Tuesday, May 04, 2021

How to Find Catholic Works of Art at Auction Houses, and How to Bid

After last week’s article about the quality of Catholic art and artifacts that may be found at an auction house, I asked the writer, Andrew Marlborough, to provide some guidance on how to find such pieces and on how to bid and buy. He kindly provided the following. One thing that I would add to his excellent advice is that in regard to fulfilling the purpose of such objects as sacred vessels or sacred art, the authenticity of their provenance has little bearing on their usefulness in context of the liturgy. In deciding on whether to buy, I would judge them first on their suitability for the liturgical context, and secondly, by comparing their prices with the market for sacred art, contemporary or antique, rather than their value as antiques alone.

Andrew wrote: “Buying things at auction has become a lot easier in recent years as auction houses are selling more things to private customers, as well as trade buyers. The top end of the market is dominated by the ‘big three’ companies - Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonham’s. For those with deep pockets, you can go directly to their websites. Below that there are many smaller metropolitan and provincial salerooms, which frequently sell items of Catholic interest. The best way to find things is by searching one of several online databases which between them process most of the catalogs from these companies. You can simply go to the website and use search terms such as “Jesus”, “chalice”, “St Joseph”, etc. These databases also provide a subscription search service so they will actively look for things coming up which match your criteria. They also enable you to bid online via their sites, as well as having lots of useful advice for buyers. These are the two main dealers who buy up sacred art and architectural furnishings in Europe and America:
The following might also be helpful, depending on where you live:
When it comes to bidding there are a few things to keep in mind:
First, always be sure to ask the auctioneers for a condition report and provenance before you buy something.
Second, set yourself a limit for bidding as it’s easy to get carried away, but be aware that often smaller auction houses often undervalue things.
Third, remember that you will have to pay a fee to the auctioneer, possibly a small fee for bidding through one of the internet portals mentioned above, and whatever shipping costs are involved, which may include import tax if you are buying from another country.
Finally, remember the wise old saying often applied to auctions - caveat emptor (buyer beware!).
Another place to find things is the online auction sites like eBay and Catawiki. These are more risky but they can also be good places to find things. Watch out for fakes though, especially relics. Only bid if you are confident about authenticity: www.ebay.com, www.catawiki.com
Andrew Marlborough is a 5th-year seminarian for Plymouth Diocese in the UK, studying at Allen Hall in London. Before entering seminary he worked for 10 years in the auction and art gallery business.
St Joseph holding the baby Jesus in the style of Franz Ittenbach (1813-1879). Bought in Leicestershire, England in December 2020 by a devout young Catholic, and just in time for the Year of St Joseph, for £1,300.
Postscript: Fr Augustine Thompson asked me to add this to the post. He remarks: ‘One can often get remarkable buys on eBay. I got the chalice seen below, with paten, scruple spoon, and box for $150. Appraised by a silversmith at $5000. Not a bad deal!’

I‘ ’m thinking that you have the expertise to develop a nice little sideline, Father, if you ever need it!

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