News can travel fast in our industry, with the internet giving anyone quick access to information as well as rumors.  Before I left work this afternoon I saw a “bulletin” from the English newspaper, Antiques Trade Gazette which stated that Sotheby’s was going to close their Olympia middle priced auction facility in London, with the caveat that they would only be selling items with a minimum value of £3,000.00, approximately $6,000.00.

My first reaction was that this would help smaller auctions get consignments and maybe even give dealers that same opportunity.  Second, how quickly would Christie’s do the same? But upon reflection, there is a much bigger motivation for the big two to proceed with this approach.  

Primarily, I am sure their reasons would be the cost involved in moving, setting up, storing, and transporting items that are difficult to handle; they are labor and space intensive.  By eliminating an area of minimum profitability, they also separate themselves from the rest of the industry, and any form of competition. There are no auctioneers in the world that could or would implement such a policy. It also allows them to segment unprofitable consignment to smaller auctioneer who will then work in reverse to give them their better consigned items if they want the crumbs of the big two.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s have always operated in tandem, with their own industry rules and policy making.  Whether it is the secret reserve, the buyer’s premium, owning private galleries, etc, etc, etc, they are the only entities with real power and control over the market. They can manipulate and introduce methods and courses of action that only they, as rivals and co-conspirators can implement and match, and that can benefit only them.  It also further insulates them from other members of the industry, both dealers and auctioneers, from their own agenda.  Where are the fair trade commissions of both England and the US?

So finally, what odds do you give me that Christie’s will match Sotheby’s new minimum?  My guess is about as long as it took Christie’s to match Sotheby’s recent buyer’s premium increase. Maybe Christie’s will make their minimum $5,000.00 (we wouldn’t want any collusion here would we?)

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