Auction review: Sotheby’s Paris – June 18, 2013 – Part 1: Corlay collection

The Sotheby’s Paris auction of the Françoise & Jean Corlay collection (18/06/13) was anything but a success with only 16 of the 50 offered lots selling for a total € 752,700 (premium included). With a mere 32 % of the lots sold this dramatic result left the packed auction room in silence after quiet a noisy sale. Luckily for Sotheby’s, the cover lot, a rare janus Songye figure was sold – though also only just below the lower estimate with a final bid of € 340K (est. € 350-500K).

Explanations ? Firstly, from the 16 sold lots only 6 lots sold above the lower estimate (excluding the premium). One could thus conclude that Sotheby’s was a bit too enthusiastic with its pre-sale estimates. What to think of the estimate of € 4-6K for two ordinary Kuba boxes? There are many other examples were the difference with the real market price was too big to generate any interest. Stimulated by previous results and a tendency to overprice, the reserve prices often didn’t let much room for bidding. The ivory Mbuun whistle (Est. € 20-30K) for example only got a single bid (€ 15K).

Together with the high estimates, the Kinshasa provenance of many lots didn’t help either. Many collectors have been brainwashed by dealers that it is impossible to find authentic objects in situ. They know better of course; and in their turn were suprised with the huge difference between the Kinshasa prices (once paid by the Corlays) and the current estimates.

Lastly, the quality of some pieces left much to be desired. Lot 25, a Yombe figure, was withdrawn from the sale. Probably Sotheby’s was misguided by the fact that it was published in Lehuard’s Art Bakongo. Some objects were colonial (for example the Songye knife) and the estimates of many other lots didn’t correspond with their quality, for example this mediocre Songye figure (Est. € 6-9K) or its big ugly brother (Est. € 300-400K!).

So, who’s to blame? I doubt the Corlay family insisted on having such high estimates; though it might have been a bait by Sotheby’s while persuading them to entrust them with their collection. Despite the praising introductory texts of Frank Herreman and François Neyt, the collection was also missing some importance. The majority of the featured objects was never published or exhibited and the Corlay name remained largely unknown. Despite all efforts to present the collection as highly important, they thus failed to generate extra value with this presentation.

But, with the big grin of the janus Songye in mind, he who laughs last, laughs best; since the new owner of this fantastic masterpiece did make a bargain.

Janus Songye Figure Corlay

(image courtesy of Sotheby’s)

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