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Over the last decade or so a number of art-auction orientated search-engines have come on line producing what can be a very useful record of pictures sold at auction. There is no doubt that this kind of universal recording can be advantageous. All dealers, looking for ball-park figures to pay for goods or ball-park figures at which to sell goods, can feel somewhat re-assured if they can find out that X artist normally sells for X price. However, as this recording has become more and more universal, reaching down into ever more minor auctions it is now becoming a major problem for the stock-buying dealer.

It looks as if shortly it will be almost impossible for anyone to buy a painting at auction without that purchase being recorded for all the world to see. For a private purchaser there is obviously a problem of privacy. For the stock-buying dealer, the problem is much worse.

The result of a painting sold at auction is recorded under the artist’s name. If a dealer buys a painting, which is correctly identified as Bloggs, then looks to re-sell his Bloggs at a profit, any purchaser (and in my experience this now incorporates 100% of dealers and upwards of 70% of private buyers) can look up the name Bloggs in recent auction records and will in all probability be able to ascertain what price the selling dealer paid for the very picture he is re-offering for sale. To the logical and dispassionate mind, the dealer’s profit margin should be completely understandable. He has put his own money into it – maybe for more than a year or two. He may have enhanced the picture by cleaning and conserving it. He may have re-framed it, presenting it more favourably. He may have brought to light facts about the picture which make it more desirable. He will have a rent of a stand or a shop to pay, through which he is bringing the picture to public attention. Above all he has spent his working hours sourcing the picture, viewing it and buying it because he judged it to be in his view below market value. All this is understandable in theory and in theory a subsequent purchaser should be happy to pay a profit for all this expertise and work. However the stark fact is that the revealing of the dealer’s cost price makes most potential purchasers very, very uncomfortable. This is quite simply a standard human reaction. We all know in the back of our minds that when we walk into Tesco’s to buy a sandwich at lunchtime that the goods they are offering have cost them considerably less to manufacture than the price they are offering them to us on the shelves. We nevertheless buy their goods if we want them, if the price is affordable to us, and if we are not conscious that there is a nearby store offering very similar sandwiches at a much better price. But, if on the reverse of the £2.75 sandwich we purchased was a sticker saying “this sandwich cost us 11p to make”, we would similarly feel very considerably worse about buying the sandwich than we currently do.


With the exception of the main salerooms of the large central London auctioneers, it appears to me that all other salerooms depend on the trade to purchase at least 60% or more of their lots in each picture sale. It is my belief that most have no idea how adversely the recording of their results is affecting their trade buyers. Most salerooms in my experience have never consciously given their permission to Artnet or other similar companies to record their results. They just assume that because this is a public auction, they have a right to do so. It may well be – and I would welcome any more informed views on this – that it is a public matter (and may be recorded as such) that lot 3 made £4,200 on a specific date. But it is my belief that also to record and place in the public domain a photograph of that lot and the auctioneer’s catalogue description of that lot is not automatically a public matter. Further, I believe that the auctioneer has the copyright to the photograph – he has taken it and paid for it and has the owner’s permission to use it as an advertisement. I also believe that the auctioneer has the copyright to his own cataloguing. I do not therefore believe that art-price search engines have an automatic right to take the photographs and cataloguing of an auctioneer and publicize them forever on the internet.

It may be that there are one or two auctioneers who believe that their business is enhanced by the wide recording of their sales. If so, I would like to hear from them. It may be that they believe there is some useful publicity angle for them. But I cannot believe that any such advantage can outweigh the general disinclination to buy at auction that is starting to take a firm hold on a large percentage of the picture dealing trade. More and more these dealers are looking to source their goods elsewhere and unless the auctioneers can replace these dealers with private clients who do not need to resell, then their business must suffer. These auctioneers can take – and one or two most laudably have taken– the step of communicating their refusal to allow them to use their results. Dreweatt Neate of Newbury have made a point of forcibly asking these art-price indexes to remove their results from their records. John Nicholson in one of their sales ran a tag at the bottom of their adverts saying they “ have not given permission for Artnet to use their results”. These auction houses are to be greatly applauded. They should know that the less they allow themselves to be recorded, the more freely the dealers will buy in their sales. If others auctioneers follow suit, then this trade-killing situation into which everyone appears to have sleep-walked can, I believe, be reversed.


I urge that this is now the time to make immediate contact with any business who they know is collating and publicizing their results without their permission. These businesses are neither advancing the auctioneer’s business, nor the business of their main clients the dealers. The only businesses they are advantaging are their own. They should as a first step, just simply be told that they have not been given permission to do what they are doing.


I urge that each time they visit an auction house, they make contact with any member of the auctioneer’s staff and ask them if their results are recorded on the internet. If they are, then they should urge them to make contact with the internet recorders that are doing so, and they should leave the auctioneers in no doubt at all that blithely letting these results be publicized is making buying from their salerooms an extremely difficult proposition. That is a start…….

Editor's note: This article first published in 2012


About the Author

Nicholas Bagshawe

Nicholas Bagshawe

Nicholas Bagshawe has worked in the British art market since the 1970’s. Oxford educated, he trained initially with Sotheby’s before working for Pawsey & Payne, dealers in British art,...