An Auction Up Close
By Bruce McKinney
On December 3rd, at 10:30 am or a bit after at Bloomsbury's New York second floor gallery on 48th Street, Stephen Massey opens the bidding on the first of 81 lots in the de Orbe Novo Collection of material relating to the new world. The responsibility for calling the sale is to be divided between Mr. Massey and Peter Costanzo. Stephen will call the first 51 lots and Peter the final 30.
As consignor I am four floors up, in Bloomsbury's back offices, sitting at a computer watching on Live Auctioneers; the single camera channeling the sale - focused on the auctioneer. There is no sense of who or how many are in the auction room. On my way up to the 6th floor I pressed the second floor stop. The doors opened and I saw that bidders were forced to stand well away from auction area, a good sign suggesting the main room is full. I step out, think better of it, step back in and proceed to the 6th floor. Like a true believer in the burned out region of upstate New York in the 1840s, as they climbed trees, I climb stairs, we both to get closer to God, always a good place to be when your material goes to auction and your reserves are low.
At a sale everyone is invited except the consignor whose presence may be a wet blanket. Once upstairs, the Bloomsbury staff, turns on a terminal set to carry the action to the most affected, the consignor. I'm told the portents are encouraging, the room full, the buzz positive. As I haven't been in this position before I can only take it in. I have nothing to compare. In any event, the process will be surgical and brief. Stephen Massey steps to the podium, announces the sale and reads several announcements. It's 10:40 am.
I long ago decided on low reserves and chose "let the market decide" as the sale theme. I'm comfortable with numbers: probabilities the way I see the world. Over the past year, as principal strategist for AE, I've seen a clear pattern in the decline in auction realizations in the works on paper field. Dollar denominated sales fell hard last fall - roughly 40% year over year while non-dollar sales held up through the spring. Into summer the American sales stabilized while Europan sales collapsed. In August dollar denominated sales began to rebound but most consignors held back looking for further confirmation. At that moment I committed this sale for the late fall.
As Stephen Massey warms up the crowd I have a few microseconds to reconsider the key decision - to set low reserves. Auctions these days tend to fall into two categories according to their reserves: high or low. I prefer to bid at auctions with low reserves and tend to shun those with high reserves unless a particular reserve is mistakenly low. Years ago I decided I would not use high reserves if ever I sent material into the rooms. It cost me nothing to believe that then. Today that idea is a zero coupon bond with a mystery payout now coming due. I'll get to pay a price if I'm wrong.