Sunday, February 28, 2010
About 30 years ago, before I ever knew anything about antiques, and even less than that, I had my first encounter with "Lalique."
I had just moved into my new apartment in Tel Aviv, and some friends brought a lovely bunch of flowers, and I realized that all I had to hold them in was a plastic lemonade pitcher. It was time to buy a vase.
So, off I went vase shopping. There's was a street nearby with many lovely shops that had really pretty things in their windows. Little did I know this was a street known for it's upscale antiques shops. Armed with my $100 (which I thought was more than a fair price to pay for a piece of glass that would serve as a receptacle for flowers), I started scanning the shop windows for something worthy of my money. It didn't take long before I spotted a really gorgeous vase ... I think it had leaves and fruits actually coming out of the glass. Amazing. I said to myself, I'd even spend the whole $100 on this one!
I walked in, and asked the shopkeeper about the pretty brownish colored vase (at the time, I didn't even know the color was called "amber"), he looked at me (a bit superciliously), and asked if I knew that it was a "Lalique." "That's fine," I said ... "how much is it?"
Without blinking an eye, he said: "$7,000."
I'm almost positive he saw the color drain from my face, and I'm sure he heard my gasp. As I fought to gain my composure, I simply nodded (mainly because I was still speechless), managed a small smile, and got the hell out of Dodge.
"Lalique," I kept repeating in my mind. Even sounds expensive. What was I thinking? Walking up the street, my eye caught another gorgeous vase in another shop window. This store was even fancier than the first, and I knew it was way out of my league (hell, I wasn't even in little league at this point), but, to satisfy my curiosity, I had to ask.
I bravely walked into the shop and pointed to the stunning piece of blue glass with the birds all over it, and asked "how much is that vase?" "$10,000," said the owner, who seemed to be looking right through me. But this time, I was prepared: "Not a bad price for Lalique," I said. And with that, did an about face, and proudly marched out of the shop.
I did, eventually, buy a very pretty (not Lalique) vase ... for $100.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
Several years ago, I attended a local auction in which a lovely little sketch was being offered for sale. It was obviously something very old - 17th or 18th century - and clearly by the hand of a master. It had only one "drawback" (no pun intended) ... it was framed in a modern oversized white metal frame with big white matting.
To the inexperienced eye, it looked like something new, and not worthy of the $35 starting bid. To me, it sang out "buy me, buy me!" Which is exactly what I did. For the starting bid. I rushed home, and could hardly contain my excitement as I "freed" my little lady from her modern aluminum "prison." What I held in my hands was an early red crayon sketch by who, at the time, I thought was Jean Antoine Watteau (not least because the name 'WATTEAU' was written in pencil on the back).
I was thrilled when I saw that it was indeed red crayon on vellum, and I had a local museum expert confirm that the materials were true to the period. After much research that led nowhere, I was able to contact the leading expert on Watteau, Mr. Pierre Rosenberg, once president-director of the Louvre, and co-author of the amazing catalogue of Watteau's drawings, who was kind enough to confirm that while it was an authentic 18th c. sketch, it was, in his opinion, not by Watteau, but possibly by Augustin de Saint-Aubin. Good enough! Especially for the "huge" investment I had in this little treasure.
The moral of the story? Never be fooled into thinking that a painting is not as old as you might have thought, just because it is housed in a contemporary frame. Or vice versa, if you're in the market for antique frames.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
... or how not to get taken for a ride by a glib auctioneer.
There's almost nothing scarier than buying at a live auction for the first time. Almost, I said. Because there is one thing even more intimidating. And that is entrusting an auction house with your valuable antiques.
I have some horror stories, and one in particular stands out in my mind. It was pretty early on in my antiques career, and among the items I put up for auction at a local auction house was a fantastic bronze basket that I was told was either 17th or 18th century, and very rare. I told the auctioneer how it should be described, and he diligently wrote down exactly what I told him. And I put a low reserve on it (he said it would go higher, but he insisted that it should start at an attractive price in order to get the bidding going ... and I agreed).
A week before the auction, I attended the viewing ... excited to be seeing my pieces in the catalog and on display. I was appalled and angry when I saw that he had mis-described my basket as "a 20th century decorative basket." And to add insult to injury, he listed the basket as one of the last items of the auction ... and displayed it only as an ancillary decoration to a table he was selling (and not in the showcase windows, where the better items were displayed). All the bells and alarms went off in my head, and I confronted him. Told him I wanted to remove the item from the sale. He said "no." Simply, "no."
You might be saying to yourself, "silly girl, why did you listen to him?" But, at the time, I was so intimidated by him, and afraid that I wouldn't be welcome at his auctions if I just physically picked up my basket and walked out with it. There was really nothing he could have done, but I didn't know that.
Well, can you guess where this is going? Of course, the basket sold for the ridiculously low reserve price ... only a single bid. And nobody will convince me that it wasn't the auctioneer himself who bought it and resold it at its true value ... which I, unfortunately, will never know for sure.
So, what have we learned from my mistake?
1. Never let an auctioneer get the better of you ... it's YOUR item, YOU call the shots.
2. If the item is placed at the END of the catalog (especially if it's not displayed prominently during the viewing), WITHDRAW IT!!!!
3. And this goes almost without saying: If the item is misdescribed in the catalog, WITHDRAW IT!!!!
4. And the most important lesson (for the upteenth time): ALWAYS GO WITH YOUR GUT FEELING!
Monday, February 1, 2010
My mother may not be Einstein, but she did have a few "gems" of advice that have served me well over the years. One that has worked for me across the board in my antiques hunting has been her simple directive: "Ask. The worst they can say is no."
That's how I managed to acquire one of my favorite pieces of jewelry. I simply walked into a run-of-the-mill modern jewelry shop and asked the proprietor if he had any "old" pieces for sale. He pulled out a little box of stuff he had bought off of people who came into the shop to trade in their old jewelry ... usually for the gold melting price, and sometimes as trade-ins for newer pieces. He showed me a few odds and ends, and I picked out a few choice items. One of them was this amazing 22K gold ring, set with small pieces of black diamonds and a little star ruby. To him, it was just another old ring. To me, it was something that made my mouth water and my palms sweat! I'd never seen anything quite like it. And I knew instantly that it was a real treasure.
According to the experts at Sotheby's in Geneva, it is Spanish Colonial - 15th or 16th century. Whether they are right or wrong, it doesn't really matter. I won't even say how much I paid for it. Suffice it to say, it was a real bargain. So, to elaborate on mom's advice: Don't be shy; inquire about "old jewelry" at a modern jewelry store. You never know what treasures are sitting around waiting to be melted, or waiting for someone to just "ask."