by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
It is the beginning of April. A lovely time of year here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I am writing you. The sun is brilliant; leaves are bursting out all over. It is going to be 82 degrees out today; it was just 30 last week.
These rapid fire changes are, of course, the norm in New England. Temperatures may drop sharply yet again, but the odds are we are now on the necessary path to deliver spring for sure.
I ought to be outside. I’m 70 now, you know, and I’m supposed to be retired. Instead I found that word almost ludicrous in the extreme. There is no rest for the weary.
One reason why is the stack of auction catalogs which I cannot quite reach by leaning backwards in my desk chair. Every day now, the best that major auction companies (and some small ones too) can offer is just about a finger’s length away. They taunt, they point, they arrange themselves in a seductive pattern on the floor, they teeter in makeshift towers which are anything but stable, and fall frequently, giving me yet another look at the bounty inside… bounty that I want.
I thought I’d write this article for you, to show you what you must do if you plan on becoming a major collector, or even an episodic superficial one. There are steps you must take. There are actions and procedures you must learn. As always, you must restrain yourself; it’s part of what being a connoisseur is all about. Focus on the best. Never be or remain satisfied with anything other than quality.
For many years now, I have regarded April, when the first major auctions take place, as the true beginning of auction season. The auction schedule is clogged for this month, May, and June. The loveliest things in the world go on the block during this period, and must sell now before the summer descends, when the unrelenting heat crushes our desire to sit inside and make learned remarks about things we probably cannot afford.
The first thing you need to know about auctions in this season or any other, is that homework is required. Collections are built through assiduous effort, constant viewing and reviewing of objects and offers, constant communication with your stable of experts, and frequent attaboys to keep your spirits up and, as they said in the Revolutionary War, to keep your powder dry.
Upon receipt, review your catalogs at once.
True connoisseurs, that is to say people who play the game better than anyone else, want information early, thorough, and precise. Thus, when a new catalog arrives (that could well be every single day), you must sit down and glance and skim every page. When you get good at this game, this review will only take 10 minutes or so.
As you skim, mark each page that contains something of potential interest. The best thing to do is when you have a little bit more time, create bookmarks by cutting up scrap paper and keep a jar full of them so you’re prepared when the catalogs arrive.
This preliminary review gives you a sense of what may become important over the next days and weeks before the auctions. The goal is not to make a decision now, it is simply to give you a bird’s eye view of everything that is coming up at the auction houses you follow.
Thanks to contemporary universal communications, you may have auctions you’re interested in in Stockholm, Vienna, Paris, London, Rome, Amsterdam, New York, and other major cities, whereas in the olden days, before the internet and computers, you probably couldn’t follow more than one auction house in one city at a time. These days it is perfectly common to follow both major auction houses (Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Dorotheum), and some localized regional houses.
Let’s be honest with each other: this is not easy to do. It takes sustained focus, and a willingness to do what is necessary so that you will not be intimidated when you look for goods in Sweden or Madrid. The worldwide communications revolution has quite clearly fundamentally altered communications, and they have made it possible to learn about, study, and acquire the lots of your highest interest. Craziness extra.
Once you have accomplished your preliminary review, consult your bank book. As I so well know, being a connoisseur with a desire to achieve a splendid collection of international importance selected from the widest variety of goods, you must follow up your preliminary review with a more thorough secondary review.
It is a wise idea to organize this review by date. Remember, when you’re dealing with many auction houses worldwide, your life will be like a popcorn machine, with new sales popping up all the time. Thus, organize your catalogs in chronological order. Don’t just mark the objects you’re interested in, mark the objects you need help with.
I can recall one instance, for example, when I was purchasing Swedish silver sugar bowls from the 18th Century and before. Some of the best silver of this kind was produced in Stockholm, which was then a major political force in Europe. The silver bowls produced in Sweden, however, did not feature elaborate family coats of arms, or other heraldic markings. I was curious, because the objects would have been so much more dramatic, at least in my opinion, with these engraved devices. But it was not the custom to engrave silver as they did in every other major European power. Chacun à son goût.
So… review all your catalogs… mark the items you are interested in… and be clear on the sales date for each catalog you’re interested in. Here is where strategy comes into play. You may see, as I often do, a lovely item on page 1, that is not quite as lovely as an item on page 6, that is not quite as lovely as an item on page 52. Connoisseurs have a constant dilemma. Should you nail down the first item in an auction, even though that may constitute all your available resources, or should you pass on the first item to get to the second, doing the exact same thing to get to the third item. This is a conundrum, a puzzle, an ongoing test of your strategic abilities.
Very few of us have unlimited resources. We must, like I have done throughout the years, work harder, research more thoroughly, and enter the auction arena with nerves of steel. In the auction game, things change with lightning speed. Items which you think you couldn’t afford all of a sudden are selling for fifty percent of what you thought they would. You have to be ready to make the appropriate move, and you must never regret it if your strategy doesn’t work out. Learn from your failures.
By the same token, when you get something that you didn’t expect to get, and you get it below the low estimate, do a happy dance around your desk and whoop it up. Napoleon Bonaparte used to say “Give me the lucky man.” The more you play this game, the luckier you will get.
This brings me to the spring silver sales now underway. I have been spending the last few days in my usual state of anguish and anxiety. All three major European auction houses are having silver sales of the exact things that I crave and cherish. Two of the companies have their silver sales on the same day… different companies, even different continents… same day. This has happened to me on other occasions, where I have one company on hold on one phone and one company on hold on the other. Complete control and clarity are essential in this situation.
Mark the lots that you most want. Do this in all the sales catalogs you have. Do not give way to over-enthusiasm, to an “I must have” attitude. No matter how rare the item you want, there will always be a rarer item coming down the pike.
When I was a graduate student at Harvard, I lived like most graduate students. That is to say, I was a man of empty pockets and unyielding dreams. If some wise acre had told me forty years ago that I would be playing this game with some of the biggest international players, I would not just have disbelieved, I would have scoffed. Such things may happen in fairy tales, but not to graduate students without a schilling in their pocket. But my dream indeed has come true.
Just this morning, I purchased an early 19th Century Venetian seascape by Giacomo Guardi (1764-1835). It is a lovely picture hitherto down on its luck, needing TLC and lots of it. Luckily, it found me, and it now has a chance of life again, and grandeur. This afternoon I’ve been working on my silver collection. Each of these numerous items is an asset. As I have said for so many years, all assets in play. Do not just sit on an asset and look at its thrilling aspects. See it not just as a stationary thing, but as an asset to leverage more. To be a connoisseur is to be not just a finder of beauteous objects, but an economic wizard, seizing a thing, twisting and turning that thing, until you have another thing, and the process takes place all over again for the rest of your life.
Musical note from Grace Jones “Art Groupie” (1981)
I’ve turned to my friend Grace Jones for a comment or two on this matter. Grace is never less than totally frank, which makes so many people squirm, knowing that they may be the next one in her sights.
“Don't ask me any questions,
My personal life is a bore,
Admire me in glory,
An Art Groupie. That's all.”
“I'll never write my memoirs,
There's nothing in my book,
The only way you see me an Art Groupie,
And so am I.