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How to buy at auctions
12th May 2022 • Jewelry Connoisseur • Rapaport USA Inc.
00:00:00 00:28:22

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Luxury and high-jewelry specialist and advisor Dr. Sharon Novak shares her best insights and some real-life stories on how to successfully bid at jewelry sales.


Welcome to the Jewelry Connoisseur podcast. And now your host, Sonia Esther Soltani.

Welcome to the Jewelry Connoisseur podcast. It’s the podcast for people in the jewelry industry that want to learn more and it's also for jewelry lovers, who just want to expand their knowledge. Here we talk about everything that has to do with vintage and antique jewelry. I am your host, Sonia Esther Soltani, the Editor in Chief of Rapaport. I edit a monthly magazine for the trade that covers everything from mining to retail. I'm also editing an online publication called Jewelry Connoisseur, like this podcast, where you can learn about estate jewelry, contemporary design, colored gemstones and diamonds. And I'm curating an Instagram account, Rapaport Jewelry Pro, that is covering the same topics. I hope we can educate as many as possible listeners that are enthusiastic about jewelry.

I personally love to learn about jewelry, I love to have exciting guests who tell me more, and I hope that by the end of this new episode, you also feel you've discovered something new about the fascinating world of jewels.

In this new episode of the Jewelry Connoisseur podcast, my guest is Dr. Sharon Novak. Sharon has a vast experience in the luxury sector, having worked for companies such as Oscar de la Renta, Burberry and eBay. She's an expert in providing advice for high jewelry collectors, as she does through her consultancy Jewelry Athenaeum. She's also an educator having the same online platform to share about historic jewelry. And today, Sharon is telling us how to buy at auctions, which is a very interesting subject for a lot of people starting in the trade and for particulars. So Sharon will give us some of her experience, some of her tips. And I can already give you one: beware of eager privates.________________________________________

Sonia: Hi Sharon, so lovely having you on this podcast today, how are you?

Sharon: I'm doing very well, Sonia. How are you?

Sonia: I'm great and I'm so happy to have you discuss auctions since you've been at many of them and you know exactly what to do and not what to do. So first of all, why do people go to auctions? Why should they go to auctions?

Sharon: Well, I think there's a lot of reasons, so a primary might be that you're looking for something that is not currently offered at retail. So let's say you have an interest in a piece from a maison from the 70s or you are excited about a gemstone that is currently in much less availability globally than it was at a different point. So it's a good way to look around the world and see where pieces have been circulating. The beauty of gemstones and jewelry, of course, is that they last and we can find things that go back centuries, if not longer. And it's an opportunity to participate in a much broader environment of search. So depending on your purpose, and I know you and I are going to talk about purpose today, it can give you a much wider range of opportunities to solve and find what you're looking for.

Sonia: And when was the first time you attended an auction? Because I know you have so many stories, but when was the first time you, as an individual, as a private, went to an auction?

Sharon: My aunt was a pretty active jewelry collector throughout my life, so I have very, very early memories of the discussion of the search. She worked very, very closely with a family dealer from London for years and years, and I remember going with them to auctions, to events, discussing the pieces, talking about their strategy. So it was always sort of something that I was very aware of as a child.

Sonia: And what do you remember as a really memorable first purchase you saw at auction as something that really blew your mind a young person?

Sharon: I would love to say it's an elevated story, but it's not, and I can't give the dealer's name because of the story. But he was talking about a different collector who collected dog collars, Victorian dog collars, with the strong implication being that those dog collars may have been worn by human beings. And I remember thinking, you know, there is a sock for every foot, right?. You never know what people collect and they collect everything. And the magical thing about auctions is whatever you are passionate about, you can do your research and you can find it. So no judgment if you are the person who loves a Victorian dog collar, go for it. And that is actually what I remember as we were looking at some of the dog collars at a party and I was thinking, Wow, that is something.

Sonia: Which piece did you get that you felt like was really, really exciting?

Sharon: It actually was a photograph. So I have a contemporary art advisory as part of my work for years. And when I was in college, I interned for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the US. And the chairman of the Committee at the time was a senator called Jesse Helms, who years earlier had opposed funding for the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition through the National Endowment for the Arts. And my uncle's a sculptor, my dad was an architect, and I was and remained horrified by the idea that the government would decide what constitutes art. So because I was a kid and I didn't know any better, I tried to argue with them. And he was very nice about it. But you don't get to the Senate unless you are a master of debate. And he wiped the floor with me and I was sort of left sputtering and I decided I'm going to grow up and I'm going to buy a piece from the Z collection of Mapplethorpe. So the first piece I ever bought at auction actually is called Hooded Man, and it's in my entry and it's in my entry on purpose because if you are opposed to freedom of expression, you're not welcome in my home. So that is actually the first piece I bought and the dealer was in Germany. It was a very, very easy transaction. It was with an estimate. Everything went very smoothly. It was a delight and got me hooked.

Sonia: And how about jewels? What was the first piece that you got for yourself? Not for clients.

Sharon: For myself I tend to buy… you know I like pieces that I can wear daily and I'm looking for pieces that are very specific time periods from specific masion that I love. So I like to hunt around and I look for poor photography. And as you know, and I'm sure many of our listeners know as well, it is notoriously difficult to photograph gemstones. White gold looks dead if you try to retouch a jewel that will look Anna May. So I like to look for a horrible photograph because then I know unless people took the time to inspect and they're typically not necessarily looking for every day wearable pieces, anyway, so that might get a bunch of dealers out of the way, it might get some privates out of the way because the image is horrible. So I will look for something where I can sneak in. So one of the first pieces I bought was a lovely gemstone bracelet with a horrible photograph. I got it within estimate and was very, very pleased, and I wear it all the time. I wore it on my trip to Europe and I just got back from

Sonia: That is lovely. And what about all the tips you have for novices, for people either privates or from the trade that go to auctions, what would you recommend they do before the auction and during the auction?

Sharon: Well, first and foremost, I think you need to really assess why you are looking for something. Are you looking for a piece to wear for yourself? Are you looking for a gift? Is this an investment and you want it to appreciate? There's lots of reasons to buy jewelry at auction, and they can influence your decision in very, very different ways. So, for example, you may be buying a piece because it completes the, you know, the center point of a collection. That's a very different evaluation than you're looking to resell something, so you need to have a certain amount of a profit margin built in. It's not personal, it's to sell. And then there could also be that you're buying this because you want to wear it for yourself. So is it the functionality? Is it investment? Is it rarity? Are you completing a curation? What is it for? And then from there, you know I obviously I'm biased and I'm going to recommend that you use an advisor for lots of reasons. The first is that buying at auction is the same serotonin rush as gambling. And you don't want to have emotion going into it. It needs to be a rational decision. So one of the reasons to use an advisor, even if you've done all your homework, is that if you know you're going to get emotional and excited in the moment and it's very, very difficult not to, let someone who is going to be more impartial handled that cut off for you because it's really easy to go sky high. Then beyond that, I would say, you want to look at a lot of research. So how often does this piece come up? If it's not going to be that rare, but you want it, then set your limit and you know that you need to wait until the right one comes along. Don't get super excited and just buy the first thing you see. You might overpay, you might get something that's not the level of quality that you need. The next is what I just said, which is that photography is notorious. So if you can, you really need to inspect in person, no matter what. Because emeralds, for example, can look unbelievably different with a slight change of light. I personally try to always put my own eyes on a piece and to handle the piece. And then you want to look at how has it sold and to understand the context of how it's sold. So when you're setting comparable prices, you're looking at price per carat for a colored gemstone, for example, you want to put the context in mind. What year was it? What was happening in the world? Was there a ban on gems from that region? Was there anything else that influenced this purchase? Was it two privates fighting and a crazy number that might skew the results? You need to go back as far as possible to have trends and to have a better understanding. You know, ideally, you make friends with some of the associates in the auction houses, you ask them what they think, they can give terrific advice. And you and I both do that all the time, and you just really try to build as thorough of a picture as possible. That is a lot of legwork. So again, one of the reasons to hire an advisor is that they will do that legwork for you. That is worth a lot of time. Not to mention money.

Sonia: Yes, for sure. And so in-depth research and obviously you, a graduate gemologist, you know, when you go, you know exactly what to look for. Is it also something you would say to someone, have a background in gemology before you go and buy auction house?

Sharon: It depends on what you're looking for. I definitely recommend if you're looking at anything with a significant gemstone, absolutely. Absolutely. Because again, you know, some of the elements will be subjective. Color is always going to be subjective, but you want to have that in a context. So there is, for example, a difference in country of origin and the way that it affects performance at auction for certain colored gemstones historically, that doesn't mean you are going to see that gemstone and love it as much, even though on paper it will meet all of your requirements, say, as an investment. So if you're buying as an investment, it is not a purchase for where, it's not a purchase for love, you're choosing to pay more to get more or to pay less to have less appreciation. Not that could change tomorrow. So amethysts used to be the rarest gemstone, an incredibly expensive. And then when more sources were found, the price plummeted because they became readily available. So if you love a gemstone tomorrow that might become the most rare thing on Earth, or it might become the most plentiful, but it won't change the way you love it. So again, we are going back to what are you buying it for? Are you buying this because you love it? That's a different decision making than if you're buying it as a pure investment. Does that make sense?

Sonia: Absolutely. And I think, you know, as you said, emotions play a massive, massive part during the auction. You have any big emotions recently that you've seen the piece that was just so mind blowing that maybe you didn't bid on it, but you just feel wow to be part of this auction sale.

Sharon: Oh, sure. So in Geneva in November, I had the great great fortune to put on Marie Antoinette bracelets. And I have to say they hit different. It was heaven. It really was. So another reason to use a jewelry advisor is that we will get access to the pieces for you a lot more easily to handle them in person. So not every piece at an auction when it's that historic and that important is going to be available to inspect closely. But as we've just said, you really need to have an in-person inspection to know, particularly if we're talking about an investment at that level. I would hope you really want to put your hands on it or send a representative to do so. And it was, you know, it was exceptional because auctions are also an opportunity to experience museum quality jewels that you would never be able to handle otherwise. And you know, this piece or these bracelets were not altered from their original form. They're also a very good reminder of the value not being as easy to capture in the 4Cs because these are not necessarily the least included, most flawless diamonds, not even close, but they're hand cut and they are magically beautiful. The way they look and feel is just hard to put into words. And you know, it was it was an education in and of itself. Even if you're not buying your eye has that memory, you get to learn from it and the feel of it. And you know my understanding of value is forever improved for having been able to experience them.

Sonia: That's wonderful, we interviewed François Curiel a few months ago, and he told us the value, if you are going by the Rapaport price and the value of the Marie Antoinette diamond I think it was 80 times more than the value. And you don't put a price on history and in an emotional force of such a piece. So forget the Rap price for this.

Sharon: Exactly. And that's something that I think for a novice especially. Please remember that the Rap price is important for you to know, but there are so many other factors also when you go to an auction to help you to understand the result. I mean, think about the different interest groups that are present in an auction, you have the dealers. There is a limit for a dealer. You are calculating where this thing was at retail. You're calculating what the market will bear. You know, you're paying the fee of the house at auction and then you have to put your own profit margin and overhead on top of it. Right, so you have a limit on your number. But then beyond that number is the private, let's say, collector aficionado, somebody who's gotten in. We have no way of knowing what that number is, and that number may be emotional and bottomless. And so no matter how much research you do, it can go crazy. Because it's psychological and people get excited. That's another tip for novices. Please do not assume that a super low estimate means you have any chance in this world of getting it within that estimate. It's just trying to get you happy and bidding and to get everybody else excited and to go forward. You need to go in being ready to lose as well, and you need to know what your number is, where you have to walk away.


The Jewelry Connoisseur Podcast will be back after this break.

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Sonia: And tell me, Sharon is the private, the enthusiastic passionate, the worst nightmare for someone buying at auction?

Sharon: Yes. Yes. You know, one of the things that Covid has done that is fantastic for the auction houses and less fantastic if you're buying at them is that I think it has really removed the psychological barrier of bidding online. So what happened? We cut off all other channels of luxury spending. We removed restaurants. We removed travel. But the desire to express with beautiful objects is inherent to all cultures across all time. So when we cut everything else off, it just went exploding into jewelry. And similarly, if you're sitting in an auction physically, it's a lot scarier to hold up your plaque than it is to press a button on your computer and the comfort of your home. So I think what you find is people will be a lot more aggressive online than maybe they would be if they felt the weight of the room when they're bidding. I know that it's different for me. And so part of what's happened is that many more people who may have been too intimidated to go to an auction house and certainly not sure of how to get involved with bidding are able to sign up online and participated. And we saw a lot of online sales for major major jewels and gemstones. That would not have been the case, I think pre-Covid, and it's an interesting development. It's stressful if you're buying because the prices can just go crazy.

Sonia: That's the thing, is the prices have gone completely crazy and I hear it from dealers. Dealers say now because people have got used to buy online and privates have gone on the market as well. And it just click and they have this, this excitement of buying something at auction then. But that's a problem for them to dealers to say what should we pay so much for, let's say Buccelatti.

Sonia: No, it's absolutely true. And you know, fortunately for me, a lot of my major curations that took place before Covid would have been, I think, not feasible had it happened now. And now it is a lot harder. It's definitely a challenge because you don't know who's showing up online. So I used to love the first five lots in Geneva because with the time difference, people are asleep or they're not quite ready, they haven't arrived. But that's not true if you're online all over the world, you can just click. So that is not my favorite. And you know, the other thing I would say with auctions too is a miracle can happen. So what makes them exciting? What makes you never give up? And this is again where the serotonin of gambling comes in. So, for example, last year I was doing a live with Benoit Repellin who was at Sotheby's at the time and there was a very serious piece up at auction and clearly the number one most likely bidder was going to be called on the phone and they couldn't get through. So in that case, the number two bidder not only won, but one for a much better price than anybody would have predicted. And so I would say there is an extent of gaming if you see someone big in the room and you think, oh, this isn't going to happen. But you never know in that case, you know, this person just unfortunately, they didn't reach them. Really, really, really painful. But it happens. You can get lucky. So you never know. So it's worth continuing to try.

Sonia: And I think a few times you mention, you know, like your contacts, as you know, in different auction houses that are working with you. What would you recommend to someone entering the market? You only stick to the big houses and the big circuit, which is Geneva, New York, Hong Kong, with London and Paris also offering interesting sales... Is that like certain places are better for some pieces, what would you recommend? And if you entering, you just stick to the big four names that everybody knows?

Sharon: So I would not stick to the big four names necessarily. What I recommend you do is you just keep your ears and eyes open for the right specialist. So yes, it can be harder to find great authenticators and to feel as confident in the works when you're out of the big houses, but not with the right specialist. So I know this sounds like some crazy investigative reporting, but map the people out and look at their bios. So if you want to find the right specialist, look and see what other auction houses were they at. Have they published anything in jewelry history? Is there any particular area of research where they're very, very strong and I would just keep an eye on them. One of the nice things about Instagram is you can follow the specialists and see what they're doing, and they will post what they're working on. And then for the big houses, I would say the Super Bowl, if you will, is Geneva. You have the royal pieces, you have the gems that are, you know, shockingly stunning and historically relevant. You can find terrific everyday wear pieces, especially from the 60s, 70s, 80s at the Paris and London auction houses, again there because Geneva is right down the street. You want to see which specialist had the relationship to pull it in, because that's really what it is there. For Hong Kong I think you're looking at some pretty incredible opportunities. If you're an American buying just so you know, the customs and duties don't apply if you're purchasing a piece abroad that was produced in the United States. So if you see Tiffany and Co. or David Webb or some Verdura pieces that show up and they do show up quite a lot in Hong Kong or in Paris or in London or in Geneva, you don't have to pay the duties on that. They were made in the U.S. if they were made in the US, because not everything from Tiffany Co. was made in the US, just check where it was made. And also, you can find rare materials, so jade would definitely be a Hong Kong auction purchase. There's lots of opportunities, I think, to find rare and unique and special because people consign rare and unique and special all over the world. I would say follow the specialists more than a specific house and really get to know what they're focused on. And if you have a passion for an area of jewelry, find the specialist who's really, really good at it and follow them and see what they're posting. But I would say look all over the world because we're lucky enough to have the web connect us all you can.

Sonia: That's why connections are so important. What do you have in your sights Sharon, what do you, what is the big sale that you're looking at right now. You've seen something that's going up, coming up to auction that you that you've excited about?

Sharon: I'm always excited to see what's happening, so Geneva in May. Can't wait. There's already some nice, quiet sniffs of what's coming. And I've got a few clients who are looking for very unique pieces, so I'm always checking what everyone posts to see what's coming up. In general, I would say, you know, we're in a very special time where we are connected online and we can see what's circulating. So I'm just thrilled to see all the pieces that are coming out and what's going to be available to handle and to hopefully connect with the right collector.

Sonia: And also, I think something some people don't know maybe people, people who are just starting in the industry that you can actually go to any preview of auction sales and you can be shown the jewelry, some of them, if it's like a D flawless diamond of 10 carats, they're going to be a bit more reluctant, maybe to show it to you because obviously they're very responsible people and they don't want to, you know, too many people. But actually, it's not a closed space or close environment. People feel like auction house in Geneva, New York, Sotheby’s, I am not going to go, but the specialists are very, very welcoming people and they're passionate and they love to show their beautiful jewels as well. And you never know who could be a buyer, from their point of view.

Sharon: That's absolutely true, and I couldn't agree more. But I will reiterate if you want to make sure you can have access to the pieces, use an advisor who has a relationship with the house because that will greatly increase your likelihood of handling the pieces yourself. And it does make it a little bit less intimidating, but it's definitely open to the public and I'm always encouraging anyone. Please go, because even if you're seeing it through a case, your own eyes are so much more helpful than any photograph or video, I promise. And the idea that the diamond could be three point five billion years old, is you're looking at a miracle of nature that is incredible. So if, for example, you are lucky enough to see a type AA diamond, that's actually also Golconda, what a miracle, right? Because when you hear the description over and over again, it's kind of like the color of water. What does that really mean? You have to see that with your eyes to understand it, and it really is a colorless type AA, because they don't have to be colorless, really is the color of water. It's weird. And even if you are at an inspection behind thick glass, your eye will see that and you've learned something that's very, very different, even from reading it in a text. And the auction houses are, no matter what, an incredible opportunity to continue and further your education. They're just a wonderful chance to see these pieces that are miracles. They're incredible.

Sonia: That is amazing. Thank you so much, Sharon. I think we've covered, you know, I think we have the complete guide to starting up auctions and do the best and get the best pieces and the best, you know, a frame of mind and research and everything. Do you have a final word of advice or wisdom you'd like to share with our listeners about auctions in general and in approaching an auction?

Sharon: So as I was saying earlier, I definitely think follow the specialists at the auction houses, particularly those with a focus or a specialty that aligns with what you're looking for. So for me personally, I follow loads of people, but I would say off the top of my head at Christie's Daphne Lingon and Vanessa Cron, who is @jewelsandthegang on Instagram. Then at Sotheby's, I always follow @mariececilejewels, Frank Everett. I follow up Benoit Repellin who is now heading up Phillips's effort in high jewelry. I would definitely recommend that you monitor for your particular focus. So I recommend following Melanie Grant on Instagram, she posts daily and her book Coveted is one of the best for jewelry as art and with a specific focus on collecting jewelry, so she is enormously useful as a resource. Depending on your personal background, I would say join industry groups on Instagram. So the Glitterati, if you're a woman, Black in Jewelry Coalition, Adrianne Sanogo, another great resource. Lots of options. Follow the designers individually, particularly if you're focusing on contemporary. There are a lot of fantastic contemporary designers who also sell at auction.

Sonia: Fantastic. Thank you so much Sharon for your time, for sharing your knowledge, your expertize and your passion with us today.

Sonia: It's my great pleasure. I always learn from you as well, so definitely definitely follow Jewelry Connoisseur. Follow Rapaport. Make sure you are involved with Rapaport to follow the pricing as well, because it's absolutely essential to make sure you know what's happening in global markets, and that's a great resource for the industry.

Sonia: And if you like, this podcast will have another episode very soon. Don't forget to follow us and leave us comments on the different platforms. Thank you very much.


Thanks for having joined on this latest episode of the Jewelry Connoisseur podcast, you can find us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google and YouTube. If you like this podcast, give us your feedback and make sure that you subscribe so you won't miss any single episode. You also can find information on estate and antique jewelry