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Auction Houses in the News (Or Not)

Daniel Grant alleges an auction-house conspiracy of secrecy in today’s Wall Street Journal, developing a theme he had already explored in last month’s Art and Antiques magazine. Today he took aim at secret reserves, chandelier bidding and guarantees to sellers (including occasional third-party participation in those guarantees).
I’ve examined some of the issues raised by guarantees here and here. As for the reserve—the undisclosed price below which a work will not be sold—I think it’s an entrenched, time-honored auction practice that’s often been challenged but never overturned. It was interesting to me that even Gilbert Edelson, a veteran combatant in the dealer-auction house wars as administrative vice-president of the Art Dealers Association of America, conceded this to Grant:
If there were a law requiring the auction houses to reveal my reserve price, I would try to sell my property in London, where they don’t have a law like that.
What I think is that auctioneers should be allowed to place only one bid on behalf of a reserve, declaring a work “passed” if there are no further bids. After any “real” bid, the auctioneer would have one, and only one, opportunity to bid to protect the reserve. That would be a cleaner, more honest process, giving buyers and sellers a much more accurate sense of the depth of the market (or lack thereof), than an unbroken string of sham bids emanating from the light fixtures.
Meanwhile, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have perversely announced dueling press previews for their Impressionist/modern sales, commencing a mere 30 minutes apart on Friday morning. Have some hard-working art-market journalists mastered the art of being two places at the same time?
Sometimes a little collusion between competitors is a good thing.

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