Keep Lot Price Lower Than the Sum of Individual Pieces

Q: I tried to sell a group of late-19th century etchings by known American and European artists at a local auction. They failed to sell as my reserve was $1000 and the high bid was only $700. The auction house said they'd put them up for sale again, but only if I lower my reserve to $500. I still want the $1000-- the total of the individual values of the prints exceeds that. Should I try another auction house? What do you recommend?

A: The auctioneer's request is perfectly reasonable. To begin with, the prints are damaged goods, in a sense, because they were offered at a public sale and failed to sell. The perception among potential buyers is that no one wanted them. If you put them up again at the same house any time soon, using the lower reserve would be an excellent idea.

You could try another auction house, but collectors are pretty sophisticated these days and those who are the most serious about acquiring your prints will probably recognize that they've seen the lot somewhere before. The bad news is that if they fail to sell again, they'll be devalued even further. If you continue to insist on too much money, over-shop the prints, and repeatedly fail to locate a buyer, you'll end up being unable to sell them at any reasonable price.

Another mistake you're making is basing your reserve on what the individual prints would sell for. The only times that lot prices either equal or exceed the sum of the individual prices is when the pieces are related, are part of a series, form relatively complete collections, or would take years to assemble piece by piece. The one common aspect of your etchings is that they date from approximately the same time period. Other than that, they're little more than a miscellaneous group of unrelated images. The reason why they sell for less is that serious buyers only want specific images, want the lot based on what they'd have to pay for only those images, and want get rid of the rest without too much trouble or financial loss.

If you insist on sticking with the high reserve, thoroughly research the marketplace before placing them up for sale again. You may get lucky and locate a particular sales venue that consistently sells such prints for higher prices than the competition. But don't get your hopes up. Chances are much better that the $500 reserve suggested by the auctioneer is the way to go, whether you consign to his auction house or another.

Another possibility might be to have the auction house contact the high bidder and attempt to arrange a private sale of just a portion of the lot. If he's willing to offer a good price without taking too many prints, you may be able to auction the remainder at a lower estimate and come close to your $1000 asking price between the two sales.

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