Magazine article The Spectator

Dealers' Dilemma

Magazine article The Spectator

Dealers' Dilemma

Article excerpt

What do you do if five days before the sale of your property at auction, a third party steps forward and offers you double the auction estimate? Discreet withdrawal is impossible: the property has been widely publicised, given its own hardback catalogue and dispatched on a global tour. The stakes are raised higher still when the third party learns of the 250,000 penalty payable to the auction house if the contract is broken, and offers to pay that too.

This was the dilemma that faced London-based Eskenazi Ltd, probably the world's pre-eminent dealers in Chinese works of art, the residual stock of whose dormant Japanese department was consigned for auction at Christie's last week. This disposal of the firm's 100 best examples of lacquer, netsuke and inro - and, indeed, the closure of the department follows the death three years ago of Giuseppe Eskenazi's brother-in-law, Luigi Bandini, who had run the department since 1976, and the decision made last year by his widow, Rosemary, to leave the company to set up business on her own. There was no one left in the firm who knew the clients or the market.

Most of the pieces - including a group of lacquer boxes of exceptional quality and condition - had come from some of the greatest Japanese art collections ever made in the West. The reason why these pieces had not already been sold, the firm candidly explained, was that they had probably been asking too much money for them. Now, it was widely reported, they just wanted the pieces to sell - and estimates were set accordingly. If the pieces sold on their estimates, the firm, buying in the boom years of the Eighties, would make a loss. At this point, one particular reader of my colleague Antony Thorncroft's column in the Financial Times highlighting the pieces' impeccable provenance and the return of the Japanese to the marketplace pricked up his ears and began to do his SUMS.

Through an intermediary, the anonymous businessman offered fI million for the group, then f1.25 million. He appeared to have no particular interest in the pieces per se - a suspicion supported by the fact that when they did go to the block last week, he is thought not to have bought a single lot. The blue-chip Eskenazi stock, it seems, was simply an investment opportunity like any other. …

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