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BACKSTAGE: Sotheby's valuer rebukes complaints of inflated auction prices

BACKSTAGE: Sotheby's valuer rebukes complaints of inflated auction prices-- Posted by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Stephen Maycock talks to George Matlock about this week's auction
Saturday 4 October 2003 @ 3:25 - GMT
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">By George Matlock, editor

eltonjohnworld pionners a new concept in interviews right here! The latest interview features The Captain's Video Log! So if you want to know how Stephen Maycock sounds you can see a brief introduction from here, exclusively for eltonjohnworld! We also include a link to a brief tour of the Sotheby's viewing hall in Bond Street. CLICK HERE! 

Stephen Maycock, Sotheby's music valuerGeorge Matlock: Im here with Stephen Maycock of Sothebys, who looked after part of Eltons auction this week. Thanks for joining us for this interview.

Ive known you for a few years, and youve always been involved with some part of the Elton John auction entourage. It seems a decade doesnt pass without one. In what way was this one different to previous ones?

Stephen Maycock: We sold a large part of his jewellery collection a few years ago and then back in 1988 we had the week-long series of sales when he cleared out Woodside. The emphasis this time was not on Elton the performer, it was on Elton the interior designer, a furnisher, his tastes, the things he had around him. The style he chose to live in. Back in 1988 we were selling paintings, furniture, ceramics, a whole collection of miscellania, there was a substantial amount of rock and roll memorabilia. This time the content was by and large what you and I have in our homes. There was a small section of sales awards, about 50. The result of the record awards section, in particular, was very pleasing, strong prices, every single award sold, and many sold for three or four times the anticipated estimate. In that respect, a great result for me.

GM: Twenty or thirty of the awards you mentioned were on preview.

SM: We had a small section, half a dozen, on display here at our Kensington Olympia offices to coincide with our annual general rock and roll sale. But normally I would have expected that all the awards, together with all the other items in the sale, would have been somewhere in the saleroom. There was a lot to pack in, but we would try to show everything. People do like to inspect what they might buy.

GM: Some staff told me that when they came to collect the 400 items from Queensdale, Eltons London home, they found the place literally choc-full of items.

SM: Well, yes. Elton shopping and collecting is an obsession. He is notorious for it. In the days of world tours, he would go into shops and buy 20 of what he liked in every colour shade and style. It would be shipped back to England. Most of the stuff he would never even look at. And it would accumulate. I think very much like in 1988, he got to the point where he thought he had to clear the decks and start again. Hes made it clear that the style at Queensdale was very specific, with a great emphasis on certain types of paintings, Biedermeier furniture, a very distinctive look. It was all coordinated, and every room flowed into the next. But his tastes have changed and he is now into more contemporary, modern pieces and wanted to clear the house and start again. He loves the house and wants to stay there, but wants a different look.

GM: If Elton is a shopper hes certainly not a hoarder.

SM: In 1988 he had sold a considerable amount of memorabilia. Of course, he didnt sell everything. He has kept some things, but yes, youre right. Hes sentimental to a point. His beloved record collection which we sold by private treaty some years ago. There must have been a huge wealth of memories and meaning for him in that record collection. But he got to the point where how can you store 25,000 bits of vinyl? Its a practical question. And hes practical. He was an obsessive record collector back to his childhood, but life and priorities change.

GM: Remind us, which country did the record collection end up in?

SM: In the UK, but Ive not heard of it since!

GM: Were trying to picture this weeks auction. When you go into the Bond Street halls it also spread out to the walls, escapes down crevices and you dont appreciate the magnitude. So how many lorries did it take to bring the items in?

SM: Youre right about the galleries. They would absorb most peoples belongings! I think it would have taken a couple of those furniture lorries. When you are dealing with this sort of material you cant just pack it all in. You probably pack in less than normal. These items were inherently valuable and especially so with Eltons name attached to them. I wasnt there when it was all being loaded. Probably quite a good thing really!

GM: Ha! So the stuff came in and the slow process started of pricing it all up? Did Elton interfere with the pricing saying he wouldnt part with something below this or that price?Stephen Maycock & interviewer George Matlock

SM: A collection like this would involve a team of specialists from Sothebys because there was a wide range of material there. When we get something like this proposed we do like to move quickly. Weve had a lot of experience at it. Even a collection of this size could be valued within days rather than weeks. Thats why people come to us, its what we do. We are used to being presented with large collections. Thats not to say we rush the job. In terms of the valuations, Elton called in us as professionals as we would have a better idea what it is worth today. He might remember what he paid for it, but that might not be realistic in todays market. If he originally bought from a Bond Street dealer, he would be paying a higher price than at auction. I dont think Elton would sit there and say I paid £50,000 for this, I wont take a penny less. I think he is practical, down-to-earth and realistic. He knows us and trusts us. I wouldnt tell him how to write a song, and he wouldnt tell us our job. If someone has a very strong opinion, we would listen but the idea is to sell material. There is no point in putting in an utterly unachievable price as its a waste of everyones time.

GM: He shouldnt be too unhappy with the price tally, because we went from an estimate of £800,000 to actual £1.4 million.

SM: The overall presale estimate was £800,000, so it made another half as much again. Were happy and he is too. Not everything sold. Object achieved. The sale attracted huge publicity and a lot of excitement. And you would expect it to go well.

GM: How many items were returned unsold? There was this pot that the media picked up on.

SM: Yeah, in figures about 5% of lots were unsold, which on 400 is about 20, pretty good going.

GM: I know that some non-fans who came to get their hands on the Biedermeier, or whatever, complained that the reserve prices were inflated, too high. I appreciate this is one for furniture, but, given that the sale did so well and beat all forecasts, then clearly people out there would disagree with that contention.

SM: Well I think that 99% of the buyers would disagree with that contention! Youve said it, the results speak for themselves. If people do think that prices are too high they keep hands in their pockets. No sale. The competition for most of the items was very fierce. I think the accusation is untenable.

GM: In terms of distribution, which countries were buying this stuff? The Americans, Japanese?

SM: Americans are a major portion for most sales, but they were from all over. Global interest. Items will be going to all parts of the compass.

GM: To all parts of the eltonjohnworld!

SM: And beyond! Ha!

GM: Your role was with the awards.

SM: Thats right. There were no vintage items, they were from the last eight years. And I was fairly cautious with my pricing, I thought. Many made far more than I anticipated. Awards that I put in at £300, were making three times that, from some small territories, like Far East Asian, Indonesia or Thailand which normally you would not expect to make that sort of money. But I think the awards benefited from the context and excitement of the event, that they were buying straight from Eltons wall to theirs. Straight from the horses mouth! Gives the sale a buzz.

GM: I am aware the Elton premium was present on the day of sale, but how much does the Elton premium, the celebrity factor, come into the setting of the reserve price by you? Or doesnt it? Are you being completely sterile. I appreciate it is never that easy as memorabilia by definition has an artist-link.

SM: I think with this sale, it was easier in a way because most of the material had an inherent value, such as the furniture. There are established auction values. We try to be neutral. We acknowledge there is likely to be a premium effect, ultimately on the day of sale, but we cant quantify that. Instead we anticipate that but we look at what a similar sale of the furniture fetched five years ago and establish a floor. When I priced the awards, I felt they will make more because they come from Elton himself, but I cant quantify that.

GM: So how do you value an Elton award? Do you simply say it could have been David Bowies but it isnt.

SM: You try to ignore the fact it is coming from Elton. But it is difficult with memorabilia! But the award itself is inherently nearly worthless. It has no artistic or aesthetic appeal. It cost $20 to make. It is all about what it represents. So when I was pricing a Danish award for 20,000 units of an album sold that is a lot less appealing than a US gold disc for a million sales in a bigger market for the same album. In memorabilia terms, the value of silver, gold or platinum discs there is a hierarchy generally acknowledged. Multi-platinum in a major territory, the UK, US, are generally the ones which are going to make the most money. The more the disc represents the higher the price. A nine-times platinum award for a Greatest Hits album makes £2,000-plus. And so it should. It is more important than a 20,000 sales in a small territory.

GM: In terms of the furniture, if I brought in some furniture, and Elton came along five minutes later with the exact same, you would price them the same?

SM: Yes, I think we would. If they were historically identical, we would have to value them the same. But we would expect Eltons to make more than yours, a cache on owning Eltons rather than yours.

GM: We know Elton is happy with the results. So we expect he will be coming back to you with more in a few years!

SM: Maybe in another 10 years when he is sick of modern art, he may go into a Georgian phase and buy lots of mahogany furniture. Who knows?

GM: A chapter to come. Stephen Maycock thanks very much.

[One of the items presented to Elton on his 50th birthday in 1997 at Queensdale was the International Star Registry framed certificate naming a star after Elton John and Bernie Taupin, who also celebrated that year 30 years of their writing partnership. That presentation was the idea of George Matlock and photos at the time displayed a beaming Elton receiving the frame. Stephen Maycock was happy to confirm that this item was one Elton had not decided to sell in the auction. We are delighted to hear this!]

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