The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, March 31, 2004  

Who Doesn’t?

Despite, or more likely because of, having worked in financial journalism for most of the last 18 years, I have owned, outright, only one stock in my entire life: Sotheby’s Holdings Inc., the parent company of the New York-based auction house, and that was a long, long time ago, and for a very short period in 1989, to be exact.

(I say “because of” because while my employers allowed employees, under certain well-defined circumstances, to buy and sell securities, I decided early on that any hoped-for profits would not be worth the questions that might be raised about my objectivity. I’m a helluva guy, aren’t I?)

Before, and even while, owning my Sotheby’s shares, I found the process of setting pre-auction estimates to be confusing, irrational even. (And that’s to say nothing of the industry’s other unusual practices, including private reserves, buy-ins, bridge loans, and all that unpleasantness about commissions in which Diana “DeDe” Brooks unfortunately became, uh, ensnared.)

And so, reading today’s New York Times, I was surprised, and yet not, to see that Sotheby’s has placed a pre-auction estimate on “Young Woman Seated at the Virginal,” after a long controversy now rather firmly ascribed to Johannes Vermeer, at a rather modest $5.4 million.

According to the Times (“ A Vermeer, Once Suspect, Will Be Offered at Sotheby’s,” by Carol Vogel), that is “a price far lower than what second-rate Impressionist paintings often fetch at auction. They [Ed.: Sotheby’s] acknowledge that the price is cheap but expect that the bidding will far exceed it.”

That’s an easy bet. So how does Sotheby’s explain its low-ball estimate? The Times reports:

“There’s every indication the painting will do a lot better because of its rarity and because Vermeer is such an iconic artist,” said Alexander Bell, head of Sotheby’s old master paintings department in London. “We wanted people to concentrate on the picture, not the price.”

Oh, okay, I understand now. (What?)

Anyway, New Yorkers, and those within reasonable traveling distance (Oh, wait, that includes me.), please note: “Sotheby’s plans to show the painting at its York Avenue headquarters in Manhattan from April 28 through May 9 and again from May 22 through May 27.”

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