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What the Auction Houses Reject

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The story of auction houses is usually what they sell and for how much. As large a concern as bringing in things that will do well at a sale, however, is turning away consignments that look like sure losers.

"Basically, we're in the business of rejection," said Gene Shannon, president of Shannon's auction house in Greenwich, Connecticut, which turned away "3,000 objects or more" from its upcoming April 29th sale of 269 American and European paintings and sculpture. He gets emails, letters ("stuffed with photographs of unsigned paintings"), Faxes and phone calls from people wanting to sell things, and to most of them he will send "personalized" form letters. "One of the letters says 'thank you, but the work isn't of high enough value.' Another says, 'thank you, but it doesn't fit into our marketing plan.' Sometimes, we'll recommend another auction house that might be more appropriate."

Shannon's is not alone in this situation. "We don't count the number of things we turn away. They are innumerable," said Nick Lowry, president of Swann Auction Galleries in New York, said. "I have to tell people all the time that something they cherish might be a keepsake or have sentimental value for them, but the open market wouldn't place any real value on it." Sometimes, an auction house examines an object brought for sale, assigning it an estimate much lower than the consignor wanted, leading that person to withdraw the artwork - in that case, it is perhaps the consignor doing the rejecting. "It doesn't help anyone if an artwork doesn't sell," Chicago-based auctioneer Leslie Hindman said. "The consignor isn't happy, and that person will tell three friends that we didn't do a good job. There's a lot of drek on the market, and people aren't realistic about what things are actually worth."
At the London-based Bonhams, among the reasons that "only one out of three gets accepted" for the auctioneer's modern and contemporary sales are that the artwork in question is a fake (that requires some expertise) or a poster reproduction (that requires a magnifying glass to view the printer's dot matrix). Or, perhaps, there is some value but not enough to make it worth the auction house's time and effort. "It could be that the quality isn't high enough for our clients, or that the piece wouldn't be priced high enough for a particular sale," a spokesperson for Christie's said, adding that prospective consignors may be directed to private dealers or to smaller, regional auctioneers ("or eBay," Lowry stated), and sometimes the object may be placed in one of the lower-priced events that Christie's (monthly "interior sales"), Sotheby's ("midseason sales"), Leslie Hindman ("marketplace" auctions) and Swann ("shelf" and "discovery" sales) conduct.