BUYING AT AUCTION: A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK
Last month I wrote an article about buying unseen group lots at auction over the internet, and how by 'giving it a go' and taking a risk, you can end up with some wonderful surprises. You cannot win every gamble but from experience, if you use good judgement, you will almost certainly come away with some great bargains.
This article is along the same lines, but instead concerns the 'true' unseen so to speak; items which are hidden from the naked eye within an auction lot. Now this may seem convoluted or sound like a riddle, but this is definitely a real thing and has happened to me a few times over my years of buying at auction. Again, I will use a recent example (which happens to be yesterday):
Yesterday I went down to my local auctionhouse with the sole intention of bidding on a lovely piece I spotted in a group lot of pictures on the weekend. Before I tell you about the lot, a little about Raffan Kelaher & Thomas (RKTA or affectionally known as Raffs), one of my regular and favourite auction houses based in Leichhardt. RKTA is one of the few remaining 'old school' auction houses, that has access to the highest number of deceased estates in Sydney. They specialise in a wide range of goods including furniture, homewares, jewellery, Asian decorative arts, rustic and do-up furniture, electronics, tools and bric-a-brac. They have been in business since the mid 1970s and most of the staff have been working there for many many years, and most their client base are extremely loyal. One of the current owners, Phillip Thomas, is a very traditional auctioneer who has been in the auction game for almost 50 years. He is also a lovely man, but I recommend if Phillip gives you a 'Hello, how are you?' as you enter, you should definitely politely respond to be in his good books! The old ragged guys on the floor are juxtaposed with the young, enthusiastic ladies in the office. They are sweethearts who are so kind and full of knowledge, and are always willing to assist with any questions. I have been going to RKTA since I was a kid. My mother, an antique dealer, used to drag me through, sausage sandwich in hand, to view pieces of one hundred year old oak furniture. At the time, I couldn't wait to get out, but almost 20 years later, I can't wait for every Saturday morning to view the coming weeks' items, and attend most Monday and/or Tuesday morning for the auctions when possible, or leave absentee bids..
RTKA is also one of the last auction houses in Australia where much of the focus is predominantly on the physical auction as opposed to an online auction, which is the norm today. You will almost always come across a 'sleeper' or some little gem that goes unnoticed, and I guarantee you will always go home a winner with Raffs. There are very few operating auction houses in Australia that offer such an experience. Not to say they don't have an online presence, in fact they have a wonderful new website and a plethora of fantastic department and collection-specific auctions online, including retro & mid century modern design, jewellery, fine art, etc. which all attract a big in-room audience. In a world that is moving into an increasingly online medium, RTKA prides itself on the in-room auction experience, attracting large crowds on auction days for customers engaging in all-out war like days of old. It is a truly scary, addictive, worthwhile and humbling experience to bid against someone in a physical auction, where you will come away with either a win or a loss. It's an emotional rollercoaster. The auctioneers at Raffs are savy, funny and charismatic, so even if you don't win, you will come away with an experience and feeling akin to any sporting event!
But I digress. So I was interested in bidding on a wonderful gouache illustration which was part of a group of pictures in the bric-a-brac section. It is a lovely picture of an Island fisherman with a beautiful kaleidoscope of butterflies (bet you didn't know that's the technical term!). I had an inkling who the artist could be, a very successful Australian commercial artist, working in the 1930s, but i needed to observe beneath the frame to confirm. It seems to be the only item worthwhile in the group. On inspection, the frames of all the pictures in this lot have broken glass. Estate items are usually thrown around with little care by removalists looking for a quick buck, and damaged goods are common in this industry. But it is very important when approaching a lot where there are damaged frames, broken glass, or the picture may not be in the greatest condition, the items are retrievable in most cases. You can always replace, restore or modify a frame, or take a picture to a qualified restorer. Anyway, after a tough bidding war, I have the winning bid, and quickly retrieve my prized illustration and retreat to remove the broken glass so as to not damage the picture. If broken glass remains in a frame (still intact), any sudden movement will cause a paper-cut like scratch across your image, so i recommend removing broken glass as soon as possible.
The illustration with broken glass
So i I take the picture home and begin to remove it from it's horrible retro frame. There have been some horrors in the framing industry, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s (known as the 'dark ages' of framing) where many irreplaceable works were destroyed or damaged by unskilled, untrained framers of the period. Very few items look good in a retro frame, but I will address that at another time. I am lucky, because after years of collecting artworks, I also collect stray, interesting, empty frames. Old frames (pre-1960) were almost always hand-made and many still have their original, valuable, hand-blown glass. However, as a result of hoarding so many frames, my storage has been relegated to cellar of my parents house...
"A cellar full of frames"
After rummaging through the cellar, I found the perfect 1930s period oak frame, with gilt trim and it's original wooden mount, which is incredibly rare. It is the perfect size, style and period for my illustration. I dismantle this awful, plain retro frame when i notice the backboard, which is now loose. It is covered in old labels on verso in English and French about an artist named J.S. Hallam. I flip the backboard over and notice that there is a gorgeous, pristine original, hand-embellished screenprint of four loggers in a forest, most likely not Australian. With a little research online, it turns out the artist, Joseph Sydney Hallam, was a well known, highly regarded Canadian Modernist. He was one of Canada's most important painters and printers of the early-mid 20th century. This particular limited edition screenprint (highlighted with pure oils) was produced in 1950 by Sampson-Matthews Limited, Toronto, for the 'Pulp & Paper Industry of Canada' from his painting 'Log Driving' (1947). So obscure was it to appear in Australia, that it had been relegated to a back-board hidden behind my illustration. As such it had avoided direct sunlight and maintained the quality and integrity as if it had been printed yesterday. As a rare screenprint from an esteemed, deceased Canadian artist, with great provenance ("The Canadian Government, Trade Commissioner, City Mutual Building, Sydney, Australia") it is a great investment!
Joseph Sydney Hallam (1898-1953) - "Log Driving" (1947)
So the moral of this story; although you cannot predict if there will be a gem hidden within another work, or a needle in the haystack, you should ALWAYS check beneath the frame, because even if there's nothing there, there may be important information on the back as to the artist or provenance, which all adds to the value. This is just one example of yet another common circumstance that can happen buying secondhand at auction as opposed to buying new and mass produced from some generic store. It also highlights to importance of framing and maintaining the integrity of a piece with a suitable frame that does not detract from the piece. Happy buying, and check out Raffan Kelaher & Thomas!! Viewing Sat from 9am, and auctions Mon & Tues from 9am weekly!! L.
BEFORE REFRAMING AFTER REFRAMING