AUCTIONS

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Indy Lifestyle Online
You see some funny prices at auction - such as Phillips' ludicrously small pre-sale estimate of pounds 200-pounds 300 for what purports to be the earliest known portrait of Charles Dickens. Offered with the watercolour-over-pencil miniature (7.5in by 6in) by Mary Mannin is a 1948 copy of The Dickensian that proclaims "Positively the First Appearance".

In the portrait, Dickens is aged 15 and looks a right dandy - hair in short, clustering curls and wearing what The Dickensian speculates is his first surtout - a close-bodied frock coat. A known portrait, but seldom published and one that academics and public collections both here and abroad will be falling over themselves to own. So why the silly estimate? The auctioneers say it is because the portraitist, Mrs Mannin, is not well known. Hmm. We are getting used to "sleepers on a plate" - lots temptingly made to look as though the auctioneers have not appreciated their true value - but this is ridiculous.

Auctioneers may find there's a price to pay for the silly estimates game. Usually, the estimate is a clue to the vendor's "reserve", the undisclosed price below which he will not sell. That price is traditionally just below the lower estimate. So all estimates, however silly, are a guide of sorts. Even the fact that a silly estimate is in silly hundreds, rather than silly thousands, does have some influence on the maximum price bidders decide they will stick at.

Will the Dickens miniature sell for only half what it might have fetched had it been estimated pounds 400-pounds 600 instead of pounds 200-pounds 300? Find out on Tuesday (11am).

The Phillips sale is not an end-of-season clearance, despite the Dickens estimate, but this time of year, after the big summer sales, is when dead stock is dragged to the block for the last time. The auctioneers' misfortune is the bargain hunter's opportunity. Christie's South Kensington's sale of scientific instruments, Thursday (2pm), has some delightful curios, without estimate, some of which have found rejection hard to handle. No- estimate indicates under pounds 150 is expected. So who will bid for a brass Admiralty-pattern sextant lotted with a three-draw telescope? - an ideal gift for an old seafarer.

Sotheby's antique arms and armour sale in Billingshurst, Sussex, on Monday (2pm), has the only gun the British Rail Pension Fund invested in during its art-buying spree back in 1974. The 1718 English fowling piece by Rowland, bought from Sotheby's for pounds 5,940, will have to sell within its pounds 7,000-pounds 9,000 estimate in order to show a profit after inflation. The sale also has the earliest known example of Mexican gun-making - a splendid silver-inlaid pistol dated 1692. It is estimated pounds 7,000-pounds 9,000 - another silly estimate.

John Windsor

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