The split between the worlds of antique furniture and the decorative arts verse the fine arts of the 20th Century, seems pretty dramatic.  One works well with the buyer’s premium imposed on the buyer, perhaps one might work better with just adhering to a seller’s commission. The decorative arts were never mean to evolve into a premium induced revenue source.  

With the enormous glut of furniture in the decorative arts, taking a good guaranteed income of 20-25% (plus those optional expenses like photo and insurance) would make auctioneers hero’s to dealers and the general public.  If I remember correctly, that’s how auctions use to operate for both the decorative and fine arts.  It certainly will attract a lot of interest to any young person who wants to buy at auction.  While I might despise a buyer’s premium, I would prefer to give auctioneers some good advice, it turns young people off to auctions.

There is a real history as to how the decorative arts have been up and down, from American Mission, to painted 18th Cent Italian furniture, and of course, Victorian.  Throw in silver services galore.  The decorative arts have really never had a bubble, but more of a reality check.  The trendiness of the decorative art goes from Tiffany to Chippendale, and back.  This stuff was made for a dealers market to support auction pricing.  That is why the Sotheby’s/Christie’s duopoly is failing in this area.

It’s funny to think that Sotheby’s doesn’t really have rug department anymore.  Sales of classified French and English period furniture are now merged with 19th and 20th century versions.  It’s a total breakdown of their control of making money in this area of their business.  How many Yves St. Laurent collections are still out there?  In the 1980s, both had some very successful operations that relied on the seller’s commission, PB84 and Christie’s East. Today, they would do phenomenally well.  The incentive of not paying that premium would be immense.

What really makes only a seller’s commission compelling is the glut of furniture and items not really coming to auction.  They don’t want to touch it for fear of not meeting the secret reserve price and not getting the item sold and out of their control. Well, need I say more, no reserve price!  It seems like a pretty efficient way to start up the market but alas, they will never heed my advice.  

As a dealer, I always felt the challenge to recognize a good buy slipping through at auction; but it shouldn’t be my responsibility to foot their bill. Every seller should expect to pay for the service of an auctioneer; after all, the Uniform Commercial Code of business in the U.S. (at least in my 1970’s college edition) is pretty clear that public auctioneers work only for the seller.  There isn’t a discussion about a buyer’s premium.

However, the most important part of a seller’s commission pricing support would be the opportunity for dealers to revive the market.  It was the case that dealers traditionally formed a support price for the market.  In the decorative arts over the last 10 to 15 years, dealers have taken the greatest hit and these auctioneers know it, as their own bottom line in this area would now attest.

Auctions can and should stimulate the market. The duopoly should present this opportunity as a way auctions work best and were designed to do.  At least with no reserve price the items have a better chance to sell and a buyer’s remorse won’t be an issue!

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