March 22, 2018
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Shop around when selecting an auction house

Courtesy of | Photo courtesy of
Courtesy of | Photo courtesy of
The rare 16th or 17th century Persian sword called a jambiya brought $304,000 recently at Bonhams and Butterfields in San Francisco.
By Danielle Arnet, Tribune Media Services

Q: I want to sell a piece of stoneware by a Chicago artist that I bought directly from the artist in the 1970s. I followed your advice and researched, and discovered that her work brings good prices. How do I decide how to sell — Auction? Gallery? Online? When it comes to the nitty-gritty of selling, I have a lot of questions.

A: This is one smart collector. She has done her research, enough to know that other pieces by her artist sold for up to $6,000. Everyone wants to sell smart, but when you see results like that, you absolutely want to get it right.

Her questions will help other would-be sellers. Let’s take them one by one:

1. Since this is a Chicago artist, will the piece sell best there?

A: Before the Internet, perhaps. But today selling and buying are international. Regional nostalgia rules in some genres, but art is universal. Chicagoans are all over the globe and can bid online for auction lots. If you select a Chicago auction house to sell the piece, bidding will be worldwide anyway. It could be that someone in NY or Paris pays top dollar.

2. How do I pick an auction house?

A: Approach houses that realized high prices for lots like yours (Readers: She found them on Since serious money is at stake, invest also in short-term use of the art database Get the whole picture.

3. How do I present my piece to an auction?

A: Select a house, go to their website and find the appropriate department to contact. Some auctions use a triage system where staffers funnel your inquiry. Others provide direct email contact information. To approach a specific specialist, send a short summary with bullets of needed information, such as how you got the piece (significant in this case), how long you’ve had it, size, condition, and anything else you think significant. Be brief and to the point. Specialists are always interested in quality merchandise but they’re busy people. If interested, they’ll request digital images or photos.

4. What images do I send?

A: Photograph the object against a neutral surface — a white sheet works well. Send clear close-ups of all surfaces, including the bottom, also of any marks or distinguishing features. Placing a ruler in photos is not necessary, but include exact data on size.

5. What do I ask each house before I choose one to sell?

A: This is where you shop. Your contact will be with a specialist. Ask what their track record is with the artist. Ask what they think you might get for the piece. They will give you a range. At good auctions, specialists are pros. They know the current market well. Auction is always a gamble, but it is one where odds are pretty much known.

6. How do I get the item there so it remains undamaged?

A: Professional art movers travel the country, packing and transporting items arranged for auction. The house can supply contacts. Some consigners have UPS or another shipper pack and ship. Some material arrives via USPS, insured.

7. I heard that galleries also sell. Would a gallery take a single piece?

A: Many do. It’s called consignment; basically they house and show your piece until it sells. When exploring that route, ask yourself and the gallery: Is this the best place for my stoneware? How likely is it to sell here? Find out about their fees for consigning. Do they charge periodic fees plus commission on the sale? What is that commission? Some charge 50 percent. Don’t leave your piece unless you have absolute faith in the gallery, plus a contract in writing that covers all fees and contingencies such as breakage, terms of contract, etc.


When Bonhams and Butterfields in San Francisco recently sold swords from the Nobel family collection (Alfred Nobel, creator of the Nobel Prize awards, was a member of the family), a fine 17th century Ottoman blade from the collection brought $304,000. The jambiya has a curved 10½-inch double-edged blade of watered steel and a green nephrite hilt inlaid with an arabesque design in gold. The pommel has a large red cabochon stone, probably a ruby. The scabbard, made later, has silver mounts with foliage.


Q: In cooking, what is “hollow ware?” Who originally made it?

A: Hollow ware is the industry term for cast iron cookware. First made by stove companies, it was originally presented as accessories for their stoves. Source: “The Book of Griswold and Wagner: 5th Ed.” by David Smith and Chuck Wafford (Schiffer, $34.99). The newest edition of the classic price guide to Griswold, Wagner, Favorite, Wapak and Sidney hollow wares. A cast iron bible.

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send email to or write Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Please include an address in your query. Photos cannot be returned.

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