New Scotland Street Chapter 26: Price on application

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At the same time that Bertie and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson were being admitted to the afternoon performance of the Grand Glasgow and Greater Clyde Circus, in its temporary site on the Meadows, Pat Macgregor was accompanying her part-time employer to a sale of Scottish art.

This was taking place in the Lyon and Turnbull auction rooms in Broughton Place, where Matthew had spent a large part of that Friday afternoon viewing the lots. From his perspective it was an unusually exciting sale: at least two of the paintings on offer were, he thought, being put up at an attractively low estimate, and several others, he felt, could benefit from upgraded attributions. These were all attractive propositions to any dealer who might wish to sell them on, and he had decided that he would make every effort to get at least two paintings, or even possibly three, at this sale.

For Pat, participation in a sale was a new experience. Although she had worked at Matthew’s gallery for some years now, and although she had an undergraduate degree in the history of art, her responsibilities had mostly revolved around dealing with customers who dropped into the gallery from the street – passing trade, as Matthew referred to them. This she did as a back-up to Matthew if he was otherwise engaged, or on her own at such times when Matthew was out of the gallery, at coffee or lunch, or on some errand dictated by Elspeth. Living out at Nine Mile Burn and being responsible for triplets meant that Elspeth rarely had the chance to come into town unencumbered. It was then left to Matthew to go to Valvona & Crolla or, more prosaically, the dry cleaner’s or chemist’s.

Matthew had recently made a trip to London with a friend to visit an art fair. This friend, who had been an art dealer for considerably longer than had Matthew, had generously instructed him in the ways of art fairs, and in the specific language that, like some ancient shibboleth, distinguished the art trade’s insiders from those merely seeking admission. It was important, for instance, to say that a painting was with a gallery rather than to say that the gallery had the painting. Similarly, there were conventions as to the appropriate circumstances in which price could be mentioned. If advertising in one of the glossier magazines, for example in Country Life, it was in distinctly bad taste to mention the price at which a painting was being offered. This suggested that the sort of person who might want to buy it might actually need to know the price in advance, and in respect of some paintings, that was simply not the case. Rather, the painting should be represented as just being there, as if it had descended from somewhere; yes, it was for sale, but that was only as an act of generosity – an act of sharing – rather than as part of a commercial transaction.

The use of the acronym POA was similarly a matter of some delicacy. If a gallery inserted a price list into a catalogue – an important courtesy – then even if most prices were given, there were some that should not, and the term Price on Application should be used. This conveyed the important message: this is really expensive. It also said: we are a bit embarrassed about this, but there we are. Some things are indecently expensive, and saying POA shows people that you, the seller, are conscious of how these high prices may look a bit bad, even greedy. So to say POA means that the prospective purchaser will understand that you would love to give it to them for less, but cannot. Incidentally, it also allows the enquirer to show the seller that he or she is the sort of person who is unperturbed by the letters POA.

Of course there is the additional implication – that the seller of the painting does not want anyone to know how much he has received for it. This may be because he does not want people to think that the painting went for what might seem a rather low sum, or that he does not want others, including the person he is currently divorcing, to know how much he has raised by the sale.

“It’s a messy business at times, the art trade,” Matthew’s friend said. “Basically, Matthew, we’re all car salesmen, aren’t we? Everybody is. We’re all selling cars.”

“There’s nothing wrong with selling cars,” Matthew responded. “I have some very good friends who sell cars – and where would we be without them?”

“Oh, I agree,” said the friend. “And at least car salesmen don’t say POA, do they? They’re up-front about it. They say things like Price on the road. How much more direct can you get than that?”

“And we should say Price on the wall?” suggested Matthew.

“Ha,” said his friend. “Very funny.”

In the plane on the way back from London, Matthew had picked up a business magazine from the back of the seat and had paged, without much interest, through the articles on MBA courses and so on (POA). He thought these magazines insufferably dull, but on this occasion he found himself reading an article that really did engage his attention. This was by somebody described as a motivational enabler, and it was about how you, as an employer, might do more for the development of your staff. “Don’t take your staff for granted,” the article warned. “Skills atrophy – remember that: skills atrophy unless developed. Skills are like muscles: use them or lose them.”

Mathew had heard that advice before, and it always made him feel – rather nervously – his biceps, to see whether they were quite as firm as they used to be. And he did this now, in the plane, before continuing to read the article. As he read, he realised that he had done nothing to help Pat develop her skills. He had never so much as lent her a book or drawn her attention to some article in the Burlington Magazine. Nothing. He had taken her for granted.

And so he decided that at the next opportunity he would take her to an auction and let her see how things operated there. He would even let her bid – under supervision, of course, and while he was at her side, but hers would be the hand that was raised. The thought made him feel warm inside – as any benevolent act might do.

“Pat,” he said, “I want talk to you about auction catalogue attribution.”

Pat looked at him expectantly.

“Do you know the difference,” Matthew asked, “between attributed to, school of, circle of, and follower of?”

Pat stared at him. “Of course I do,” she snapped. “I wasn’t born yesterday, Matthew.”