Thursday, 22 September 2011
Tales from ebay: The Vitava at Prague
I wouldn't want to give anyone the idea that I have a down on seller's on ebay because I don't. And here is a post about the downside to selling prints on the site. I hasten to add the proof above, The Vitava at Prague (1928), a colour woodcut by John Platt, was not for sale on ebay. This one was sold by the well-known Oxfordshire dealer, Elizabeth Harvey Lee, to HM Government in 1995 and it now hangs on the walls of our embassy in Prague. The proof that was sold last week on ebay is the one you see below.
I think we can take it as given that buyers for the British Government collection do not go looking for bargains on ebay. They will go to dealers like Lee for unframed prints in very good condition and expect to pay her much higher prices. This in itself must be pretty galling for the recent seller, stiveshouseart, (and I hope they don't mind me using their image). The seller put the print in at the reasonable starting bid of £60. It sold for the bargain price of only £75. I must admit I was surprised - I certainly thought it would go higher and I expect stiveshouseart were pretty disappointed. Platt is a very good printmaker and it should have fetched more. So what happened?
As I have found out for myself, taking photos of subtle works on paper like this woodcut is by no means a simple thing to do. To start with, you would need the patience of Job and a very steady hand (and a good deal of luck) to get the image perfectly square. But when it comes to the tones of the work - they are almost impossible to reproduce. I assume the government image is the work of a professional and that the colours are close to the original - but I don't know. By comparison, the ebay image is too green and the distortion is offputting. I also know from experience that any little creases or defects on japan of the kind you can see bottom right are certainly exaggerated by the camera. But their photo also gives some very important information: it shows the deckle edge on the right, which lets us know the margins are the ones that Platt intended. (Artists tened to leave the deckle edge margin deeper).
To sell a work, the image needs to be good. I remember Clive buying his Source of the Clitumnus by William Giles and saying afterwards it was the ropey photograph that gave him a bargain buy. The one here is better but I think you can see the difficulties. This wasn't a specialist print dealer; it was someone who wanted to sell and was rather unlucky. Whoever bought it probably knew the full impact of Platt's image - and no amount of sales talk is going to get that over. As I've said earlier this week, I don't admire the kind of seller who expects the buyer to take all the risks by putting a print in at an inflated starting price. I learned the ropes at Arthur Johnson's auction house down at the cattle market in Nottingham. It was known as a place where the trade would place gear they couldn't shift elsewhere. Ebay can be like that, too.