by Martin Willis
One of the genesis of starting the podcast is I thought there were so many stories to tell in the business. There are so many things that happen behind the scenes that no one could imagine.
Some of the stories are not so much on the entertaining level as they are on the scandalous level. So I thought I would tell a little of both.
I always tell people that auctions are like roller coasters. When you consign a number of items, try to look at the bottom line and not each piece. Most times you will be disappointed at one item’s price and astonished at another.
I took in a nice piece of art glass awhile back from a client that bought it for a few dollars at a garage sale. It was an exceptional and rare piece of Loetz. I assigned an auction estimate of $3,000-$5,000, which seems aggressive, but it really wasn’t at the time. The consignor was tickled and he left the piece for our next auction. After it was in the brochure and advertised, he became very nervous and decided it was worth a lot more. My experience tells me that when someone buys something at a very good price, or when someone is gifted an item, they seem to get a feeling the piece is worth much more then it is. So I calmed him down and told him that we would have to charge him full commission to withdraw the piece this late in the game. I assured him that we already had online bids and phone interest. Well this started an avalanche of phone calls by him disguising his voice and trying to leave enormous absentee bids on the piece on phone messages. He even called in and identified himself as Christopher Colombo one day and tried to leave a bid for $10,000. We ignored this and all of the messages. Our fear was that he would show up and bid on his own item, or have someone do it in his absence, which is illegal. Fortunately the day came and the piece sold for $7,250. He called disappointed and said we gave it away. These are the type of consignors that are hard to forget.
On the other end of the scale, we picked up a large estate with contemporary custom-made pieces from a wealthy family. When the assistant showed me the receipts for the pieces, I tried in every way to talk her out of selling at auction. A plain, but very large cabinet (too large for most homes) cost over $70,000. I gave her an estimate of $500-$700 on it, just to discourage the owner. This is just one example as there were about 40 pieces in the same range with the same estimates. The owner wanted it all to go and my estimates were right. A month or so later the owner called and said he appreciated us trying to sell the pieces and understood why they brought the prices they did.
Here is a scandalous tale. Several years ago I had a small Alexander iron sculpture that came from a local home. The woman grew up in New York and her father had a wallpaper company. He had Alexander Calder design a pattern for him and was given the sculpture by the artist. In other words, there was good provenance. I advertised the piece as selling at noon in my Saturday auction and had lots of interest. This was prior to the Internet, but post fax machines. A man who claimed he was an important collector had me fax the info on the piece to him. Auction day came and at noon all my phone lines went dead. It was raining and a man came in soaking wet just before the piece came up. I had an old fashion cell phone mounted in my van, so I had another auctioneer take over and pulled my van to the door. No one else I knew had a cell phone, so I could only reach one potential bidder out of four. The man that was soaking wet was the high bidder of the piece for over $12,000, which was substantial at the time. After the auction a man came up to me and said he saw some man sawing something on the side of the building, so I walked over and all the phone lines were sawed through. I asked if he could describe him and he said yes, it was the guy that bought the sculpture. The same character paid by check for the piece and within a few days I found out it was a totally fake check with no such account and the driver’s license was fake also. The mistake the crook (if I may call him that) made was, he said his fake name when he requested the fax. I worked with the FBI and within a week the piece was sitting back in my office. I was very fortunate as the under-bidder had regrets of not going higher on the piece and bought it for full price.
I wish I could say this is the only scandalous tale I have to tell, but whenever money is involved, many things can happen.
If you are reading this short blog and like to write about antiques, art, collecting or auctions, I welcome your guest blog at any time.
Thank you for reading.