Issue #10  2/5/2000
London Sales Skewed By One Phone Bidder Again

London is at it again.  Two more recent photographic-related auction sales have seen a lone phone bidder distort results and send prices to dizzying levels that bear no relationship to market values for the items.

After the Jammes sale and the impact of L080 buying three-quarters of the sale by pounds sterling value, some of us in the industry questioned the long-term effects of a dominant player/s on the auction market.  Years ago, the Getty Museum determined it would not use its immense funding to distort auction markets--a wise move in my view.

Apparently there are wealthy individuals or organizations that don't share the Getty's philosophy.  In November, I heard from a number of disgruntled attendees of Christie's London sale of Magic Lanterns, which was largely bought out by one phone bidder.  I thought it was something in the water. But the silliness persists.

In the Christie's South Kensington sale of Photographica on January 27th, which included lower level images as well as equipment, items sold for astounding prices, in some cases 100 times estimates. 

In one case, a lot of three daguerreotypes (Lot 16), which had no estimate--usually a sign that the house expected the item to fetch under £200, brought £54,300 or nearly $90,000! 

I talked to English dealer Pierre Spake, who, while stunned by the prices, told me that he knew who the underbidder was on this lot and that they were just as capable of buying the lot.  "It was just a question of two people with money meeting at the right time with a genuine interest to buy, even if there was no intrinsic value," says Spake. 

Frankly, the lot wouldn't bring a thousand dollars in the real world and it wasn't the only aberration.  How about £62,000 or over $101,000 for a group of roughly 1500 cdvs that was estimated at £600-800 and was expected to realistically bring about £1500 before the sale?  Or £40,000 for 101 albumen prints of Middle Eastern and European albumen prints, also estimated at £600-800?  That latter lot seemed to be driven up by an English underbidder in pure frustration over the sale. And the equipment side of the sale was equally skewed.  The top lot was a 19th century lens that went for a world record price of £6900 or over $11,000.  It was the kind of lens that I use to be able to buy for about $150 about 15 years ago, and today might bring about $1000-2000 but move very slowly.  True, the estimate was closer to the price at £2500-3000, but most felt before the sale that the house estimate was "aggressive".

As Spake told me, "It became bloody annoying.  If you would have normally bid £2000 on an item, you wound up taking it to £2500, or higher."  A lot higher for some bidders.

London dealer Beryl Vosburgh also emailed me that the same thing happened at the earlier November Magic Lantern sale: "After a while when the rhythm had been established, people began to bid way beyond reason in the certainty that the Telephone would top whatever was being ventured."

Vosburgh, who has a shop in London, says she can't blame bidders, who she feels were being used cynically to establish a price.  As she puts it with a sense of humor: "One bid above a collector or dealer must be a bargain, right?"

Before the sale it was expected to realize about 100,000 pounds sterling, instead it brought in 246,106 pounds, with many items going for 10 times estimates, most (about 85% by one observer's notes) bought by one anonymous bidder.  Tongue-in-cheek, Vosburgh says she suggested those nearest to the phone banks "cut the wires, but they didn't."

Christie's camera specialist Michael Pritchard warns bidders: "Irrespective of the situation, bidders should intend to purchase the items they bid on and they should be fully prepared to pay for them."  He notes that the mysterious bidder in the Magic Lantern sale did not buy all the items that were pushed up, leaving people in the room and other phone bidders to pay for their inflated bids.

Pritchard wouldn't confirm that the anonymous bidder was the same in both sales, but I got the impression they were none-the-less.  And he used the pronoun "he" when referring to the anonymous bidder in both auctions.  He also states he has "no idea whether the individual is prepared to bid again or has satisfied his needs."

Pritchard points to a sale in 1991 when two dominant bidders had a more permanent impact on the spy camera marketplace.  He also notes that the sales totals (£248,565 or $406,000 in the morning image-related session and £245,082 or $401,000 in the afternoon equipment-related session) weren't very much in the context of what's happening in other markets, like fine or contemporary art, although he does say, "It seemed a lot in the context of a collectible sale."  Pritchard also notes "cameras and optical equipment are very strong at the moment."  And, as Pritchard points out, "Interest translates into a strong market, and strong prices and interest at auction effects the whole market, whatever it might be--Le Grays or Underwood stereo cards."

Pritchard says he has a "flood of consignments", but will not change his estimates--at least just yet. Whether or not the anonymous bidder is active again, Pritchard does expect strong bids because of the caliber of the material.

All the anonymous phone bidders get another two shots at Christie's South Kensington in May when there is a Photographs sale (May 5) and another Magic Lantern Sale (May 12).