie Hindman, of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago, admits to littering her home (and those of her friends who enjoy dorm-style decorations) with "mistakes," including a Japanese screen that looked beautiful on the auction stage but turned out to be "ripped to shreds" when she unpacked it at home. Her mistake: buying without inspecting.

Hugh Hildesley, an executive vice president at Sotheby's and author of The Complete Guide to Buying and Selling at Auction (Norton & Co., 1997, $25, 223 pages), says that authenticity and condition are the most important concerns of auction buyers. "If you fall in love with a piece, then talk to a specialist [at the auction house] to see if your love is well founded." Specialists will tell you why they attributed a particular work to a particular artist, craftsman or period, why they've set the value where they have, and to what extent the object--whether it's a painting or a piece of furniture--has been restored. "One does expect a 200-year-old chair to be reupholstered," Hildesley says. "Before an American furniture sale, everyone is poring over everything in the exhibition inch by inch. If you're going to be a collector, that's part of the territory."

How undignified. Just imagine a group of grown men and women in suits or tweed jackets on their hands and knees--or backs--as they check the joinery of an eighteenth-century table. You'll hardly make a pretty picture, but it's far more palatable than learning five years later that your bargain was neither cheap nor old.

Buying at auctions is easy--just lift a finger--and can be thrilling. Buying well, on the other hand, is time-consuming, laborious and sometimes dirty work, with hours at museums or antiques shops, in libraries or with yet another badly written catalogue on your lap. You must train your eye and mind so that the glare of a reproduction is instantly apparent: these are the hidden costs of buying at auction, the parts of the game that people don't talk about at cocktail parties or in the media when they discuss their great discoveries or bargains.

They also become part of the joy. The lasting pleasure in auctions is found not only in the chase and the bidding but in the process of studying and looking, of learning to temper impulse with deliberation.

Andrew Decker is a freelance journalist based in New York and a contributing editor to ARTnews magazine. Cigars On The Block

At a Christie's auction in London on June 5, two men battled for the right to pay almost $25,000 for a box of 50 1492 cigars, extremely rare Cuban corona gordas made in 1992 to celebrate the quincentenary of Columbus' voyage. The winning bid of £15,000 ($495 per cigar) was the most ever paid for cigars at a commercial auction. That the previous record was just three weeks old--on May 18, a box of 25 Trinidads, Cuba's most fabled and elusive brand, fetched $456 per cigar at a sale in Geneva--is a sign of a bullish market that's looked more like the soaring Dow Jones than the sleepy, almost nonexistent premium cigar market of just five years ago.

"At the end of the bidding, I brought the hammer down and the room burst into applause," says Paul Bowker, the Christie's auctioneer who conducted the Trinidad sale. "When I called out the winning bidder's paddle number, he looked up and said, 'What did I pay?' I got the impression price wasn't an issue."

Fortunately for those to whom price is an issue, terrificsmokes can be had at cigar auctions for prices that are less than record-breaking.


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