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Getting Carried Away Inside Auctions


Thirty Years In Auctions, Many Times Broke my Rules

Monday, 6th June 2016. I walk upstairs into Christies main rooms where a Russian sale is going on. The room is full, the auctioneer is animated and the telephone handlers are lined up in two sections. The sale is brisk and the bidding is lively. I am impressed by the lady standing on my left taking bids in Russian from a telephone bidder in a ding gong battle with a bidder on another phone and in the room. Time after time she pushes prices and buys a few for clients, a few she loses.

I have been in years gone by in the same rooms where I regret I lost the battle of bidding on seriously important paintings that back in the 1980s selling for 10-20,000 pounds and now sell between 300-500,000. Unfortunately the more deep the pocket, the better chances to acquire the paintings targeted.

But when did I go over my limit and damaged myself? Plenty of times and in nearly all cases I regretted what I did in the auction room at the spur of the moment and when adrenaline overtook me and my maths calculations.

I am referring to one case where not only I went overboard but also continued like a madman to bid, when the auctioneer opened the bidding again, when he had already sold the painting in question to me.

Going Over Limit in Small Auctions Chasing Treasures!!

Harold Knight

(British, [1874-1961] A prominent member of Modern British art who worked in Newlyn and was married to Dame Laura Knight. Well respected and collected by the best collectors of British art mostly for his figurative paintings. Auction price range £3,000- 50,000)

29th November 1993, North-West Auctions, London – 29th October 1998, Cambridge, England

Some artists appear all of a sudden in auction rooms and test the knowledge and acumen of collectors and investors. The Harold Knight painting was just such an example at the North London auction. It became a serious puzzle the moment I set eyes on it. It was impressive from the distance and on closer inspection looked even better, in spite of a couple of condition issues that seemed easy to sort out. The painting had great potential because:

· It was large in size (80 x120 cm), painted on panel.

· It portrayed an elegant, belle epoch couple in a garden – a desirable subject and so a better investment proposition.

· It was estimated at £500-800, a bargain.

The question and worry for me was one and only one! Was it a genuine Harold Knight? Was it a painting by this very respected English artist and possibly worth close to £50,000? Impressive but worrisome! The estimate of £500-800 was robust enough for the auction but in my view still very, very low, if the work was correct. A large painting by Harold Knight of that size and quality could easily be priced at £100,000 in a gallery. So my worries were many and well founded because:

· The Harold Knight, as described by the auctioneers in their catalogue, could have been by any artist with the name Harold Knight.

· The estimate suggested they did not know whether it was by the famous Harold Knight or by another Harold Knight. That was the auctioneers’ trick.

It was left to the purchaser to decide whether the painting, as described in the catalogue, was by the illustrious Harold Knight or another artist who signed with the same name. This was tricky, very tricky and dangerous for an amateur, but I had ten years of experience in auction rooms! I was hardly an amateur, but that still did not solve the problem at hand. Was that painting a genuine one by the famous Harold Knight or was it a concoction of fakers?

Thus a serious word of warning to all readers and potential investors in art:

Invest serious amounts of money at these small auctions only when you are certain of the authenticity of a work of art and there are expressed guarantees. Fakes abound in small auctions everywhere although in most cases they are catalogued as such. This was a case where the auction had left everything up to the buyers’ interpretation and discretion. There was no guarantee of any sort and I was on my own. I would be taking a calculated risk, if I bought it.

It was a gamble and one I could ill afford at the time! Wasting £500 on 29th November 1993 was essentially stupid and irresponsible. I had just enough to carry on from month to month until things improved. The little money I raised from the November Christie’s sale was set aside as a buffer and for another good, safe investment.

My experience told me starkly, stay away from possible fakes. They are a headache and they never reward the investor.

However investing in art with the motto “buy value for money” had proved profitable in the past. Clearly I was not sure about the authenticity of the work, but still the painting had intrinsic quality and value. If by Knight, it was worth at least £50,000, if a copy then about one thousand pounds.

With such thoughts running round in my head I finally made the decision to try and buy the Knight, in the hope that it was indeed genuine. I reasoned that the condition of the painting was original, the wood panel was damaged by age and the paints looked old. How could it be a fake painting? (I had yet to experience the lessons from the Parthenis fake!) I knew I was taking a calculated risk, but if the Knight proved right, I would be rewarded handsomely. The North London auction had been the venue of some very interesting purchases in earlier years and I was hopeful that the Knight would be one of those.

I arrived at the packed auction room and stood at the back weighing up the strength of the bidding and the possible opposition. I could not recognize any known faces, which meant that no art dealers were about. Whether that was a good sign or a bad one I did not know.

Was I on my own or would I be bidding against a shrewd faker?

When the bidding reached £400 I put my hand up hoping to become the owner of the questionable Knight at the estimate. No such thing to my dismay, and pretty quickly the bidding climbed to one thousand and then fifteen hundred pounds. My hand stayed up stubbornly; I was so involved and carried away by auction fever that I was not going to let it go. The Knight became mine at a total cost of £1850.

The manner in which I purchased this painting and the mistakes I made were characteristic of an amateur and that was unforgivable!

· I had ignored basic rules about guarantees, provenance and authenticity.

· I had got carried away by auction adrenalin and become involved in a bidding war.

· My avarice had got the better of me in my quest of a major coup.

I was sick with my actions as soon as the bidding was over. I immediately regretted paying serious money to chase such a dubious painting. Essentially, I had gambled too much money in the hope of acquiring a sleeper at an auction where fakes were the majority of any art sold! That was madness!

When buying art, please follow the attribution to fine art carefully as shown below:

Full name of artist – indicates that the painting is by the artist.

Surname only – indicates an artist whose forename is unknown. If the estimate is too low for any known good artist then it might be a synonymity unless the date of birth and death are stated.

Attributed to – probably a work by the named artist, but it is not certain it is by the artist.

Studio of – a work by an unknown hand working in the studio of the artist.

Circle of – by an artist closely associated with the artist but not necessarily his pupil.

Style of – a work in the style of the artist, possibly of a later period.

Follower of – painted by a follower of the artist and his style, contemporary or nearly contemporary, but not necessarily his pupil.

Manner of – in the style of the artist, but of a later date.

After – the work is a copy of a known work of the artist.

Signed – the painting is signed by the named artist.

Bears a signature – the signature was added by another hand.

I threw caution in the wind, I bid carelessly and I ended up buying a painting of dubious character that cost me money when I managed to get rid of it. It was a case of going over my limit, it was a case of gambling when money was so scarce.

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