When noted American antiques collector Marshall Field V of Chicago decided to sell his American Chippendale birch oxbow chest of drawers (circa 1770 to 1790), he considered some of the top auction houses in the country for the sale. He also called his trusted advisor, Bettine Carroll, formerly with some of the most prestigious art and antiques agents in New York and London, who had recently taken the position of director of business development at Neal Auction Co. in New Orleans.
Carroll persuaded Field to give the small antiques house on Magazine Street a chance to sell the piece. “She told me she knew that Neal could get a better price on this piece than New York, and I wanted to give her that chance,” he says. Carroll was determined to make this sale something that would make the auction world take notice.
Selling family heirlooms through an auction house is an art in itself, and there is much the seller should know before selecting the company. Local auction houses frequently receive inquiries about antique furniture and art from collectors, estate attorneys, decorators and antique stores that are liquidating their assets, so the savvy seller should do some homework before contacting the auction house.
Field, who is known throughout the world as a collector to reckon with, did exactly that. “I didn’t think a big auction house like Sotheby’s or Christie’s would blow the horn for this piece the way a smaller house would,” he says. “I wanted this antique chest to be a showpiece of the auction, and Ms. Carroll assured me it would be.”
Field knew the things that every seller should know: exactly what condition his chest of drawers was in; approximately what it was worth; and that in order for the chest to get a strong hammer price, the auction house would have to market it well.
Carroll and the staff at Neal placed Field’s piece prominently in the auction catalog and used it in national and regional print advertising and also on many Web sites, giving it instant international exposure. The auction house made sure that Field’s chest of drawers got strong promotion.
“A seller should know what his antiques are worth, so get an estimate, and be realistic,” recommends Carroll. She also urges the seller to take clear photos of each piece; record measurements; and examine the antiques closely for any damage, wear or restoration. If you can, bring the items in personally or have the auction house view the items on site.
If you don’t have old purchase records (and few people do), write down anything you can remember about the piece and its history, called provenance. Be honest about flaws, and don’t try to make any repairs yourself.
Ruthie Winston, director of business development for New Orleans Auction Galleries Inc., agrees that most people don’t know what they have or its true value and urges the seller to gather information. “The more information you can give an appraiser or auction house, the better chance you will have at selling the piece for a good price,” she says.
Once you have decided on an auction house, make sure you understand the conditions of the sale. Auction houses typically charge commissions, which can vary depending on the value of the property, so factor that in. They will also charge for any restoration the piece may need. Also, it is important to ask about transportation, insurance and storage fees, if any. All of these costs can significantly bring down the proceeds from your great-grandmother’s Mallard tester bed.
Winston says there also is an intangible reason for selling your antiques through a local auction company such as New Orleans Auction Galleries or Neal rather than a New York house. “A lot of selling is about personal relationships,” she says. “Local companies have frequent sales, so the seller can often do business in less time here in New Orleans than elsewhere.”
More important, New Orleans auction houses understand the market. “If you’re from New Orleans and you have traditional Southern antiques to sell, there’s a certain cache here that isn’t in New York,” she adds.
For Field, a small New Orleans auction house did well. His chest of drawers sold for a record price for a Chippendale example of its kind in birch, more than $38,000, and he couldn’t have been more pleased. “It paid off to do my homework and cast a wider net in selecting an auction company for my piece,” he says. “No auction house in the country could have done better.”