Sleepers Awake!

The novice seller could easily imagine that the public auction provides the fairest access to the market. But a London Times article of October 16, 2001 exposes a reality well known within the string instrument business: auctioneers aren’t necessarily possessed of the best expertise in the trade. Nor is it always in the auctioneers interest to catalogue an instrument absolutely accurately.

According to Times reporter Dayla Alberge, a cello, was listed in the catalogue of Chrstie’s New York May 4 sale of Musical Instruments as Italian, ca. 1609, school of Amati, estimate, $40,000–$60,000. It was recognized by a number of dealers as a genuine Gagliano, worth perhaps as much as twenty times the estimate, and the Times alleges, they agreed to a joint purchase in order not to bid against one another and drive up the price. They won the bidding at $40,000, hammer.

Auctions are interesting for dealers for precisely for this reason: the “sleeper” in the auction may be the dealer’s boon. The presence of sleepers draws dealers to auctions and dealers drive a large percentage of auction sales. When dealers fail to show up for auctions a greater percentage of lots go unsold, so auctioneers do curry favor with the dealers.

Of late, however the entire string instrument business is coming under increased scrutiny. Articles in the press exposing scandals and problems with the business have become commonplace. Given this, it is astonishing to see a number of auctioneers continuing to catalogue instruments without seeking the opinion of the best experts in the trade, if only to protect themselves from scandal. Ironically Tarisio Auctions, with possibly the best expertise among the auction houses, scrupulously consults regularly with the most respected experts in the trade to avoid these problems. Bonhams in London seems to protect their vendors’ and buyers’ interests in this way as well.

We will probably never know for sure the extent to which Christie’s experts were aware that the cello in question was, in the view of a number of experts in the trade, a highly desirable piece by a rare and interesting master maker. The fact that the cello was pictured on the front of the catalogue, to be noticed by all, would seem to argue that Christie’s did know they had a diamond in the rough, and expected competing dealers to bid it up to a hefty price. But this could also be just coincidence. The cello had some unusual decoration, making it an interesting choice for the cover on it’s own merits. Apparently the cello was in fact a dazzling sleeper: a major opportunity waiting to be bought.

One has to wonder how the story reached the London Times. Clearly, the dealers who collected around the purchase of the cello would not welcome this sort of publicity. And whether due to oversight, or to a marketing strategy gone terribly wrong, the incident is an embarrassment for Christie’s.

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