Live from London… it’s the Christie’s Steiff “sale of the century” held on October 13, 2010! And Steiffgal had the amazing fortune to be there from start to finish! It truly was an experience of a lifetime! Here is probably more than you want to know about her visit, and some auction details that you probably won’t read about elsewhere!
First, about Christie’s itself. Christie’s is located on Old Brompton Road in South Kensington. The street is a main thoroughfare with shops, restaurants, parks, and hotels on it; it is a few blocks from Harrod’s, the Natural History Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The entrance has two red Christie’s flags, so visitors know that they have arrived at the right place. There is an information desk as in the entranceway on the left to help direct visitors to the right showroom or office. The building itself is clean, modern, and relatively easy to navigate; there are signs and helpers everywhere! It is also interesting to note that the interior is quite open as the space is constantly being reconfigured with walls and display cases – highlighting the treasures of upcoming sales.
The Steiff preview viewing was held during the four days leading up to the auction event. It was in a large room (pictured here) which was towards the back of the building. The actual sale was held in the same space as the preview. Steiffgal attended the preview the day before the main event; she spent about two hours viewing and photographing the treasures. The room was well lit and even had a skylight! All the Steiff collectibles were placed in locked glass showcases, around 8 feet tall each. Each case held three or four shelves worth of items, depending on their sizes. These cases were placed around the periphery of the room, as well as in island configurations in the middle of the room. There was a very helpful team of three Christie’s assistants to answer any questions; they were very friendly and outgoing. Visitors could even hold ANY piece they wanted, including the crown jewel of the auction, the Harlequin Bear! Such a thrill!
When it comes to Steiff, size is relative. For Steiffgal, many items that she thought would be quite large, were actually small or even palm sized! Or treasures that she thought to be tiny were much larger than she anticipated. It is hard to judge size via a photograph and description – there’s nothing like seeing something firsthand! Interestingly, Steiffgal heard this from many other preview visitors as well. For example, take a look at this Record Teddy. How big is he? (See bottom of post for answer!)
Finally, the day of the auction arrived. It was scheduled to start at 10am, so Steiffgal arrived at 9am. In order to bid, visitors must register for a paddle. Christie’s requests a passport, a card ID (like a driver’s license in the USA), and a credit card. Visitors are given a client number, which is like an account number, and a paddle, which is about 6″ x 8″ and made from cardboard. The paddle has a visitor’s bidder number printed on it in big black letters, and is the connection between bids, lots, billings, and purchases. A paddle is pictured here to the left.
Steiffgal entered the salesroom at about 9:30am, and it was already quite full, maybe 75 people were already seated in theatre-style seating facing the wooden auction podium. By 9:45am, the staff put out several more rows of chairs, which quickly filled with additional attendees. In terms of set-up, the Harlequin Bear (pictured here on the left) was in its own separate vitrine to the left of the podium; to the right of the podium were showcases containing what were expected to be other auction highlights. On the walls were flat screen TVs; as each lot came up for auction they would feature the item and its lot number, and then its price in Pounds, Dollars, Euros, and Japanese Yen. The actual items for sale were not presented live at the auction.
The auction itself went a bit longer than expected. It started on the dot of 10am, and finished up around 7:30pm. There were no breaks at all, not even for lunch! (Tip: if you ever attend an auction, bring along a snack or lunch… just in case!) All in all, 652 lots were auctioned off; 641 of these were published in the catalog with an additional “bonus” eleven lots added in after the catalog went to print. Steiffgal “Tweeted” the auction live for the entire event, sharing the excitement of the real-time happenings with collectors all over the world. Christie’s was kind enough to note Steiffgal’s Twitter handle and timeline in their announcement about the sale of the Harlequin Bear! Steiffgal was also quoted in a Bloomberg article about the results of the auction, from the collector’s perspective.
Four auctioneers covered the auction, each was very different in his style. The first one was very energetic and had a fun tie, he got people excited and pumped up at the proceedings. The second one was very flirty with the audience and really got the bidding going with his coaxing and pace. The third one was quite funny; he brought along two tiny Steiff Teds and placed them on his podium and made a joke about it. When a Steiff play duck came up for auction, he put his gavel down, looked puzzled, and asked the audience, “What’s that thing on the top of his head?” The audience quickly replied, “a pom-pom!” The woman sitting next to Steiffgal, a Christie’s regular, said that this auctioneer was known for his comical antics during a sale. And finally, the last auctioneer was by far the most dapperly dressed, and the fastest talker. He kept the pace and the bids coming, even into the final stretch of a very long day.
The decorum during the sale was a little different than Steiffgal thought it would be. In general, the attendees were very quiet and businesslike. There wasn’t any clapping or celebration when certain lots sold (except when Steiffgal won her lots, but she kept her excitement rather private…) The pace was also unexpected. The Harlequin Bear sold in what seemed to be less than a minute, blink and you would have missed it. On the other hand, some more “common” treasures, like the Steiff Bully Bulldogs and woolen miniatures, seemed to take far longer to close. Much of the bidding action came via phone and internet bidders; there was a bank of Christie’s employees off to the side of the salesroom taking these orders from remote bidders. A woman in a pink jacket bought many items; another woman kept waving a red pen to bid – and was gently reminded by the auctioneer to use her paddle so he would not miss her interest. The woman sitting to the left of Steiffgal came for the last lot in the printed auction catalog, a group of Steiff Disney animals from The Jungle Book; these are pictured above on the left. Thankfully she did win the grouping – it would have been such a disappointment to go home empty handed after such a long day.
You can see the entire auction catalog, and the prices realized per item, here on the Christie’s website.
It is hard to say how the prices were overall, as Steiffgal always says, “something is worth what someone will pay for it.” But there were a few surprises; many things that went way over the estimated price were “one of a kinds” and things not listed in the Steiff Sortiment book. These included a brown Chow Chow Brownie, a large wool plush cat and mouse, and several sample cats (lots 106 and 119), among many other items. The pre-war woolies in several cases, including a pom-pom cat and mouse set as well as several lots of dogs, birds and bugs, closed at several times their estimates. There were also few items that ended up being quite the “bargain” to their new owners; these included a felt monkey on wheels and a mohair bulldog from the 1950’s. Overall, according to Christie’s, the entire sale “realised a total of £1,082,356 / $1,713,370 / €1,226,309 and was 89% sold by lot and 94% by value.“
After the auction ended, Steiffgal needed to pay up and collect her new treasures, which included a pupp-rabbit pair, a Cocoli doll, and a dressed fox. (These new friends are pictured here on the left.) There is a special payments office adjacent to the salesroom; winners simply show their paddle number and the assistant pulls together an invoice that lists wins by hammer price, plus premiums and VAT. Once payment is made, the invoice is stamped and initialed. Buyers then take this paperwork to a collections area, where assistants retrieve won items from a storage room. In the collections area is a self-serve area complete with bubble paper and large Christie’s plastic transport bags. Once a buyer receives their items, they package them up themselves for the trip home. Steiffgal noticed that several buyers took the Christie’s bags and turned them inside out; she assumes they did that so not to “announce” so publicly the nature of their purchases to the outside world.
Overall, attending this auction was a marvelous, incredibly memorable opportunity. Steiffgal met many new friends from Europe, several who happened to be staying at the same hotel as she was! As she was leaving Christie’s, a lovely woman from the Netherlands came up to her, and asked in the sweetest voice, “Are you Steiffgal? I hope you are, but your hair is different than is pictured on the Steifflife blog.” It was the personal moments like this – in addition to the marvelous Steiff – that really made Steiffgal’s three days in London amongst her most treasured ever.
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(….Ok, the Record Teddy is 5 inches only! How did you do?)