November 27, 2022

Most auctions are like newspapers, forgotten with the next edition. But a few rarely capture the public’s imagination, inviting bids from those who don’t usually frequent auction rooms. The timely sale of Joan Didion’s personal effects earlier this month was one such auction.

Demand for the late writer’s artifacts saw her Celine sunglasses go for $27,000 and her desk for $60,000. Perhaps most puzzling was the item that drew the most bids (49): a 6-by-4-inch framed invitation to a Bruce Nauman art show that brought $32,500.

However, more than celebrity or record sales, I’m captivated by “sleepers” – fabulously rare or valuable items that, for one reason or another, bidders believe an auction house has failed to correctly identify . Dealers in the know of Chippendale or Old Masters furniture used to make their living trawling dusty salerooms and auction catalogs for such items.

Early in his career, Roger Fry cemented his reputation as an art critic by spotting two Jacopo Bellini paintings in Venice that local experts considered worthless.

With Google now at everyone’s fingertips, you’d think sleepers would be a thing of the past. But they continue to appear with surprising frequency. Dutch art dealer Jan Six became a celebrity after acquiring not one, but two dormant Rembrandts between 2014 and 2018. One was spotted in a Christie’s catalog and bought with an investor for £137,000.

This ebonized weekman (at least £400-£600) is on sale at Sworders in Essex next weekend

This ebonised semainier (£400-£600), ‘just the right size to sit in an alcove by a fire’, is on sale at Sworders in Essex next weekend

Six knew the auction house had made an error when it attributed the painting, dated 1633-1635, to “Rembrandt’s circle” — Rembrandt didn’t have a “circle” in the early 1630s, Six said in a documentary, because he didn’t he was still famous.

More recently, in October, a Chinese tianqiuping-style vase valued at €2,000 at an auction in Fontainebleau was bid for as much as €7.7 million by mostly Chinese bidders who thought it was much more old and rarer than billed.

“It’s quite heartening to know that sleepers can still happen in a way,” Elizabeth Talbot, director of auction rooms at TW Gaze in Norfolk, tells me. “The modern market doesn’t allow sleepers like it used to. Back in the day you had to drive around in a car and hope no one sniffed it.”

Talbot auctioned a bedroom at one of TW Gaze’s weekly sales in August: an unframed painting of a Madonna and Child estimated at £50-80, which was £160,000 after several bidders they suspected it was made by an Italian master.

“I have my eye on some Ingleby chairs from Howard & Sons coming to Anderson & Garland in Newcastle” (at least £2,000-£4,000)

How did a supposed Old Master get away? A photo of the painting was emailed a few weeks before, with an eclectic mix of stuff — “it’s for sale, but no significant stuff,” says Talbot. “Unfortunately, he arrived on the scene while our specialist was on vacation.”

It wasn’t until a well-known art dealer came to inspect it the night before the sale that Talbot had any inkling that the painting might be special. The next day, the dealer and an online bidder bid the painting high and to the astonishment of those in the room; in the end, the dealer triumphed.

A high final price is no guarantee that the painting is, in fact, a bedroom. It often takes months or years of research to verify the authenticity of a painting and is sometimes never fully resolved. When Talbot went to look at the Madonna and Child painting after the sale, she still thought it was probably a 19th-century copy. “Of course I agree with anyone who has spent their whole life studying,” she adds.

I inadvertently bid on a (minor) bedroom last month: a pair of Austrian ebonised beech chairs which went for £12,000, 30 times the £400 average estimate. They were apparently designed by Josef Hoffmann of the Wiener Werkstätte and sold to an American institution. I just thought they would look good next to my fireplace.

Looking ahead next week – although I can’t say any of these are bedrooms – I’ve got my eye on some Howard & Sons Ingleby chairs coming to Anderson & Garland in Newcastle, which impressively include their original purchase receipt of 21 June. 1935 and would look lovely in a sitting room (£2,000-£4,000).

And on December 1, Dreweatts in Newbury is hosting a sale of some truly exceptional pieces from collector and dealer Phillip Lucas, including a 17th-century baroque bronze chandelier that requires a larger entry than I have ( at least £800 – £1,200). More suitable are a pair of early 20th century terracotta planters from Liberty & Co (£1,000-£1,500).

Next weekend I’ll be heading to Sworders in Essex to preview their Fine Interiors sale, which has a small but very nice selection of painted Regency furniture, antique sofas and more than one mirror that I’d like to take home.

Highlights include an ebonised semainier, which is the right size to sit in an alcove by a fire (£400-£600) and a George III gilt-framed oval mirror with ornate urn and lightly foxed saucer (it is £400-£600). I have a similar one that I bought from Gear Antiques on Lillie Road in Fulham, West London earlier this year and it is one of my favorite things.

Pair of early 20th century 'weather wonder' terra cotta planters by Liberty & Co (£1,000-£1,500)

Pair of early 20th century ‘weather wonder’ terra cotta planters by Liberty & Co (£1,000-£1,500)

Lauren Indvik is the FT’s fashion editor. Sign up for her new one Fashion Matters newsletter at ft.com/newsletters

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