Too-high expectations tarnish auction of de Lamerie silver


May 16, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers Solis-Cohen Enterprises

Paul de Lamerie was to 18th-century English silver wha Auguste Renoir was to 19th-century French Impressionist paintings -- a creator of voluptuous masterpieces that captivate collectors and fetch premium prices. So, when Christie's auction house in New York won the opportunity to sell 25 lots of de Lamerie silver recently, it rolled out the red carpet. The silver was sent to London, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Toronto for potential bidders to examine it firsthand. Christie's organized a well-attended seminar for collectors in New York, and staged elaborate preview receptions hoping to spark enough interest to ensure that the sale was a shining light of the auction season.

When the last gavel came down at the April 22 sale, it appeared that the sluggish economy finally had slowed the rise of the silver market, widely considered the domain of recession-proof affluent collectors. Although 21 of the 25 de Lamerie lots found buyers, most fetched prices at the low end of what many insist were aggressive pre-sale estimates. The anticipated toast of the sale, a 15-inch-high covered cup oozing rococo embellishments, consigned by the Dallas Museum of Art, failed to sell. It was expected to command $500,000 to $800,000.

The auction's top lot was a pair of 1750 de Lamerie soup tureens with shell, fish-scale and floral ornamentation on their covers, foliate scroll handles, and scroll feet attached to the tureens by cast decorative goats' heads. From the collection of the late English industrialist Sir George Dowty, the pair fetched $442,500, sufficiently below the $500,000 to $800, 000 pre-sale estimate for Christie's silver expert Christopher Hartop to declare: "The buyer got a bargain!"

Notable absences

Several prominent antique silver dealers were notably absent from the list of the auction's successful bidders. Some said they were turned off by high pre-sale estimates unwarranted by the worn condition of several pieces, and complained about engraving made shallow from too much rubbing, and patina made anemic from too much polishing.

Others insisted they've been forced to lower their bids to compensate for Christie's recently increased buyer's premium. Now the auctioneer charges 15 percent on the first $50,000 of the purchase price, plus 10 percent of the amount over $50,- 000. Until recently, the buyer's premium was a flat 10 percent. "A $10,- 000 piece of silver still is worth only $10,000 total to me. I have to take Christie's 15 percent into account when bidding now," said James McConnaughy, of S. J. Shrubsole Inc., a leading antique-silver dealer in New York.

"There's too much deal-making going on between the auction houses to get the great merchandise," Mr. McConnaughy noted, observing that in the competition between Sotheby's and Christie's, high pre-sale estimates woo consignments but can deter competitive bidding. "Christie's just didn't figure the market right," he said.

Mr. Hartop acknowledged after the auction that perhaps too much high-priced merchandise, affordable by only a handful of incredibly wealthy collectors, was offered on one day. "Auction is theater," he added, noting that when the covered cup (the auction's first de Lamerie lot) failed to sell, it affected the mood in the salesroom, casting a shadow over the rest of the auction and likely depressing prices.

Outstanding career

Paul de Lamerie (1688-1751), one of the world's most accomplished silversmiths, was a French Huguenot born in the Netherlands, who emigrated to England around 1690. He was apprenticed in 1703 to one of London's most fashionable silversmiths, Pierre Platel, another Huguenot. Ten years later de Lamerie established his own workshop and entered his own maker's mark at Goldsmiths' Hall, embarking on an unusually prolific career.

De Lamerie's earliest works ably demonstrated the simple, bold and elegant forms of the early Georgian style, often called Queen Anne. A tapering cylindrical dome-lidded coffee pot with spout at a right angle to the handle, from 1714, one of the earliest surviving pieces with de Lamerie's mark, sold for $18,400 at Christie's (estimated at $18,000 to $25,- 000). A pair of square-base candlesticks, 6 1/2 inches high, with knopped faceted baluster-shaped stems, from 1718, went for $36,800, below their $40,000 to $60,000 estimate.

Although de Lamerie spent nearly half his 40-year career working in the plainer Georgian style, he's best known for his masterful interpretation of the rococo, an international style with French origins. It was fashionable in the mid-18th century and noted for leafy, florid and curvy asymmetrical ornament combining the airiness of clouds with an abundance of shells, flora, fauna and all sorts of underwater creatures. In the hands of a less accomplished artisan, rococo silver can be an unappealing mixture of grotesque form and ornament.

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