Umberto Melina, a phenomenally successful private art buyer, remarked recently: "My main education comes from auction catalogs." It is easy to see why. Auction catalogs provide a tremendous amount of information. The major houses alone publish several dozen different catalogs each month. Lavishly illustrated, often in color, they cover a wide range of collecting interests from paperweights to paintings, Japanese tea bowls, furniture, rugs, silver, watches, prints, and classic cars, to name a few. Descriptive detail commonly surpasses that in scholarly books and museum catalogs.
Most important, auction catalogs are the only reliable source of art and antiques prices. By comparing the descriptive detail, photographs, and prices, and by attending the presale exhibitions, you can help develop your eye for value.
On the other hand, it is hard to find an art or antiques dealer who posts prices. Dealers are not in a position to talk about prices after goods are sold. Descriptive in formation is also hard to come by in a dealer's shop -- too much bother, apparently.
Of course, auction catalogs don't tell you all you need to know. You must use your judgment or consult an expert to determine whether a particular art object is a good example of its type, a key factor affecting your ability to sell it later.
The auction catalogs also tell you little about condition. Plenty of condition problems go unnoted.When an auction house says something has repairs, it is likely to be in sad shape. If a catalog mentions restoration, expect a lot.
It is difficult to make color photographs match every color in the actual art objects, so you should not be surprised to discover that a blue is really a green, for example, or that a yellow isn't as bright as pictured.
Consequently, if you're thinking of buying -- at auction or from a dealer --there is no substitute for doing your homework and examining a work of art firsthand. Invaluable as catalogs are, they require some interpretation.
A good place to begin is the guarantee. If you buy a work of art and later discover is isn't as represented, you are entitled to your money back within a specified period --houses. Interpreting types of headings
The guarantee applies only to the bold-type headings that broadly describe each auction lot. Be sure you are familiar with the shorthand used in these headings.
For instance, if you see a painting headed "Winslow Homer," the auction house cataloger believes it is by him, and that is what the house guarantees. The words "attributed to Winslow Homer" mean stylistic analysis suggest Homer did the painting, but that there are other reasons to doubt he did it. "Circle of winslow Homer" means the auction house cataloger believes an associate of Homer's did it; here the auction house doesn't guarantee it is by Homer. "Studio of Winslow Homer": the painting seems to be by somebody who worked in Homer's studio under his supervision. "School of winslow Homer": by a follower of Homer. "Manner of Winslow Homer": by somebody in a later period. "After Winslow Homer": copy of a known work by Homer.
Similar shorthand is used to describe other works of art. "Style" means a later copy, not an original work. Thus "Chippendale" means that a chair, for instance, was made during the 18th century, the Chippendale period. But "Chippendale style" means any time after that, a 19th-or 20th-century copy worth a fraction as much as a comparable quality period piece. The effect of guarantee on headings
Because of the liability entailed by the guarantee, auction houses tend to be conservative in their bold-type headings. Many works described as "attributed to" or "school of," for instance, are actually by the named artist. Some people make money doing the necessary research to prove it. Auction house catalogers seldom have time for such research, since the outcome is uncertain, and they must process thousands of art works a year. If they tracked down every last lead, nothing would get sold.
No guarantee exists for errors that appear outside the bold-type headings.A few months ago a portrait by Eugene Delacroix, the 19th-century French romantic master, was offered at a major London auction house. The catalog said it was "signed." But the signature was phony. If somebody had bought assuming the painting was properly signed, he might have overpaid by a significant amount. There would be no recourse, since the word "signed" wasn't in bold type. Fortunately an astute dealer recognized the phony signature, and the painting was withdrawn before the sale. Price range estimates
As a convenience to the general public, the major auction houses publish an estimated price range for each work of art. Most of the time they turn out to be right on the money. when magazines report on sales, they commonly relate prices realized to the presale estimates. Even so, estimates must be interpreted.
The estimates can be high because an auction specialist is trying to attract consignments. A collector might take a work of art to an auction house and get an estimate of $2,000 to $3,000. The specialist at another auction house might say they could get at least $4,000, hoping the collector will go with what seems like a better deal. In fact, both auction houses might sell to a similar market and realize similar prices.
High estimates can also appear in a catalog when an auction house depends heavily on dealers for consignments. With overhead and other expenses to meet, a dealer might insist on high estimates to protect himself. On the other hand, a collector or estate executor, with works of art bought years ago at low prices , could be more flexible.
Estimates can be low when an auction house is tyring to develop a new market. This might mean a collecting field that hasn't been sold regularly at auction before or at least not in a particular city. Low estimates increase the likelihood that an auction can be spoken of as a success: prices well above estimates. How estimates relate to the reserve
Estimates relate directly to the reserve, the price below which an auction house agrees to sell to a consignment. Today most major sales are "reserved," reflecting the stiff competition among auction houses for consignments.
The reserve is kept confidential but is often said to be about one-third below the low estimate. This varies according to the policy of an auction house and a consignor's eagerness to sell. The more eager the consignor, the lower the reserve.
If bidding fails to exceed the reserve, the consignment doesn't sell and is returned to the consignor. This is called a "buy back." Usually it means extra charges for the consignor. Moreover, the consignment becomes known as having failed to sell at auction, and as a result it could be harder to sell later.
For catalogs and prices of what actually was sold at auction, it is easiest to begin with the international houses that devote entire sales to specific collecting fields like Americana or modern prints. Contact Christie's, 502 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022; Sotheby's, 980 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021; Phillips, 867 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021. These also have offices in some major cities across the country. Estate sales
Regional auction houses tend to hold general estate sales, and you might have to pore over quite a few catalogs to find the kind of things that interest you. But the regional houses can offer good values and are well worth checking out. Contact Butterfield's in San Francisco, Freeman's in Philadelphia, Skinner's in Boston, Morton's in New Orleans, and C.G. Sloan & Co. and Adam A. Wechsler & Son in Washington, D.C. Helpful publications
Several publications can be particularly useful for auctiongoers:
"Art & Auction" lists coming sales and provides presale and postsale reports. Emphasis is on activities at international houses. It is published ten times a year at 250 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
"Antiques & the Arts Weekly" is a trade bible on country auctions. It also covers the international houses and antiques shows. It is published at Newtown, Conn. 06470.
"Collectibles Market Report," a monthly newsletter, publishes practical advice from experienced collectors, museum experts, and market specialists. They tell how to spot good buys, avoid fakes, evaluate quality. Its address: P.O. Box 5501, Newtown, Conn. 06470.
There is no mystery to buying well. Though developing an eye for value is often a tentative process, it is a rational process of making many comparisons. Your payoff: beautiful art and antiques at bargain prices. You're also sure to relish the pleasure of the hunt.