Let The Bidding Begin

Whether buying or watching, visitors will find the rarefied air of New York auction houses more hospitable than might be imagined.

New York

September 29, 2002|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

I consider myself a fairly fearless traveler. I've eaten things indigenous that were inedible (goat stomach, anyone?), hitched rides from people whose language I didn't speak, and bartered the shirt off my back for a souvenir.

Until recently, though, I'd been too timid to explore a New York City auction house. Scared off, perhaps, by half-remembered television sitcoms, I half-believed that auction houses were chilly with hauteur and home to smooth operators eager to exploit my sketchy knowledge of art history. I'd scratch my eyebrow and find myself owning a pair of elephant foot ottomans.

True, too, some highly public shenanigans have recently exposed an off-putting underside to the $4 billion-a-year auction business.

Due to a price-fixing scheme between Christie's and Sotheby's, executives from the latter are in prison or under house arrest. And L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former chairman and CEO of Tyco International, was recently in- dicted on charges of tax evasion on paintings and sculptures he'd bought at auction.

If wolves like these could get trapped, how would a little lost lamb like me fare?

Just fine, in fact. Through time spent earlier this year at Doyle, Sotheby's, Christie's and Swann, I discovered these places are actually museums with temporary exhibitions that you are encouraged to touch, and stores where the sales help are truly helpful.

With autumn's blockbuster sales season about to begin, now is the perfect time to learn how New York auction houses really work by visiting them yourself. So, step right up, folks. We'll begin the bidding at ...

Bargain hunting

On a sunny Tuesday morning around 10 a.m., Doyle New York on East 87th Street was a busy, buzzing hive. This, as it happened, was "walk-in" day, so people were lined up, waiting to present tattered cardboard boxes to a panel of appraisers who gingerly sifted these nuggets gleaned from today's version of the gold rush.

Thanks in part to PBS' popular TV program Antiques Roadshow (on which Doyle was an early collaborator), people are no longer digging in them 'thar hills, but in their attics, basements or the church rummage sale.

"You never know what's going to come in," said Kathleen Doyle, the company's chairman and CEO. "Walk-ins are always a source of property for us."

This, however, is not how Doyle or other auction houses usually find their goods. Unless the items for sale are being de-acquisitioned by a fickle collector, often a celebrity (the auction world still cackles over Barbra Streisand's much-reviled art deco furniture that sold tepidly at Christie's in 1999), things usually appear at auction through a loss of fortune or of life.

Executors or heirs then invite auction houses to appraise the estate and present competing sales proposals. If there is sufficient merchandise to merit a single-owner sale -- as was the case with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, at Sotheby's in 1996--- a whole marketing campaign may be mounted, including advertising and a catalog.

Most often, though, an estate will be broken up and individual pieces slotted into a variety of niche auctions through the year.

Doyle's Fine Furnishings, Decorations and Paintings sale in June had 645 different lots, or individual bidding transactions, culled from 90 different estates. Price points were modest (an average of $750) and the merchandise was a grab bag.

Indeed, Doyle's two large exhibition rooms resemble a well-appointed junk shop. Things are put on the floor in an "as-is" condition, though nothing smells or is dusty.

The lighting is superb -- racks of high voltage spots line the ceiling, so nothing is left in shadow. Smaller items are often lumped into one lot: mismatched pieces of china, linens or women's purses. Larger pieces are arranged into decorative vignettes that don't stay in place for too long.

Exhibitions are hands-on affairs. People flip the tables or plop themselves down into armchairs. Collectors of American furniture, referred to within the industry as "termites," are notorious for slicing into upholstery to research a piece's frame or "secondary woods." The less intrusive carry tape measures, yardsticks, Polaroid cameras and, inevitably, cell phones.

"I could definitely see them up on the Vineyard," one woman was screaming into her phone as she poked at a pair of chintz-covered headboards.

Not quite sure what defines the Georgian, Regency and Federal styles? Are you unable to distinguish between a fauteuil and a poudreuse? Don't worry. On preview days, there are specialists to field all such inquiries. One of them, Jane Munson, said, "Sometimes people ask about a piece's history, sometimes it's a bit of decorating advice."

While we chatted, a guy dumped a box of silver onto the floor. Not trusting the count printed in the catalog, he began making neat piles of all the knives, forks and spoons. Observing this, Munson's smile tightened ever so slightly.

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