We've decided to take this discussion from the comments section of our "More on the Middle Market" post to the top because we feel it's important. Thanks James!!
James suggested that perhaps young folks are not getting involved in antiques because they don't want to buy at auction for fear of the auction house giving them incorrect or misleading information. This is a complex issue, but we'll start by stating that having been in this business for years, we believe the vast majority of auction houses, auctioneers, and dealers to be as honest as the day is long. That being said, there certainly is loads of bad information out there. Most of this bad information, such as a southern "huntboard" being dragged outside during a hunt and dead game being flopped onto it, is the result of a lack of knowledge--some folks just don't read the sources and do the research. And yes, sometimes that information is perpetuated dishonestly...to make something sell for more money being the principal reason.
With regards to James's specific issue about an attribution being made by an auction house based on flimsy evidence, Andrew can speak from first-hand experience. He regularly catalogs objects that come to him with some sort of attribution. If he believes that the attribution is just plain wrong, he doesn't include it. But if it's possibly correct, then he includes it. If questioned about that attribution, he'll be honest and say that the information came from the consignor and he thought it possible but couldn't find anything to substantiate it further. This does 2 things. Firstly, it keeps potentially important information with that object. Maybe that attribution is weak now, but more research down the road may help firm it up. If you delete that attribution, then it's gone. Secondly, it's a service and liability issue. As an auctioneer, Andrew has a fiscal and legal obligation to his consignor. And he wants to give them good service. To ignore a consignor's opinion about their antiques, unless you can absolutely refute it, isn't good service (provided you are honest with potential bidders about the evidence, or lack thereof). More importantly, let's say Andrew drops an attribution on a decorated chest. If that chest sells for a few hundred dollars and then a year later is determined to be by the decorator it had been attributed to, and it sells for thousands, then in some jurisdictions (auction law varies by state), there may be some liability. James--we'd be the rather vague answer to your question about that chest's attribution was that auction house's way of saying, "We couldn't discount that maker, but we really can't support it either." Yes, this puts the burden on you, the buyer, and I'm sure that is daunting to a neophyte. That's why Andrew always encourages folks to ask quesions, engage him in dialogue about anything in an upcoming auction. He will give you bluntly honest answers so that you are happy with your purchase and so that you'll come back. If you don't like the answers you got to your question, press them. If you are bidding from a distance, you should expect any auctioneer to be willing to be your eyes and ears about what your are bidding on. And if you have any doubts, don't bid!
We should point out that these issues don't just apply to traditional brick-and-mortar auction houses. Andrew buys alot on eBay and he knows the questions to ask. Most folks who have incorrectly identified something made an honest mistake and are happy to have it corrected. And we see it at shows, even the big ones. Andrew once sold a GREAT folksy footstool from a southern Indiana collector who bought local stuff and never travelled far afield. So, that footstool was almost certainly from southern Indiana. When we saw it at a show later, however, it was identified as Lancaster Co., PA. Because of our research into Midwestern-German furniture (see www.midwesterngermanfurniture.org), our antennae are up for the stuff, and we regularly see it miscatalogued as PA. An even worse instance (of flimsy evidence and of service) was in NY a couple of years ago. Andrew encountered an interesting decorated blanket chest attributed to Ohio. When he questioned the dealer, the response was a luke-warm, "Oh, they made them out there like that sometimes." Excuse me?? I'm suppose to pay 75K for the thing and that's all you can give me??!!!!
At the end of the day, whether you are a new, 30-something collector, or a veteran collector in your 90s, you should always do your homework, read the books, go to shows and auctions and handle the stuff. And you should buddy up with some dealers and auctioneers that you trust so that when you do encounter something that makes you scratch your head, you have someone from whom you can get a second opinion. And let us volunteer ourselves...if you are a young collector who has a question about something you are considering purchasing, just ask! We'll give you an honest assessment based on the information/photos you can provide.
James, and everyone, as we've said before, we believe that this is a service business. So if you have a question about an antique, about its attribution, or about its condition, ask. And don't let anyone get off with dismissive answer. If we're to attract new folks into the world of antiques, we have to prove to them that it's an honest place to be, and one in which you can really learn. And if you're reading this and you're an auctioneer or dealer, then do your very best to continue to be honest and to give top-notch service.