Vintage view: fun auctions

An example of a fun auction — part of a prized art collection assembled by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge over half a century on February 25, 2009 at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Kya deLongchamps describes the highs and lows of the only game in town — the auction.

There’s a firm period drama about any antique auction that stirs those fine hairs at the nape of the neck. The eclectic mixture of lots with their accrued history, evicted from decades of intimate domestic service, waiting hushed in the dusty half light of a community hall.

The oily sideways glances and strangled whispers juicing the air; the more generous bottomed, forced to slide shoulder-fore through the narrow canyons of brown furniture, exchanging incoherent mumbles of apology as tables studded with valuable smalls, wobble uncertainly.

If you develop a taste for auction floor anthropology, watch the dealers making furtive cyclical expeditions across the room to the ‘sleepers’ they rarely look directly at, concealing their professional interest from the day-trippers like a heron stalking a bream.

Then comes the bidding. The rhythmical chant, careful pacing and fluctuating mood of the auctioneer is all his own. He or she is the all-seeing high priest enthroned by the podium, and they must keep their finger on the pulse of the room, generating enough excitement to grease the bidding upward for each and every lot.

The cast of frozen, monk-still characters heaped up on creaky seating lots, explosively reveal their hand- slashing and cleave the air with a rolled catalogue, vigorously massaging an earlobe or launching the whip-crack of a furry eyebrow to the auctioneer.

A box of mixed rubbish or a George Russell AE masterpiece — the spectacle remains raw and always interesting. Add a good doorstep sandwich in the local bar and a polystyrene cup of badly made scalding tea — now that’s a day out.

I had no idea that auctioneering was such a recent development. The Babylonians and Romans, would casually sell everything from beasts for the gladiatorial arena to unlucky women and child slaves in the market square. However, auctions of goods really only appear in the West in the 1600s as ‘candle sales’, the candle snuffed to signal a sale’s end after burning to an agreed point.

Christie’s, the oldest UK firm conducting the ascending-price auction we recognise today, was founded in 1766. Another venerable survivor Bonham’s, followed in 1793, and in their early years, sales were often conducted in the rude but handy surroundings of the local tavern, something akin to the hotel venues beloved of viewers here in Ireland. Auctions were, and still are, highly social occasions.

It makes perfect sense for a third commissioned party to stand between a seller and buyer. With household goods, livestock and land for example, the commercial formalities prevented generation-long feuds in cities and rural communities that might have resulted from an eyeball to eyeball haggle. Physically removing pieces to a neutral setting where an experienced firm can shake out interest locally and online, is a far less stressful and impersonal than vendors being forced into dealing with sometimes wily strangers. Legendary tales of supposed skullduggery by dummy bidders, and the work of ‘rings’ of dealers co-operating to take the sweetest pieces away for a private auction of their own, just adds spice to the horrible history of the auction floor.

The auction format has also endured because adding personal desire to the deal, in the heat of battle on the auction floor, anything is possible. People can and do act emotionally, and the rewards for the seller and auction house in a bidding war can be staggering.

Art and antiques are not made by the metre. Their value is in the final instance, what someone is willing and able to pay. As the late Cork dealer, Donnie Regan wryly observed after a potential buyer complained about the ticket price on a Georgian table, ‘it’s never too expensive — he just can’t afford it’.

The most lucrative auction of all time, with multiple buyers wandering blithely over the €$15m mark, was in March of 2013 in New York, where Christie’s Post War and Contemporary Art auction raised a mouth-watering $495m (just over €362m). No doorstep sandwiches or credit scores less than the eight digit variety were present and the top lot was a Jackson Pollock painting, bought by telephone by a zillionaire who was clearly busy doing something else.

To find out more about art and antique auctions in your area follow our antiques pages &every Saturday or go to


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