Beware the Cherry-Picking Auction House

Up until the mid 1980s Auctionland in Australia was a lovely old-fashioned affair dominated by Leonard Joel in Melbourne and Lawsons in Sydney. These were the grand days of the full-service auction house that provided every solution for every client. If you had special things they found their way to a catalogue, if you had inexpensive things they found their way to a very busy but interesting weekly auction and if you had a collection that was unique or valuable enough you could have your own auction.

36What you could also be guaranteed was that the auctioneer would not cherry-pick and leave you with items they did not want and further time and effort that you would have rather not spent finding another auction house to sell the other items. In the mid 1980s Robert Bleakley (an industry idol of mine) came to town with the Sotheby’s name in his briefcase and began re-writing the Australian auction landscape and how people thought about selling things.

Some good came of that – better service standards, more expert advice, elegant marketing and presentation and an expanded economy for the buying and selling of beautiful things. But one thing that has been lost to a degree in all this is the fact that an auction house can be everything to everyone and still be expert, elegant and successful at transacting everything. Too many sellers and buyers today have fallen for the slick marketing that suggests to them that specialist auction houses are their only option and that “fracturing” a dispersal between multiple auction houses generates a better result.

On the 13th of April 2008 a very interesting thing occurred in Auctionland – Amanda Addams Auctions in Bulleen, Victoria had an early work by Jeffrey Smart, The Bather, Bondi 1962, for auction. I can imagine the other auctioneers now saying then to their clients that it shouldn’t have been sold there; that it should have been sold through an auction house that specialised only in art or mostly in art. There were only seventeen Jeffrey Smart oil paintings offered at auction that year and Amanda Addams Auctions had one of the finest early works for auction. The estimate was an attractive $100,000 – $150,000; it was an accurate estimate and certainly not undervalued. Melbourne and Sydney were abuzz about this work that had not been seen for many decades and everyone was wondering “would it sell and what would it bring”? It finally realised $336,255, more than tripling its low estimate and wait for it; it was the second highest price for Jeffrey Smart for the year and the highest price for an early period work for that year, maybe for all time.

So what’s this got to do with full-service auction houses and single collections? Something that is rather counterintuitive but I believe a fact. The sale of this Smart proved that it doesn’t matter where you sell something as long as it is fresh to the market, desirable, well priced and sensibly marketed. But for me it proved something else; that fracturing a collection, separating the less expensive from the more expensive, is unnecessary, disrupts the soul of the collection and in the process denies every item the intense public interest a complete single collection generates. There are auctioneers that will tell you that they only want one thing and that that’s because they have the best forum for the sale of that valuable item but I suspect it is more to do with laziness and a state of mind that still believes there is a better way than a full-service auction house; I’m a little biased but my position is that there isn’t.

John Albrecht, Managing Director for Leonard Joel