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Auction catalogs

By Jim PowellSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 20, 1981

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.

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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