Low estimates made by auction houses, like those fresh in mind from the pinner sale courtesy of dunderhead detlef maltzahn, are in nobody's best interests. While they, like a cup of strong coffee, might get cha going on the short side - over the long haul they are surely not nearly as effective and, in many instances, that instant rush only comes back to kick yer butt.
This ploy, making silly low estimates on items surely destined for much higher realized prices, is nothing more than a come-on to entice bidder interest. But the end goal is not stimulating bogus interest on the part of cheapy bidders, it’s getting strong bids from real buyers that are commensurate with the item’s real value. Sometimes it works but more often it doesn’t. While vastly under-estimated pieces always surpass the low pre-sale estimates, often ending up selling for more, just as frequently lots can't shake those estimates and end up selling for much less than their actual values should be. Witness the many give-aways at the pinner sale.
Granted there were a host of other problems to hamper results there - too many lots on offer for the market to absorb, the attempts by little lord franses to sell the collection en masse and the out-the-back door in Twickenham selling pinner engaged in, and is continuing to do, to name a few - but the low estimates didn't help. Why? because many buyers are not experienced or knowledgeable enough to know the difference. Face facts folks these buyers, who are the majority of paddle wavers at all types of sales, not only rug ones, ARE influenced by auction estimates and set their sights and goals based on them.
If this were not the case, the ploy of using stupidly low estimates to interest them would never have become one of the best weapons in the auctioneer arsenal of little white lies and circus worthy trick ponies in the first place.
In pinner's case, his allowing the boswell's to publish silly low estimates for many of his pieces combined with the aforementioned extensive pre-selling and, more significantly, under-estimating the market's ability to fund the purchasing of such a large number of Turkmen weavings, assured the failure to shake them and this should surprise no one.
There is another explanation for silly low estimates - ignorance on the cataloguer’s part. However, even though the two stooge act maltzahn and sienknecht played out in cataloguing the collection might have been less than satisfactory, at least in RK’s opinion, this was not the reason for their low estimates, nor the reason for the failure to do anything for pinner other than stimulate bids "flying thick and fast from all corners of the room". This characterization, quoted from the hali website, fails to mention these were all low bids and often these bottom-feeding bids were successful and won the lots, much to pinner's chagrin as anyone who knows enough could well imagine.
However, low estimates don't always fail like maltzahn’s did and skinner, Boston's "own" auction house, is often the home of the successful “estimate it low and watch it rise” scenario. There it’s often cataloguing ignorance and error, and not game playing ala the boswells, that are the causes of the silly under-estimating seen in their catalogs. Perhaps we should qualify this statement about skinners and apply it only to the Oriental Rug and American Indian departments, as these two sales areas have been well researched for this problem by RK.com.
In their last rug sale, which took place on May 8th 2004 and was not previewed or reviewed by RK.com for the simple reason there was not one lot of major importance to review, one lot, number 20, exemplified this situation. Here is the photo:
Described by skinner’s new ‘expert’, now that jo kris has finally thrown in the towel on her obviously mistaken career choice, as: “Yomud Chuval, West Turkestan, last quarter 19th century, (slight moth damage, small repairs), 4 ft. x 2 ft. 10 in.”. It carried a $300-500 estimate.
Both the dating, this piece was more circa 1850 or perhaps a shade earlier than the collector stop sign “late 19th”, and the estimate, $600-900 or even $800-$1200 would have been more like it, were clearly out of whack. But as whacko as they were, the result of $5875.00(including the 17.5% buyers premium) was, unbelievably, even more goofy. This was a quite nice and sparkling chuval but that said it really had little else going for it. The color and texture were great for a middle period 19th century Yomud chuval(there was a corrosive green RK would have liked to subject to some testing – it was apparently non-synthetic). The 9 gol format nothing out of the ordinary aside from the not unique but still less than everyday minor gol variation, and there were no fancy structural techniques or rare materials. The condition was eminently presentable but surely not “mint”. In fact, it was nothing worth more than $1500.00 retail and yours truly liked it up to $700.00 and then stopped bidding (it was the only lot I bid on and after it sold I left the sale). From there several other bidders went at it until around the 1500$ point when a floor food-fight erupted between two well-known professional rug hunters.
Although one of them, the under bidder, claims to not have known who he was bidding against, this is something RK.com seriously doubts considering our direct past experience with this lobster-killer’s track record of truth-saying.
Needless to say, it was but just another example of the petty emotional and irrational behavior auctions engender – the “don’t let him have it” syndrome. Suffice it to say there are a number of others but this is the one dopey rug dealers so often foolishly engage in.
I spoke to the “winner” of lot 20 several days later and his comment, probably spoken in jest but with some hint of reality, “Well, how much can I lose – only 5,800?” had a somewhat uneasy delivery that deflated the apparent jocularity he hoped it would cover.
RK.com knows them both well enough to positively state neither would be a buyer for this chuval at even $1500.00, let alone $5,800, had the “don’t let him have it” psychosis not been in play at an auction like skinner’s saleroom.
This is one of the major problems with rugs at auction vs. rugs sold hand to hand. And while it benefits some consignors and allows auctioneers to sluff-off what would be considered a dumb error anywhere else in the business world- i.e. an estimate that gets trumped by a factor of more than ten times - and turn it into a spin doctored success: “Look how much we sold it for (like they had anything to do with it)” in the end its just more of the same mis- and dis-information and performance in rugdom.
I have no doubt most of the time this happens at skinner because their cataloguers don’t “know” enough to make correct estimates in the first place but since the level of merchandise they peddle in rug sales is so down market and mediocre the erroneous estimates matter not. However, at the boswells, maltzahn and co can’t so easily be let off the hook by the explanation: We just didn’t know.
At the Tribal Sale skinner’s put up this weekend there was a rare textile, known as a Mapuche poncho, lot number 605, which was drastically under-estimated. Here is the photo:
Estimated at $600-$800 it made $7,931.00 including premium. At the last Tribal sale, skinners had another of these Mapuche ponchos that sold for around $4,000 and while it wasn’t as unusual a specimen as lot 20, something only a expert in these weavings would know, it was close enough for anyone with an IQ of more than 90 to recognize was easily as valuable. Does being hired by skinners to be an expert in either the Oriental Rug or Tribal departments hinge on having one’s having only slightly more than a functioning illiterate’s mental capacity? Or maybe a high disingenuous estimate writing skill?
Needless to say abysmally low estimates, written either through ignorance or in the hope of using it as a come-on, are something auctioneers should be called on.
Rk.com believes until the rug world matures enough to see how this practice, as well as a number of others RK has highlighted and liken to shooting one’s self in the foot, needs to be abandoned will real and genuine strides be made to get new collectors seriously interested in buying and supporting this art area.