Cataloguing (3)

I’m not a completist.  Unlike many collectors I feel no compulsion to get uninterrupted sets of cigarette cards, runs of comics, variations of Penny Reds.  I have no problem with being interested in many different kinds of interesting and/or beautiful things at the same time.  As a result the house is full of multiple half-formed collections or accumulations of objects reflecting a lifetime of enthusiastic but far from obsessive collecting.

In recent years it’s been mostly 20th century studio pottery, but then there was a diversion into wood carvings.  And now it’s older tin-glazed ceramics:  Dutch and English delftware, French faience, into Italian maiolica. And Chinese ceramics, especially monochromes.  And traditional English and Scottish country-made slipware. In earlier years (in rough order from age about seven): coins, antiquarian books, 78 rpm records (and accompanying gramophones), Georgian and Victorian furniture, eastern carpets (especially the rugs of the nomadic Turkmen peoples), pictures by modern Scottish artists.  And so it goes on.

Some of the stuff has gone.  All the records and gramophones were sold to a dealer.  Most of the best coins were sold on eBay.  Much pottery not in the “keep” category has been either sold or given to charity shops.  All the clocks were sent to auction.  OK that last bit isn’t true.  There are still five wind-up clocks of which two are kept going, one is broken and the other two usually ignored.

There’s still a lot left.  An awful lot.  As much as I can cope with, and much more than Frances is comfortable with.    Thousands of books, hundreds of pots, hundreds of residual coins, dozens of pictures, around 30 rugs.  And still more junk arriving at the rate of at least one or two items per week.

Why, then, I am fairly content and self-satisfied to have managed to detail a mere 120 items in my database catalogue?  Isn’t this level of complacency somewhat unjustified?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It all depends what the catalogue is for.

Bear in mind that I’m doing the catalogue at the request of my family, who don’t wish to be left with a pile of unidentifiable junk if I’m not here.  They will want to know how best to deal with all the stuff, either to realise its true market value, or perhaps to give it away, to charity shops (most of it) or perhaps to museums (a little of it).  But in practice, it will be dead easy for them with around 90% of the vast miscellany of objects.  My heirs and executors will be able to find dealers or auctioneers in our local area who will can competently obtain fair sale prices.

There’s no problem with the books because I’d trust one of our local auction houses to catalogue them accurately and get good prices from local and national bidders.  Similarly with our pictures, most of which are of only Scottish interest.  The coins?  Very few of any value, and there’s an Edinburgh dealer who’d pay a fair(ish) price for the collection as a whole.  Furniture? Any Edinburgh saleroom would be able to get the going rate in a very depressed market for our undistinguished and ponderous mahogany and oak.  Rugs? Most would get a fair price locally, but a few should be consigned to specialist sellers.  The ceramics and wood carvings? Huh?  Are you really expecting me to sell these in Scotland? No way!

There’s no doubt about it:  for specialist objects you need a specialist auctioneer or dealer.  Studio ceramics is an esoteric collecting field, with only a small number of aficionados, virtually none of whom are based in Scotland.  They don’t expect to find good pots here and are unlikely to take much notice of listings in Scottish auction catalogues.  Bidding for items here is likely to be lacklustre because collectors in the south of England will be fretful about delivery, worried about miscataloguing, unsure about condition reports.  This is all great news for Scottish-based collectors, and my local salerooms are a fruitful source of Random Treasure when it comes to studio pottery.  But a bargain for the buyer equates to a disappointment for the seller.  So if my heirs want to sell this particular collection, I’d advise them not to do so locally.

That means that they would need to be able to distinguish the good pots (consign to auction in the south or south-west of England) from the not-good pots (can be sold in local Edinburgh auctions in job lots or given away).  It isn’t always an obvious distinction:  some of my valuable pots are ugly, and many of my worthless pots are beautiful, and it isn’t easy for a lay person to tell the difference.  Thus, my catalogue is supposed to survive me to enable my executors to make this distinction:  if an object is catalogued, it’s worth making an effort to sell;  if it isn’t in the catalogue, they can let a local auctioneer or dealer or charity take it away.  So if only a small proportion of my pots are in the “good stuff” category, then the remainder of them don’t need to be catalogued.

Left, a tankard by David Leach, Lowerdown Pottery. Value around £50. In the catalogue. Right: a tankard by Alexander Sharp, Morar Pottery. Value around £0. Not in the catalogue.

Similarly with other kinds of objects where I don’t have confidence that Edinburgh antique dealers or auctioneers would provide a good appraisal.  It isn’t that our local experts are inexpert.  It’s that some of my Random Treasure is so random that there might be only a few people in the UK or even in the world capable of providing reliable identification and authentication.

The last statement isn’t as unlikely and arrogant as it might sound.  Remind me to tell you in a future post about Saint Benedict.

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