I received an interesting note from my mentor Guy van Rijn today.
I think that you use the word ”sleeper’ in the wrong sense.
A sleeper in an auction is an object that stays unnoticed, but the expert with a keen eye has spotted it and will buy it at very fair price. For example, a Congo figure was sold in 2006 on Ebay for € 10,000,-; the next week it was sold for more than 1 million. Discretion stops me to show a photo (insiders know about this story).
An object that will make a much higher price than the estimation, is a totally other thing. This Teke figure, for example, could have been a sleeper, if it wouldn’t have been discovered by numerous interested parties and made a record price.
There are several reasons why an object makes a price multiple times the high estimate. I will list some for you:
A) It is possible that an expert-dealer or collector has spotted an object with a too low estimate because certain provenance was unknown to the auctioneer. The full provenance is missing because the seller did not know it, and/or the auction expert did not have the time to do the proper research on it. This Baule tapper for example was sold by Lucien Van de Velde in the 1970s, information unknown to Native, and with a positive effect on its actual value. The same often happens with objects that were published long ago.
B) The auction expert knows, but uses an object as a teaser to lure buyers. He deliberately appraises an object with a very low estimate. Collectors will be attracted and hopefully bid more eager on this piece, and on the rest of the auction, than with a high estimate. A good example is the cover lot of the last Lempertz sale in Brussels, estimated € 10,000-20,000,- this top quality Korwar made € 105,000,- (including costs € 133,000,-).
C) Overpaid. Let me state here first that a great object is hardly ever overpaid. But it happens that two bidders will not give in, and a less important object will make a price that is not comparison with the market value, “it takes two to Tango”! The Songye axe below might be the best example of these last years (info); it sold for almost 100 times its estimate.
D) A last reason is less ethical, a dealer who sells a piece at auction and lets a friend do the bidding by phone (unknown by the people in the salesroom). In the meantime the dealer advised/convinced an ‘amateur’ ( the third person, or actual buyer) to buy at a high price. This could be a nasty “wake up call” some day!
So the sleepers I have been posting on my blog were in fact wide awake. The auctioneer might have been sleepy, the bidders were not. I might need a new term.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I am not sure my understanding of the term ’sleeper’ is consistent with that of Mr. van Rijn, at least in the US. It means here ‘unanticipated success or recognition’. In politics, for instance, it refers to a candidacy, pundits wrote off, but the candidate showed surprising strength, if not victory. Your use of terms and examples cited by Mr. van Rijn are entirely consistent with this definition and usage of the term ’sleeper’. A more common term in politics but still applicable elsewhere is ‘dark horse’ essentially conveying the same meaning.