Inside the great English auction houses

There is an elite group for whom a raised gavel above a hushed crowd brings on a racing heart. It signals the tempo of a game played with insouciant looks, flicks of a finger, or handkerchief signals. Stakes vary. And the game involves keen nerves, good instincts, quick decisions, the ability to stop, and, in a way , a penchant for the ridiculous. Some believe that nowhere is the contest more fun than in the great auction houses of England.

Here one finds a perfect stage for those with a sense of theatrics, a nose for bargains, and an insatiable appetite for that particular kind of excitement. Although most lists of reputable establishments include Phillips' and Bonham's, it is really Sotheby's and Christie's that attract the limelight.

Whatever the banter, the Christie-Sotheby rivalry is very much alive. Both have New York offices, but, indisputably, their activities revolve around the firms' venerable London headquarters.

Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., the oldest and largest auction house in the world, traces its founding to 1744 when a bookseller named Samuel Baker held his first sale. At that time he disposed of the contents of physician Thomas Pullett's library and netted (STR)826. From these humble origins, Samuel Baker not only established himself as an expert in rare books and manuscripts, a reputation Sotheby's has carefully nurtured, but also anchored the company's roots. Today, the firm operates in 21 countries, with auction rooms in 10. In 1964 Sotheby's combined resources with Parke-Bernet Galleries and became known as Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc. Then in 1983, in a widely publicized acquisition, the firm was taken over by a gregarious American art collector, Alfred Taubman.

Although Christie's was founded in 1766 by James Christie, there are those at the firm who dispute its secondary position. ''It's actually a moot point really ,'' says Anthony Browne, one of the firm's 40 directors. ''Until rather late in their history, Sotheby's sold only books; Christie's has always sold all sorts of odd things. At the time James Christie began his business, there were many auction houses in England, so it was an open field. When he died, he was the foremost auctioneer in the city.'' Today, Christie, Manson & Woods Ltd. is a publicly owned company, listed on the London Stock Exchange with over 40 offices in 14 countries.

What does this mean for the potential buyer? Basically, both firms have impeccable reputations and employ experts in fields that range from furniture and glass to jewelry, coins, rare manuscripts, and maps. Both run frequent sales. ''Essentially, we perform the same tasks,'' says Anthony Browne. ''We compete in every area except real estate.''

Both firms also have major locations in London. Sotheby's venerable headquarters on New Bond Street is an assemblage of 81 18th- and 19th-century white stucco buildings that straddle the street. The main facility at 34-35 New Bond Street occupies most of the south end of the block and houses the principal exhibition galleries where the most important auctions are held. Across Bond Street and through a crooked passage, the old Aeolian Hall (where musicians once performed for live BBC performances) is reserved for stamps, coins, and jewelry.

''Ours is a delicious maze,'' says Robert Wooley, senior vice-president of Sotheby's Decorative Arts Department, who adds wryly that although it is ''a charming rabbit warren of people, treasures, and exhibitions, Christie's had the luck to be bombed in World War II, so their headquarters at the moment are definitely more grand.''

If not larger, Christie's offices at St. James Place feel more spacious. The handsome graystone classical building opens to a wide reception area. An imposing stairway leads to three exhibition halls on the second floor where simultaneous sales may be taking place. ''We've maintained strong business ties here, apart from the hiccup when we were bombed,'' explains Anthony Browne, who carefully clarifies that the St. James location is not only the hub of activity, but the actual site for the finest, highest-priced sales.

He explains that Christie's and Sotheby's fulfill another kind of role with their ''fast sale'' department housed across town. This is where buyers prowl for items of lesser estimated value, usually under (STR)2,000, and sellers consign their goods for quicker turnaround time. There are no glossy expensive catalogs, no international billing. The sales simply go on day after day.

Christie's South Kensington at 85 Old Brompton Road runs sales every weekday from September through June. Sotheby's quick-sale facility at 26 Conduit Street usually schedules sales three times a week during the season.

To be sure, the inveterate collector with spare time in London faces an irresistible array of possibilities. There are many auctions in the city itself and bidding opportunities all over the country at specially scheduled sales.

The sense of urgency to buy or at least bid at auctions abroad is at present compounded by the favorable value of the dollar. With almost half of British sales attributed to Americans, it is interesting to note the differences in buying techniques and strategies.

Mr. Wooley says first-timers may be bewildered by English auctions. David J. Nash, senior vice-president of Sotheby's and a painting expert, explains that ''most Americans are surprised by the lack of mellifluous patter. British auctions are terribly subdued; there are few theatrics and the whole thing is much more reserved. Everything is based on small movements. Although we take in the entire room, the auctioneer essentially looks at two bidders.''

Other experts note that English auctions have traditionally catered to dealers, while American sales are geared to the individual buyer. This should not be intimidating, however, since dealers often cease bidding once the price cannot realistically be doubled for resale.

Everyone cautions against impulse buying, strongly advising that interested bidders subscribe to monthly newsletters both firms publish at approximately $10 a year to acquire a ''feel'' for prices abroad. They also stress that potential customers review the item before the sale to be absolutely certain it is what they think it is. It is also a good idea to determine what, if any, commission is expected from a buyer in addition to the price bid. This can range from no charge at Christie's quick sales (Sotheby's charges 10 percent for the same service) to 12 to 15 percent for both buyer and seller at large auctions.

What about the rumor that there are bargains galore in British auctions? ''This is not necessarily true,'' cautions David Nash. ''There are many factors to consider. The art and antiques market is international in scope and people with dollars do have an advantage abroad. But once an object or a particular genre arouses international interest - like icons or Tiffany glass - then everyone is competing for the same thing. England has the benefit of a longer history, so a lot of furniture and artifacts still survive with a relatively good choice of quality objects for buyers to consider.'' He adds that, even with the added expense of a possible commission and shipping costs, the same piece of furniture or objet d'art is often less expensive than if purchased in America. (At present there is no duty on antiques over 100 years old or paintings and works of art.)

As an incurable collector and auction regular, I have done it both ways. I have scrupulously perused exhibits, cautiously bid, and actually stopped exactly at my limit. I have watched wonderful antiques soar to unbelievable prices as often as they have sold for a pittance. I remember trying to salvage a sale by offering a dealer who successfully outbid me a premium if he would resell to me the piece I had wanted. ''There is no way I'd do that,'' he said of the hand-carved and painted folk art bed. ''Can you imagine what this will bring in Texas?''

At other times I have abandoned caution and joined bidding on pure impulse. I have made split-second decisions and won - sometimes because the house was empty , the gallery unresponsive, or a piece I had wanted was going for an unreasonably low price.

There is really no rule of thumb. If you are in the right place, anything can happen. Even if you're not a buyer, don't miss this English auction scene. As Anthony Browne says, ''It's the best free show going.''

Practical information

Christie, Manson & Woods Ltd.

8 King Street

St. James, London SW1Y6QT

(01-839-9060)

Christie's South Kensington

(Fast Sales Department)

85 Old Brompton Road

London SW3JS

(01-581-2231)

Christie, Manson & Woods Ltd.

502 Park Avenue

New York, N.Y. 10022

(212-546-1000)

Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc.

34-35 New Bond Street

London, W1A2AA

(01-493-8080)

Sotheby's

(Fast Sales Department)

26 Conduit Street

London, W1A2AA

(01-493-8080)

Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc.

1334 York Avenue at 72nd Street

New York, N.Y. 10021

(212-472-3503)

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