Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Reliability of Information...

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.

6 comments:

james said...

Well, i am going to respectfully disagree on the "attributed to" thingy. First of all, attributed implies that there are facts, evidence to support the claim. Second, if the client/consignor has a "hunch" that the object is from so & so maker but no evidence to back that up, there are ways to deal with that. Whats wrong with "in the manner of so & so maker" or " in the style of so & so maker".

Lets just face it, "attributed to" has become little more than a marketing tool designed to make the experienced collector stop, look & maybe inquire and the novice collector to think that they can get something of great value for nothing.

John W said...

I agree with James. I think the terms "manner of" "style of" "after", etc. have been slowly lost over time and the only thing being used in any volume is "attributed to", whether appropriate out of recent convention. I think it's time the antique world brush off the other terms and start using them in more venues.

I totally believe that most auction houses do their best to "attribute" correctly. Their heart is in the right place. But how can any one auction house know everything about every category of collectible that crosses their doors? There isn't enough time in their lifetimes to learn the minutiae of everything.

I recently received a picture from an auction house that has been in the business for many, many decades. The picture was for a "Belter" sofa in their upcoming sale. The sofa was clearly not by John Henry Belter for many reasons I could enumerate. The only thing the sofa was, was Rococo, American, and ornate. Hardly enough for an attribution.

I'd like to see the standard be that all attributions are followed by a short justification (pg. 9 of so-and-so book, same design as one in the Met, etc.) Otherwise use "manner of", "after", "style of", etc.

Neal Auction provides very helpful attribution substantiation for many of their items in their physical catalog (online catalog does not always have all the additional info).

Andrew said...

We're all about trying to "step up" the standards for auction house cataloguing, but you are correct in that we can't know everything. There are 3 cataloguers at Garth's that catalog some 4000 lots per year, ranging from Chinese ivory to early southern furniture. We do our best, but even if we are 99% accurate, that still translates to more than a few mistakes.

Andrew fervently preaches that no one should buy at auction based solely on a single photo and a description in a catalog. Ask questions. Ask for more photos. Let's not forget that most auction houses don't guarantee ANYTHING. The burden in this business has always been on the buyer. And based on conversations we've had with "old timers", the average dealer and auctioneer is far more honest today than they were years ago.

But please do keep pushing all sellers in this business to tell you more. If you see something in Garth's May auction, email Andrew and he'll tell you all he knows, or doesn't know. He'll send you photos. And if the attribution is not strong, or was included in part due to "consignor pressure" (a fact of life for ALL auctioneers...remember that when you sell your stuff!), he'll tell you.

james said...

OK, now that i have trashed auction houses (seriously, most do really try to be credible but it only takes a few bad apples to sour the barrel), let us move on to dealers.

Recently, a good friend of mine (lets call her jane) went through a divorce and decided to buy a new house & start a new life.

Jane is mid 40s, a career lady with a very good income(high 5, low 6 figures) who could easily afford to buy some nice pieces.

Jane was going shopping to completely furnish her new house so i tried to talk her into buying some antique pieces.

James, NO, i need this done NOW, i cant wait on the right piece at the right price to furnish an entire house.

ACCENT PIECES i cried, we can go to some local dealers and find some really nice smalls.

JAMES, NO, those are FOO FOO people, i dont wanna go there.

FOO FOO PEOPLE i asked, what the heck is a FOO FOO person?

FOO FOO people, according to Jane, are folks who are condescending, stuck up, snobby, etc. who would just take advantage of her lack of experience.

Jane didnt say it but, i suspect she had stumbled into a local shop sometime in the past and had a VERY BAD experience.

No amount of persuasion on my part was going to get Jane into those shops, they were FOO FOO people in her mind and that was THAT.

Andrew said...

James--that kind of "fussy and foo foo" perception of antiques and antique collectors/dealers is a HUGE problem when trying to attract the younger generation. We need to work to change that perception. Antiques are green. Antiques are very useful, livable things. Antiques are historical and artistically interesting. Pick one, they're all good. But until dealers, collectors and auctioneers stop standing around discussing vague concepts like "surface" and "form" that are hard for a neophyte to understand, then that perception will continue.

james conrad said...

Andrew,
Yeah, i hear you. I myself have never encountered dealers who are "foo foo people" or maybe i just didnt notice. Most of the dealers i know/interact with are exactly the opposite. Need a bit of a price break on that object? DONE, need 90-120 day terms on that object? DONE, etc. Anything to make the sale kinda thing.

MAN O MAN, please dont get me started on dealers/collectors who have an "original surface" fetish, thats another pet peeve of mine. I know, they MUST BE FOO FOO PEOPLE!

HAPPY EASTER EVEYONE