- Buying is easy; selling not so much: In addition to giving up the objects, there is also a psychological cost.
- If the items do not sell at auction, the seller can take it personally.
- Emotional repercussions may surface, a hazard that has not been addressed previously.
It is well known that when a collector parts with beloved artworks, it can be like losing an arm or a leg. These pieces, so carefully chosen and cared for over the years, become part of oneself. Giving them up, for whatever reason, can be wrenching.
I could not have anticipated, however, yet another jolt to my psyche after I decided to sell some of my pieces at auction recently. It was an unsettling experience—one that surely happens to other collectors and, yet, to my knowledge, remains unexplored in the literature. In a nutshell, less-than-vigorous bidding for my treasures completely swept me down a rabbit hole.
After collecting high-end Chinese export porcelain for 30 years, I felt I knew what I was doing. I had taken a private tutorial at a prestigious institution focused on Chinese porcelain, London’s Percival David Foundation, which has since been incorporated into the British Museum. I attended many conferences and auctions and visited foreign countries solely to study their Chinese porcelain holdings, both public and private. Moreover, I had been invited twice by the Chinese government to speak about Chinese porcelain. My confidence was high, and my spirits were buoyant about the Christie’s auction of some of my best objects.
So, when my pieces of Chinese export porcelain went up on the online-only auction, they were posted for everyone to see—my friends, other collectors, and people I didn’t know. It was as if I were allowing myself to be exhibited, as my porcelains reflect my very being. But, I said to myself, This is OK; my porcelains are desirable, which, by inference, made me desirable since I had selected them. My cherished objects, I was sure, would find a receptive audience.
Then, the unexpected happened. At first, no one bid. Yikes! I checked two to three times per day to see if this oversight was rectified. It was not. I e-mailed everyone I knew who could possibly be interested in buying my pieces. Though I received polite replies, there was no evidence that my efforts stimulated interest. In a further attempt to engage potential buyers, I posted the objects on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Again—there was no indication this had stirred activity.
After four or five days, I was adrift. It was as though no one wanted my objects. This pained me. Selecting and caring for them had been my avocation, the way I filled my leisure time, and my salvation from my work. If no one wanted to bid on my porcelains, perhaps I wasn’t worthy, either.
The Mind Game
This rejection created a mind game with my psyche. I couldn’t sleep. Soporific aids had to be called in. I was crabby. My husband had to be understanding. My petulance even went beyond my private household. I think my contact at Christie’s thought I was difficult.
Only five of my 23 lots had offers early in the sale. Three of these were not special, but the fourth was extraordinary. If it were to sell at this rock-bottom offer, the buyer would be scoring a tremendous bargain. I also noticed that two porcelain roosters that had once belonged to J.P. Morgan had no bids, even though there are Morgan labels on their feet verifying their distinguished provenance. The same was true for two significant bowls.
What is happening? I asked myself. Others must not recognize what I accomplished with this collection!
Then, a terrible thought occurred to me. Perhaps I had not chosen my porcelains as wisely as I thought. Or, worse yet, I could be out of step with the porcelain-collecting circuit to which I thought I belonged. To be clear, all of this emotion and questioning was not because I was sad about selling my precious objects. It was because there was no evidence that others could see their value as I had. I felt deflated. Though my very public sale was online for all to see, my pieces seemed invisible to the very audience to whom they should appeal. To me, this meant my efforts were not respected or appreciated.
In a word, my husband and I have a nagging space problem. More correctly, I have a space problem. Attributing it to my husband is just fantasy. It is my problem because our closets are full of Chinese porcelain instead of extra linens or outerwear like most people have in their closets.
We have a dining room table that hasn’t been used for the past eight years, and that’s not because we didn’t want to host a dinner party. Rather, it’s because an enormous Chinese cistern is on the table. It stands at least three feet tall and weighs 58 pounds altogether (44 for the base and 14 for the lid). If we were to use the table, we would have to hire someone to move this fragile porcelain to another room. That would require lots of time and effort, so we haven’t entertained at that table for years. Just one more reason why letting go seemed like a good option.
The Endowment Effect
What I didn’t count on, obviously, is what low offers—or none at all—would do to my psyche. Perhaps I should have, as I already knew about the neuroeconomic principle called the endowment effect. It means that we value what we own more than the identical piece that someone else possesses. By extension, it implies that the porcelains I am selling are more meaningful to me than they would be to a person interested in buying them. This is partly because I have already invested time, effort, and money in them. A successful bidder would not share in this, except for the time she spent perusing the auction Web site, executing the winning bid, and then paying. Her time and effort would only come later when she arranged for shipping, unwrapped her new possession, and incorporated them into her collection. Only then would she develop what I already possessed—the endowment effect, a hallmark of ownership.
Online Versus In-Person Auctions
One reason bids were flagging for my online-only auction is that the well-known phenomenon of bidding too often and too high usually occurs at in-person sales—with an auctioneer on the podium. That’s when a room can heat up: Bids often get competitive. One adrenaline-fueled person bids against another. Online, such a scenario is rare if not impossible. The bidding takes place in your personal space, usually at home, without apparent competition, certainly not from someone located near you.
A Change in the Art Market
Another contributor to my tepid sale, I conjecture, is that the art market has changed. When I was buying in the 1990s, prices for Chinese export porcelain were high. Other than live auctions, dealers were the primary sellers, and there was little transparency. Today, dealers are scarcer, and auctions are different, not least because they are more often held online than on-site. This has made export porcelain’s economic landscape more level, without the peaks and valleys once caused by a lack of information. Indeed, we are in a new era, one of heartbreak for some of us who collected in areas not favored as much today.
But, as always, there is supply and demand. I know that because my precious porcelains are breakable, there will be fewer overall as time goes on. They will become even rarer than they are now, and with scarcity comes demand. Moreover, inflation will inevitably pump up all prices. I am not without hope that, given time, my precious porcelains will be appreciated for their history, beauty, and importance. Their value will be not only what I judge it to be but more. Knowing this, I rest more easily. My angst was temporary, and I am again in control.