Low turnout makes Aspen auction full of ‘notable’ deals
December 24, 2008
ASPEN ” It was billed as a major auction of “notable importance,” but the weekend sale turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity for a few bidders.
That’s because not even a half-dozen people showed up to Sunday’s public auction in Aspen, conducted by Western Classic Auctions.
Of the four or five bidders who showed up, Aspenite Robert Porter did most of the buying.
The turnout, and the prices of which his items were selling for, were shocking to auctioneer Azi Mohammed.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he told the small crowd gathered in a poolside room at the Mountain Chalet. “Some auctioneers wouldn’t have even started the auction.”
But Mohammed did. And it wasn’t because he traveled from Washington, D.C. to conduct the event, which had been advertised for more than a month. He held the auction because he promised some interested parties that they’d have a chance to bid on select items.
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It turned out that the only real offers came from Porter, who was able to walk away with oriental rugs, original artwork, jewelry and other items for much less than their current values.
“I wasn’t even planning on buying anything,” he said. “But these are very good prices.”
Indeed. Take for example, the two Peter Max prints that Porter picked up for $2,500 a piece. They are individually valued at $7,500, according to Mohammed.
When the bidding started for the first Peter Max piece, Mohammed set it at $2,000, which was what a local art dealer had offered earlier in the day.
“It will sell for $5,000,” Mohammed said, but quickly changed his position when nothing came in above Porter’s $2,500 bid. “This is the auction to be at.”
A mink coat with a silver crystal fox fur trim was offered at $1,500, after Mohammed started the bidding at $7,000. There were no takers.
“This retails at $14,200,” Mohammed told his small audience. “I don’t know what to do except pay you to take it.”
Mohammed knew he was in trouble at the outset of the auction when the five people in the room wouldn’t bite on the first two items offered: A pearl strand that started at $1,000 and went to $100; and a signed Pissarro worth $15,000 and offered at $10,000.
But the next item, a .22-carat diamond ring set in white gold, was picked up for $150. Mohammed started the bidding at $700.
“Goodness gracious, that is for nothing,” Mohammed said to the buyer.
So were the two signed Arte champagne flutes that would normally sell at $1,100 a piece but were scooped up for $300 each.
Mohammed opened the bidding at $6,000 for ruby and diamond earrings valued at $12,000. They were sold for $3,000.
Porter picked up a diamond and white gold pendant for $75.
“I’ve never seen prices like this,” said a woman assisting Mohammed in the auction. “It’s shocking.”
Also shocking was the price being offered for an 8-carat diamond bracelet set in 14-carat white gold. Bidding started at $7,500, which was less than $1,000 per carat.
“I’ve seen some good deals but this is better than good,” Mohammed said. No one bid on the bracelet and it was presumably sold to an absentee bidder for $2,000.
A Persian rug in mint condition with a design that dates back 300 years ago started at $300 and was sold for $125.
“That is a steal,” Mohammed said. “If we had more people today we would have sold it at $500.”
Porter picked up two hand-knotted oriental rugs for $1,500, far below market price.
The larger rug, at 6 by 9 feet, was supposed to be sold at nothing less than $2,000.
Porter got it for $1,200.
It was at that moment that Mohammed turned to his colleagues and asked if they should release it despite its low selling price. They all shook their heads in disbelief but gave the OK.
At the end of the auction, Mohammed’s team brought out the framed Pissarro that was first introduced at the beginning of the evening. It was displayed in front of Porter, who ended up bidding against the auctioneer. Mohammed started bidding at $6,000 and Porter talked him down to $5,000. The framed artwork would sell in a gallery for $15,000.
“We’ll have to explain that back at the office,” Mohammed told his colleagues.
Mohammed was referring to the auction company’s Delaware-based headquarters. Western Classic Auctions has been conducting auctions in Aspen for about 15 years.
A couple of years ago, Mohammed said he held a similar auction at the Hotel Jerome
where nearly 100 people attended and it was standing-room only.
“Usually we have between 50 and 100 people,” he said, adding Sunday’s event was set up for about 45 participants. “We were expecting to sell half of the pieces and now we are packing up 90 percent of the collection.”
Porter surmised that it was the weak economy that kept people away. Others speculated it was bad timing.
But judging from the deals that were had Sunday, Mohammed’s point that art is a more stable investment than the stock market or real estate, certainly rings true.
“Now is the time to buy,” he said. “But consumer confidence is down because of what people are seeing on the TV and they are sitting on the sidelines.”