Auction Talk: The Consignment

I suppose this is a bit of a fluffy issue really because it’s based on my somewhat limited experience working in an auction house and doesn’t go into intense detail… It’s like an intro! Just think of it as an intro. It’s not specific to photographs and the process of consigning is, I think, more or less similar throughout with the exception of possibly department specialist-specific practices.

What are we talking about?

Prior to any auction taking place, there must be works to sell. Duh. The largest auction house departments are generally Old Masters & Renaissance and Twentieth Century and Contemporary Art (TCA) also known as Post-War and Contemporary Art (could PWCA be a thing maybe? It sounds a bit like a woman police officer. Maybe not.) Photographs is a tinier department in most auction houses because it doesn’t have such a big market, for obvious reasons sort of until you think about contemporary art which makes me go, What.

There is such an aura (again, apologies to Walter Benjamin) around these departments partly because they generate the most revenue for the auction house. Regardless of the department, there will be invitations to consign works, which in plain English means that the specific auction house department is asking people if they have items from which they might possibly be persuaded to be parted. You can find the announcement on any auction house website in between sales. 

An example of what a consignment might look like. Obviously it can be any thing but I realised that I’d gone a long time without any pictures so this…

Departments may start inviting consignments not long after their previous sale, in order to maximise time available. Of course, what is also key here is that any department will be constantly on the hunt for works to sell. Rather than a timer that goes off and has to be reset, imagine the entire situation like a stopwatch that just keeps ticking over; department heads (known as ‘business-getters’, also not proper English, thank you very much) will always be thinking of the next sale and sourcing exciting works by courting potential new clients. This can become slightly macabre, and the three Ds spring to mind: divorce, debt and death.

Market research

Even before the work is consigned, the specialists will have conducted significant market research on the pieces proffered to establish their sell-ability. You don’t take an obscure photographer and expect to make millions off it. You do take a Newton or a Penn or a Mapplethorpe or an Avedon or a Beard or an Arbus and expect with reasonable certainty to sell it.

Art market databases will be plumbed: for variations on the images, similar dimensions, whether the edition is sold out, if the print is unique (usually a firm yes in the case of Peter Beard, for another time though) and generally how the photographer has been doing in the market. If it’s quiet for him or a lot of his work has gone unsold at very recent auctions it might be a thought to pass on it this time around. 

Of course, if you’re burdened with a Very Important Client (VIC) then you’ll take the lot, warts and all because the probability of selling several high value item for a solid net result outweighs the possibility of selling ten plus considerably lower value works.

Getting started

Once a work has been consigned (a fancy term for the legal transfer of ownership to the auction house for the purpose of selling) several things happen. The work will undergo a condition report upon receipt, or near enough to the time of receipt by the auction house. The cataloguer will look over the work and identify any marks or issues, which usually include damage to the artwork, such as:

  • a patch of paint which has been noticeably rubbed or scraped (a.k.a abrasion)
  • surface dirt or residue on the surface of the piece (a.k.a accretion)
  • a bubble on the surface coating, more relevant to painted surfaces (a.k.a blister)
  • lifting of the surface layer (a.k.a buckling)
  • deformation of the support so the piece looks wavy; more often than not applicable to works on paper (a.k.a cockling) 
  • cracks in the varnish or paint on the surface (a.k.a craquelure, and frequently seen in works by Julia Margaret Cameron)
  • indent in the surface of the piece (a.k.a dent)
  • … among others.

I’ve tried to combine terms that are commonly used in condition reports of plastic artworks and photographs/prints. Since both have a surface and use a support (material on which paint is applied or image is produced through development in the darkroom, for example), the issues can occur in either. 

Why you should have studied Latin…

It’s very important that any issues concerning the works are detailed by the cataloguer and printed in the catalogue so that potential buyers and all clients are aware. This is actually a good place to identify the ‘Buyer Beware’ paradigm of auction house biz. Caveat emptor, it’s the only Latin I know and I’m very proud of it. As the buyer, you have a responsibility to yourself not to be an idiot. Do your research, check out the artist whose work you are interested in buying, contact dealers or reputable galleries and establish whether or not it would be, for lack of a better turn of phrase, a good idea. 

Obviously, you’re buying art because you love it, not because you want it as an investment that’s got a solider return rate than gold or the stock market. Just sayin’… 

Why am I doing this?

The point of this stop in our collective scatty journey through the auction house biz is to show a little more of the pre-sale process. These installments are hardly what one could call bitesize but that’s only because I don’t know when to shut up. Also, I’ve had a lot of trouble dividing these issues into clear-cut sections because there happens to be rather a lot of overlap. And I’m sorry for the lack of photos in this one. But you’ve got eyes, you can read, this isn’t a children’s book. 

Anyway, after a work has been consigned, catalogued and put up on the board (little thumbnail images, I used to put them in ascending order of their lot number once that number had been assigned; prior to that it was their consignment number which was five digits long) that’s pretty much it until the sale or someone withdraws their work, the latter of which is relatively rare.

So next up I’ll talk also quite generally about auction related whatnot like catalogues. That’s it!