How to read an auction catalog and intelligently participate in auctions worldwide.

By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. The autumn auction catalogs have begun to pour in, a stunning library of things rare, notable, luxurious, just the kinds of things you know are necessary for the “look” that screams your name. You are — or want to be — a collector on an international scale… but you don’t know how to get started. You are seized with curiosity for what’s available but need a knowledgeable friend to show you the ropes. I am that friend, and it’s time to start your education.

I have selected Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” for today’s background music. Written in 1874, it is lush, grandiose, opulent in the Slavic style, just the kind of music that gets you in the mood for seeking the treasures which will enhance your life and present you to the world just as you like. Go now to any search engine and find the rendition of your choice; make sure to include the celebrated “Kiev Gate” portion. Then come along with me as I open a spectacular world to you… by giving you the practical details you need to participate.

A word about your guide… me!

For the last twenty years and more, I have been an active, even obsessive, participant in the auctions presented by the greatest auction houses in the world… Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York, Rome, Paris, London, Amsterdam… Bukowskis in Stockholm… the Dorotheum in Vienna. Each sale always had a catalog… and I have learned what only other collectors, connoisseurs, museum officials etc. know: how to read an auction catalog and know the essential, hitherto unpublished facts, the facts which crack the code on participating successfully in these auctions. For you see, what the cognoscenti know they are not anxious to share with you. They want to hoard this information and keep it from you; the better to gather the treasures of the earth unto themselves and themselves alone… without being bothered by… you! That changes today…

The pivotal fall sales of the world’s great auction houses are now underway; nearly daily from now until the great pre-Christmas December sales take place, the eye-popping, mouth-watering catalogs arrive to titillate, frustrate, unsettle… for that is what these and all auction catalogs are so artfully designed to do… they aim to plant the seed of desire in your mind and so haunt you night and day. I know that siren song too well; it has insinuated itself into my brain often and expensively over and over again. And if you have an insistent eye for beauty and a need to acquire, it will insinuate itself into yours, too.

First, start today.

Success in auctions is based on these key factors:

1) the development of an “eye”

2) doing the necessary homework for each item of your interest

3) finding and listening to your experts

4) setting and living within a realistic budget.

Let’s look at these points one at a time:

1) Developing your “eye”.

Great collectors, sage and savvy collectors, are people who can see within even the most battered and mistreated object not just what it is now… but what it once was and with tender loving care can be again. This skill is pivotal and can only be developed by constant and detailed artifact review. ALL collectors know the value of doing their homework. The development of the Internet has made this easy, for the information you need is as near as your computer.

Gathering this information long precedes acquiring objects or having the necessary funds to do so. Thus, start visiting the websites of the auction houses mentioned above. ALL now post their catalogs online available for your scrutiny 24 hours a day, a benefit your parents and grandparents could only have imagined. With these e-resources you are able to be better informed than any previous generation of collectors. Use this advantage to develop the all-important eye.

The “eye” that it takes a lifetime to acquire through constant viewing, reviewing, and careful judgements is not something you can rush. Its development is predicated on constant catalog review, reading what experts have to say, attending museum lectures and events… assiduously working on seeing, perceiving, looking beyond the surface into the soul and meaning of each object. This is a lifetime’s occupation and should be undertaken as early as possible. People who do not do this are and always will be at the mercy of the market and will never develop a collection of merit that showcases your impressive knowledge and success on the never-ending hunt.

2) Doing the necessary homework.

Many wealthy people buy art and artifacts by the yard, advised by decorators who may know something about arrangement but who almost universally lack the essential knowledge of history, provenance, and underlying value and significance possessed by real collectors.

Like it or not (and you’d better like it) all true collectors understand the need for intense analysis of any item in which they’re interested. This information comes first by studying the catalog; then requesting a “condition report” from the auction house. This reports consists of what the auction house knows about the object in question. It will be honest but it may well raise more questions than it answers. If so, check the catalog to get the name of the auction house’s designated authority on this object. Either email or call. You will find these experts personable, candid, anxious to be helpful. Just remember at all times: they want to sell this object, and so condition reports must always been read with a grain of salt.

3) Finding and listening to your experts.

Because auction house experts all work to sell, you need your own experts, people who have no other thought than honestly advising — you. Where do you find such people? Auction house experts can help, by making referrals. They will know everyone who is anyone in the field. You will need their expertise. Take full advantage of it. As I can attest these folks, zealous in your service, can spare you the pain of expensive, embarrassing mistakes. Listen carefully too what they tell you, especially once you know they have that all-important eye.

4) Setting and living within a realistic budget. Have you begun to master the key points above? Good! Now it’s time to gather the funds you need to participate. Begin at once.

Depending on your particular area of interest, you may be able to start for as low as a few hundred dollars. Start small, start careful, go slow, as you come to know the vicissitudes of auctions. Remember, these great auction houses have existed for hundreds of years. Move forward with due deliberation. But don’t let deliberation become procrastination. Care is needed but so is the ability to take action as necessary, while always setting and living within your inviolable budget.

Last Words.

You are now ready to begin one of the most important and exciting journeys of your life… as you commence your walk down the red carpet towards the most beautiful, valuable, and important objects on earth. One last thing: don’t expert those who don’t appreciate such things to appreciate you and your sublime and never-ending search. Don’t let their uninformed remarks and blindness infuriate or irritate. By following these steps you will leave such people in the dust while embracing all the connoisseurs, experts, and knowledgeable friends who henceforth enrich your life. Be sure to include me amidst their number… and let me know how with this candid advice you get on with your passion.

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I have been marketing online for 30 years helping people do it right with education, and list building tools and procedures.