Auctions: Masters of artful games

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The Independent Online
WATCH the Italian dealers cluster behind the rostrum at the end of this week's Old Master sales. They are there to make ridiculous offers for pictures that failed to sell, and then - British dealers allege - knock them out among themselves in a 'ring', which is still illegal even for after-sale buys.

The Italians were the big spenders at last year's Old Master sales, but the recession has finally caught up with them and they have become cautious, going only for works fresh to the market and scavenging for unsolds.

The fresh-to-the-market game is a dealers' fad which has nothing to do with quality and which you can play to your advantage, especially as the 'financially challenged', such as Lloyd's Names, are re- consigning investments well short of their intended holding period. A picture auctioned less than eight years ago may have 50 per cent cut off its estimate - just because dealers have seen it before.

However, at 20 years' distance from auction, a new breed of British Old Master dealer is re- classifying them as fresh. Watch out for these young 'uns. They are more active in drawings than paintings. Take the auction houses' advice about sale history and condition, then pitch into this buyers' market.

Sotheby's Old Master paintings are on Wednesday (10.30am), starring a pounds 3m Rembrandt. Christie's, bulging with re- consignments, is on Friday (11am). Phillips' sale, plenty in the low thousands, is on Tuesday (11am); Christie's South Kensington Thursday (2pm). Old Master drawings: Christie's Tuesday (12 noon) after a sale from the Woodner collection (10.30am). Phillips Wednesday (2pm). Bonham's combined paintings and drawings sale Thursday (11am).

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