Sotheby’s Chicago Sale

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with the health of the world economy, and especially the U.S. economy in doubt, questions linger about the current viability of the fine arts market. Even before September 11th, it was becoming more difficult for auctioneers to produce profits. Auction houses offering string instrument sales have experienced a difficult one-two-three punch: the economy for such items has shrunk just as new, low overhead auctioneers have entered the market with lower commission rates. At the same time the market continues to become increasingly efficient. Potential vendors are more and more finding other avenues of access to the market. Sotheby’s has reacted to this troublesome bottom line issue in Chicago by making the decision to cease operations here after the current season.

Not surprisingly in light of all of this, and in view of a somewhat less than stellar group of instruments and bows on offer, the mood at Sotheby’s in Chicago on October 4th was muted. As the sale commenced the gallery was half empty: fewer than 50 people were in attendance. There was a bank of phones being handled by Sotheby’s staff which produced a fair number of bids in addition to the bids coming from the floor. In general prices were firm for the more desirable pieces. A fine J. B. Vuillaume Stradivari model sold for $55,000 hammer price, in line with the current interest in good examples of this maker. A violin by the late Sergio Peresson achieved the spectacular price of $18,000 hammer, apparently to a dealer! This would seem to indicate that the retail price for a good Peresson is now at least in the $30,000–$35,000 range. A violin by one of the patriarchs of the current violin-making school in Cremona, Francesco Bissolotti, was estimated at $7,000–$10,000 and sold for the hammer price of $7,000 A Turin, J. B. Guadagnini catalogued as possibly having a later table, and offered interestingly, with the dendrochronological report of John Topham (see Winter 2000) estimated at $240,000–$300,000 went unsold.

Some of the more interesting lots to watch at auction are those missing a full attribution. It is with these lots that the best experts in the business hope to capture substantial profit opportunity. An interesting violin catalogued as Cremona circa 1675, table mid-18th century, with an estimate of $50,000–$70,000 sold at $55,000 hammer price. Another interesting violin, catalogued as Italy, early 18th century, shattered its estimate of $10,000–$15,000 by selling for the hammer price of $28,000. One can imagine that the maker of this instrument was recognized by at least two dealers and this more specific attribution yielded stronger interest and greater competition than had been anticipated by the auctioneers.

Mid-priced bows made a reasonably strong showing. A rather unimpressive Weichold estimated at $700–$1,000 made $3600 hammer. Are prices for German bows on the move at last? Two Hill bows, miscataloged as mounted in gold and tortoise shell were actually of the less fashionable imitation tortoise shell, but they still managed hammer prices above $3,000 A gold and tortoise shell bow by the West Coast maker Lloyd Liu sold for $3200 hammer price. A fine, but slightly light Voirin cello bow sold for the substantial price of $8,000 hammer. A gold and tortoise shell mounted Henry violin bow, the frog inlaid with the basket of flowers motif, that Henry sometimes used on his better bows, sold for a disappointing $26,000 hammer, despite the estimate of $30,000–$40,000.

This sale marks the end of Sotheby’s instrument sales in Chicago, at least for the time being. It will be interesting to see if anyone attempts to fill that now empty niche here.

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