Friday, April 20, 2012

Barking Over Sendak's Sleeping Dog

I really don't understand Bonhams auction house and the recent revamping of its website. One thing collectors really need in order to decide whether they wish to place a bid for an item at auction is a decent image. Well, this is the best image I could get from the Bonhams website of a Maurice Sendak drawing from 1971 that probably is quite charming. As you can see, it's little more than a thumbnail!

Maurice Sendak, Sleeping Dog
in Pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1971

There is a zoom function on the Bonhams website that I bet they're needlessly proud of, but it only lets you view details within a tiny box rather than enlarging the full image. Auction houses no doubt spend a fortune to maintain their websites, so I wonder why their efforts are so ill-conceived. 

Let me give a visual example. Here is an image from my very first blog post of some really spectacular Sendak artwork that was offered for sale at Bonhams last year. While it's not as large an image as I'd desire, it's acceptable enough for my blogging purposes and I was delighted to be able to share it.

And here is how the archived image appears on the Bonhams website today. As you can see, it's about the same size and resolution as the sleeping dog. This leads me to believe that all images on the Bonhams site are now going to be low-resolution.

Now, to be sure, Bonhams has always decreased the resolution of its archived items, no doubt a gesture to the bean counters, so I'm exaggerating the actual decrease in resolution for this particular image by showing more or less what it may have looked like before the auction. Nevertheless, unless they fix their website quickly, it's going to be difficult to get decent images of any lot from Bonhams even before an auction takes place. This is unconscionable and it's bad for business. The decision-making that underlies this is an enigma to me. But sadly few of the auction houses get web presentation right, even though it should be their lifeblood.

Christie's is another example of an auction house that sabotaged its own online images. Many older items on the website from prior to 2008 can be enlarged a bit with one click. More recent items have a zoom function that takes you into flash player, a place you don't want to be, or at least I don't. The resulting zoom function features a much bigger window than Bonhams, but even this zoom function generally again won't let you see the entire image unobstructed. It is an enlarged view of the whole work that I would value. The zoom widget is very good, I concede, at showing fine details of a small section of the image. Christie's does a better job than most at archiving, but all unsold items disappear from the site quickly as if they had never been put up on the auction block.

Sotheby's website frustrated me for a long time with its reliance on slow-loading pdf files. I am forced to concede, though, that one can obtain here a very large high resolution image, and I am quite fond of these in the main. Sotheby's archiving, on the other hand, is pretty horrendous. One can argue, I suppose, that there's no profit in maintaining a good online archive, and that my needs as an image-hungry blogger should have no bearing on what a for-profit auction house does with its sales archive. But if I were consigning an item to an auction house, I would like at least to be able to look up on my own how they presented similar items in the past.

Heritage Auctions boasts that it is the world's third largest auction house. Right now, I'd say they represent the gold standard in offering high-resolution images and later in archiving them. One has to register with the site to get access to the archives and the high-res images, but I can live with this. At least the information is not hiding behind a third-party paywall. I really dislike Heritage's search function though. It still doesn't seem to be integrated over the whole website.

Swann Galleries, which I am fond of using for this blog, also does a very good job with archiving. It's images are good but often not large enough, and there is absolutely no zoom function for details. I think the size of their image files may be due for an upgrade.

Illustration House has generally better and larger images though again with no zoom. Their archiving is a disgrace.

Skinner emblazons watermarks on its images. Need I say more?

EBay is a treasure trove of information, some of which is even reliable. The site has images of erratic quality based on the skills and efforts of individual sellers. EBay is not an auction house and unfortunately does not consider archiving to be a part of its mission. It does keep old auctions on the site for three months up to a year, but sellers may remove images from their independent hosting services before this time. Also, eBay's archive search, such as it is, is not very helpful. Over the years, a rich history of sales on eBay has been lost, and most of the information is probably not recoverable.

These are the auction sites I rely on the most in writing this blog. Collectively, they are a huge source of frustration to me. In the long run, I think their efforts, when shoddy, erode the confidence of the online bidding community. Your results may vary.

Maurice Sendak, Sleeping Dog
in Pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1971

Pictures by Maurice Sendak. New York: 1971

SENDAK, MAURICE. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. New York: 1971. 9 folders containing 20 illustrations of various sizes, loosely inserted in folio box as issued, text sheet, upper cover of box starting. LIMITED EDITION, No 391 of 500 copies with an illustration SIGNED in pencil by Sendak

US $800 - 1,200

£500 - 760
€610 - 910
April 29, 2012:  Sold for US $500 including premium.  A steal!

June 10, 2012 Update:  Bonhams has fixed their online images and full-size pictures are now available! Take a look!

Maurice Sendak, Sleeping Dog
in Pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1971
Pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1971



  1. Well done Doc! Perfectly expresses my thoughts too. You'd have thought it was in the interests of the auction houses to get this feature right but obviously not. I have spent many hours of fun toying with the annoying magnify button...

    1. Well, I'm so glad to hear I'm not alone in my frustration, not that I wish any on you or anyone else. Imagine the thousands these houses waste on internet consultants, when they should just come to us!