Mirror, mirror, on the floor

August 25 2015

Image of Mirror, mirror, on the floor

Picture: BG

It's interesting to see how the internet continues to change the art market. Today I went to a provincial auction house up here in Scotland, hoping to buy myself a wee 'sleeper' (that is, a picture which had been miscatalogued). The saleroom was well off the beaten bath, and I thought I was in with a chance of securing a picture worth (if my hunch on the attribution turned out to be right) about £25,000 for not far off the estimate of £100-£200. Surely, not many people would be looking at a general antique sale in the Scottish highlands?

Alas. I knew something was up when, yesterday, I heard that no telephone lines available for the lot. All seven had already been booked. The auction room was not exactly bursting when the lot came up this afternoon, and as far as I could tell I was the only bidder actually in the room. But after a battle between phone and internet bidders the hammer came down at £12,000, which, with premium and Vat meant a final cost somewhere in the region of £15,000 for the anonymous internet buyer.

So here was a painting which, probably five or ten years ago, before internet auction sites became the efficient and comprehensive things they are today, might well have been bought for a few hundred pounds. Now, even the smallest provincial sale can reach millions of prospective bidders. And such is the demand for 'sleepers' from dealers - that is, pictures for which client won't easily be able to look up the cost price online - that miscatalogued paintings can make more at minor auctions than they would do fully catalogued at a major auction. 

But - there's a catch to buying on the basis of internet photos, and that is condition. These days, as equal to the skill of being able to determine an attribution from photos is determining a painting's condition from photos. In this case, the photos seemed to suggest the picture, by the French artist Philip Mercier, was in pretty good state.* It was a little dirty, but the head and body seemed reasonably intact. 

However, unnoticeable on the photographs was a large hole about 6 inches square to the right of the sitter's head, in an area that was otherwise dark and obscure. It seemed to me, after close examination, that we were dealing here with a picture that had been given a sizeable canvas insert, over which large swathes of overpaint had been added. It's possible that the overpaint was just covering a series of rips. But there was an ominous difference in the texture of the canvas surface, and as a result I dropped out at about £4,000. In other words, there's still an advantage to be had in visiting salerooms, and not just relying on photographs.

Anyway, also in the auction was the above mirror, which caught my eye. Described as 19th Century, I thought it was more likely to be 18thC, both in design and pattina - though I know diddly squat in this area. So I bought it, and am rather pleased with my consolation prize. I dont like coming away from an auction empty handed. It's large, about 5ft high, and I think is probably too heavy to hang safely on my walls. According to an old label on the back it might once have been in the Ipswich area. The glass is modern.

If any furniture expert readers happen to know more about it, I'd be delighted to hear from you...

*Forgive me for not posting a photograph of the painting here. I don't want to spoil the buyer's chances with the painting.

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