Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

Finarte made the declaration in an open letter to clients, collectors, journalists and dealers on October 1, saying they would now only declare a lot sold or unsold.

A spokesman told ATG that those who have complained about results being made public were typically former husbands whose ex-wives had discovered that their mouldy Old Master was worth much more than declared, and dealers whose customers knew what they had paid for a work at auction.

Finarte’s decision brings into question the ‘privacy’ issue that has long been debated across the market, particularly since the advent of the digital age. Auctions are held in public and so such information is already in the public domain; and without access to comprehensive sales information, those involved in the market are deprived of the ability to assess it accurately.

Finarte say that they are simply following Italian law (statute 196/2003), which safeguards the processing of personal details and privacy generally.

However, it is not clear that auction sale data really constitutes “personal details”. Indeed section 24 of the same act declares that no consent to release the data is needed where it is “taken from public registers, lists, documents or records that are publicly available”.

The statutes of the National Association of Italian Auction Houses (ANCA) state that “Members undertake to render their auction results public”.

Sonia Farsetti, president of the association, points out that “there’s nothing to stop someone from sitting in the auction room, jotting down each price and publishing the resulting list”.

However, Ms Farsetti understands Finarte’s decision was not so much about privacy as excessive dissemination. If a work is unsold, that information instantly becomes available worldwide and it becomes harder to sell; and when a work is sold, the price becomes available to any potential buyer.

She says the matter will be discussed in a future meeting. However, as the biggest member of the ANCA, Finarte are unlikely to be dictated to.

The timing of Finarte’s controversial decision can be seen in the context of Gruppo Finarte’s financial performance in difficult trading conditions.

The company’s results for the first six months of 2009 show losses up by close to 20 per cent on the same period for 2008 and their share price has remained low all year, despite the announcement that it had been commissioned to sell the collections of Alitalia (estimated at €1m).

One telling statistic in the company’s recent financial report is that the sale of property owned by the auction house itself climbed from €300,000 in 2008 to €1.74m – an increase of 480 per cent.

Also relevant in the light of their decision not to publish sale results is Finarte’s association with a TV channel and internet site that sells pictures. Telemarket, owned by Finarte president Giorgio Corbelli, was founded in 1982 with the express purpose of facilitating “access to art by a non-expert public”.

Comparing recent Finarte and Telemarket catalogues shows that items unsold at the former have later appeared for sale at the latter.

For instance, an untitled work by Fernandez Arman comprising tubes of blue paint squeezed out in rows on a canvas, unsold at Finarte in March with a top estimate of €40,000 (plus 24% buyer’s premium), was then offered by Telemarket at €76,500.

Anatre sul lago by Francesco Fanelli, unsold in Milan in November 2006, with a high estimate of €28,000, is now on offer on Telemarket at €49,300, while Al Pascolo by Piero Focardi, unsold in the same 19th century paintings sale with an estimate of €18,000 is now on offer as a ‘new arrival’ on Telemarket at €28,900.

Other converted lots are offered closer to their auction estimates. The home page of the Telemarket site states that the prices “include a 15 per cent discount”.

By Lucian Comoy