Breaking the rules

Pic03_IMG_9373.jpeg01Auction etiquette is a tricky thing: late entries, erroneous bids, and changed minds. Just go with it, says Diggory Hadoke.

Bonhams has a  sale on 31 July and the inventory was building nicely when I visited the department in mid-June. Specialist Patrick Hawes will be at the Game Fair as usual to promote the more interesting items featured. He has been joined in the sporting guns department by a new junior, George Champ. George grew up in Dorset and went to Sherborne School, then on to the University of the West of England. After university he briefly worked for a financial advisory firm, then joined Spink & Sons in the coin department before transferring to Bonhams. George’s predecessor Nick Harlow, now at rifle maker Anderson Wheeler, was a very able and knowledgeable understudy to Patrick. It is good to see another keen young addition to the business.

Gavin Gardiner will also be at the CLA Game Fair with promotional displays of guns selling in his Gleneagles auction, held this year on 2 September. He will be collecting lots and providing valuations in various Scottish locations throughout July.

Holt’s June sale featured some interesting guns and the viewing proved worthy of an extended visit, as usual. They always manage to uncover a real range of interest and this sale featured several odd hammer guns, notably a Jeffries patent sideopening 12-bore in excellent condition, a W&C Scott 12-bore with quadruple lumps, and a very clean Henry falling block rifle.

There was the usual complement of Holland ‘Royals’ and Purdey side-locks, and some decent boxlocks. All this kit was attracting strong bidding during the sale and indicated the soundness of holding cash in quality English game guns. Personal observation of numbers attending viewing and the sale itself suggest that the halcyon days before the credit crunch are no longer with us in the gun auction world, much as elsewhere. Footfall has certainly dropped. However, interest and bidding remain strong for quality kit.

Holt’s prices adjusted 

Moving with the times, Holt’s has been making alterations to its pricing structure, which had been a blanket 22.5 per cent until June. The new system is graduated and it appears to have been done to tackle the fees charged by other auctioneers in London.

Until now, Holt’s could challenge Bonhams and Christie’s on a straight comparison. The other two charge 25 per cent plus VAT, so Holt’s had the edge on price but was potentially missing out on 1.5 per cent of what it did sell. That amounts to £20,000 in the average Holt’s sale. With its collection network, Holt’s does very well in stocking up on lower-priced items, many of them going into the sealed bids sale. I doubt it was too concerned about losing these sellers to its rivals. Where it did need to keep an edge is when competing for the big-ticket items.

So, it has pushed up the commission on anything up to £5,000. In this bracket you now pay 25 per cent plus VAT, just like Christie’s and Bonhams. On items sold between £5,001 and £75,000 it remains at the old Holt’s rate of 22.5 per cent plus VAT. For the really high-priced lots of £75,001 and over, the commission drops to £20 per cent, which is as low as the best rate in London, currently offered by Gavin Gardiner.

For the bulk of us, buying ‘bread and butter’ guns up to £5,000, we now need to calculate a bid of £5,000 in the room actually requiring the mental addition of £1,250 buyer’s premium and £250 VAT, making a total of £6,500.

Late bidding

A good auctioneer has a lot to keep an eye on in the room. He or she has to be alert to bids made in the room, be prepared for colleagues to garner telephone bids (which may be slightly delayed), and, increasingly, watch for internet bids coming to an operative on a computer screen. All this has to be done while keeping the sale moving at a good pace, creating a relaxed and motivating atmosphere for buyers and knowing when to strike the gavel with the hammer to sell a lot at the end of bidding. It is harder than it looks.

A really good auctioneer makes it look easy, fluid, and humorous, and somehow we all part with enormous amounts of cash with a smile on our faces. David Porter at Holt’s is a master of the art. However, there are gripes that can spoil the experience, and chief among them is the bid after the hammer.

It happened to me once in London. I had my eye on a late entry to the sale, a Purdey sidelock in good order. It needed a bit of a tidy up cosmetically, a case, and it was good to go. The action had seen very little use and everything functioned perfectly. I bid up to £10,500 and down went the hammer. Mine!

But wait. The auctioneer catches movement from the corner. It is the internet bid chap at his laptop asking to place a bid – too late surely? The Purdey is mine. Not so. The auctioneer reopens the bidding and the gun eventually goes to the internet bidder for about £1,500 more. Your correspondent was not a happy bunny, and he was not the only bidder who experienced the same issue that afternoon.

It is an aggravating practice and one that needs to be stopped as far as possible. Legally, once the hammer falls, the lot is yours, if you are the highest bidder. However, the legal issue for disputes is unclear. At what point does the late bid come in relation to the hammer fall? How do you prove it? Slow motion replay with sound would be the only sure way, and that is not going to happen.

The auction houses won’t be motivated to change, as re-opened bidding nets them more cash, which, ultimately, is all they care about. They will claim human error, argue that the bid came ‘just as the hammer was falling’ and allowances have to be made. They do sometimes have a point. The poor chaps operating the internet bidding system are under a lot of pressure and acting in real time with machinery that often has an irritating delay. They only use it once every three months, so getting good at it is a tough task.

That is my concession; just try applying the same logic when you erroneously bid on the wrong lot, or go a bid higher than you intended. Suddenly there is no flexibility and no room for error. The hammer fell on your bid, so you bought it. Who said life was fair?

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