Scratching up sales: when the art is not for sale | Oliver Wainwright

Here is something to consider the next time you’re considering snapping up one of the works you come across in a gallery or auction house: they may not even be for sale. In the most extreme cases, you may be inadvertently bidding on something that someone else owns, then has already paid for it with that little blue book that helps an auctioneer get an indication of the highest-priced lots.

It happens all the time – in galleries, at auctions, even at shows. For me, the worst offender is the Basel Art Fair. I’ve regularly met people whose art has been stolen from their home (one was wounded in a drug deal gone wrong, as I understand it) and who are represented at the fair. I’ve told them repeatedly that they shouldn’t participate, but they don’t seem to listen – or, more likely, they think the fair is putting them in a good position to get that work back for a small fee. At auctions, something similar happens, although it’s usually to the benefit of the legitimate art owners whose works are listed, not as well known collectors.

Not sure if an artwork you’re considering buying is for sale? It could be one of your objects in the curatorial stock of Christie’s or Sotheby’s, for instance.

Some dealers are quick to point out that the way auction house buyers are brought into an auction is a long process, including pitching for the piece, making sure it’s what they want and that the winner agrees to a sale. But at Christie’s, a number of high-end works are placed at the first house that books them (it won’t say when exactly it did so) and so go on sale at the same time as some other recent acquisitions. A number of the lots don’t even have prices listed in the catalogue, suggesting a buying strategy for the ultimate buyer.

Items are also sent to auction houses, including Sotheby’s and Bonhams, in bulk quantities for example, with papers and documentation that the director and the experts can put together and look at. Some pieces are then picked up by the client directly, and others can be purchased with their paper work, signature and payment receipt – i.e. the auction house payment.

Christie’s might just pretend that these were some big-budget projects, like in a film. Bonhams, which publishes a major catalogue for important works, would consider them a collective collection. But if you buy something listed in that catalogue, you don’t even know if it’s for sale until the sale is over.

Would it be better to buy a work of art without any paperwork? Yes, but I also think the size of the catalogue and the high-level people who have the necessary skills to investigate these things far outstrips the knowledge of most private collectors. Some will question whether it’s a security risk, but almost all auction houses have some form of frauds staff, and most dealers have a team of not-for-profit specialists (such as Diversified & Secure). Of course, if you know someone who does not want to do the necessary research or have the cash for a four-figure object, it’s still much better to buy directly. But do it properly.

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