20 Mar Chapter 5: Auctions
Ahh, the stories I can tell about auctions. Actually, I’m sure that anyone whose attended two or more of these mainstays of the antiques business has already begun to develop their own collection of experiences. As noted earlier, auctions are a disease … not fatal (in most cases) and possibly not contagious (unless you put friends or family in direct contact with them) but they are a disease nonetheless. And if there’s a cure, I don’t know it or the FDA hasn’t yet approved it. There is, for instance, my friend Bill. Unmarried and retired, Bill has over the years accumulated an incredible collection of antiques, most of it focusing on his origins, eastern Pennsylvania. In fact, my hoarding pales in comparison to his collection, which fills two houses and crowds him out of an assisted living apartment. Bill roamed the shops in the area to see what’s new, but everything in life had to make room for his weekly Wednesday preview of a local auction followed by the auction itself the next day. Now you’d think, given his collection, that he’d be one of that house’s prime customers. In fact, he rarely bought anything there. The only time I saw him bid was when the price was so low even the homeless could afford it. Nevertheless, everyone knew where to find him on Wednesdays and Thursdays since for him, not going to that auction and its preview was equivalent to a priest not attending church on Sunday.
Bill may have been an extreme case, but he illustrates how the auction germ can affect people and how severe the Americanus auctionitus disease can become. Moreover, like viruses, auctions come in a myriad of forms. With the advent of the internet they’ve mutated to become more difficult to avoid and impervious to cure. First, there’s the “farm auction” familiar to anyone who lives “back East” – the on-site event at someone’s home or farm wherein what’s being sold is ostensibly that estate’s contents (more shortly on the word “ostensibly”). At the other extreme are those sales held in some subdued big-city establishment in which the auctioneer is impeccably attired and the offerings are carefully catalogued in slick professionally prepared catalogues with estimated prices arrived at by a process that could be the subject of a PhD dissertation. In between we have a variety of operations that defy neat categorization and that run regularly scheduled sales on a weekly or monthly basis as well as those that simply gather up ‘good stuff’ until they have enough to run a profitable sale. Finally, there’s the internet … specifically eBay … which I’ll treat separately from all other auction venues.
Auctions also differ in terms of where they get what they’re selling. First there’s the consignment auction where what’s being offered most likely comes from dealers – the stuff they haven’t been able to sell and have decided that it’s time to gather up some cash and move on. Alternatively, the auction house itself might own some or all of what they’re selling. It wouldn’t be uncommon, even, to find an auctioneer from one establishment buying at someone else’s auction as they go about filling out their own sale. The goodies available might also, quite legitimately, have come from an estate – grandpa passed on and grandma can’t stand the stuff. I’ll bet that auctioneers, like lawyers (and a few antique dealers themselves), read the obituary pages to see who might have moved on and left their cache of earthly – and sellable – possessions behind. Museums will also sometimes run a part of their inventory thru an auction when upgrading their collections or cleaning out their basements to eliminate what they know will never go on display. Sometimes an auction house will reveal the source of what’s being offered – especially if the source is a well known personality. Here in Los Angeles, for instance, it seems that people will pay more for something that was previously owned by some now deceased Hollywood personality (I refrain from saying ‘star’ so as to not devalue that word any more than it already has). More generally, though, the source of goodies is kept secret for reasons I’ve never completely understood.
One thing I should set straight here immediately is that the likelihood of getting a bargain is, in general, wholly independent of the auction’s sources. Even if the house owns what’s being sold, not everything can be protected with either reserves or shenanigans (more on shenanigans later). Things have to be sold even if that means selling a portion of an auction’s offerings at minimal to no profit. However, there may be an exception to what I just said, though the domain is not antiques. Specifically, there is one class of auction that needn’t concern you if your interest is exclusively antiques. I’m sure you’ve seen them advertised on late night TV or in the Sunday paper – the auction held at some local motel with a heading such as “seized assets” or “overstock”. Almost exclusively the offerings will be countless high-grade watches, gold Krugerands, oriental rugs and contemporary art. I’ve never researched sources, but if you expect to buy a gold Krugerand for less than scrap or a $10,000 Rolex for $500 or $1,000, then you deserve whatever happens to you.
Returning then to antiques, when we first rented that space in Mario and Jerry’s, it was the farm auction that became both our primary source of merchandise and source of entertainment. While other couples might prefer the theatre, the latest movie, a bridge club, camping or the occasional splurge on an expensive dinner, we went to an auction. That’s not to say we didn’t hunt the flea markets, estate sales or other shops. But we loved auctions. Since we lived then in the heart of “farm auction country” the Sunday newspapers would often list five or even ten such auctions within fifty or so miles of us. The big decision was which one to attend. If an auction promised a full menu of what we were looking for, we knew competition would be fierce. At the other extreme, if an auction was thinly attended because the offerings appeared meager, prices were more likely to be lower but who wants to sit through an auction dominated by the sale of rusty bicycles, water damaged 1940s furniture, K-mart costume jewelry and over-stuffed sofas. Of course, there are never any hard and fast rules. My cousin, who as I noted earlier has been in the antiques Americana ‘game’ for decades in New Hampshire, tells the story of a lowly farm auction in which the merchandise consisted largely of rusty farm equipment, worn out 1930s furniture and an assortment of housewares that even a thrift store might reject. But off in the corner sat a pile of picture frames. Most were broken and nearly all were empty except for an occasional worthless print. But there, in the middle of the pile was a frame holding a superior example of late 18th or early 19th century American folk art. “This could be payday” he figured, and things seemed even more promising when the auctioneer began selling the frames in groups of three, with each group bringing $20 or $30. Finally, up came the painting sandwiched between two worthless frames. But when the bidding started and even before my cousin could get his hand in the air, the auctioneer pointed to the back of the room and called out “I have $5,000, do I have $5,250?” My cousin wasn’t the only one who’d tramped thru a yard full of rusty tractors, plows, pitchforks, rotted wagon wheels and industrial strength chains to look thru that pile of frames. And obviously he wasn’t the only one who recognized the value of the painting. In fact, given that the auctioneer immediately recognized a five thousand dollar bid, it was evident that he’d previously alerted at least one of New England’s upscale dealers about the painting’s existence.
There’s an important lesson here for those of you who think you’re smarter than that country farm auctioneer in jeans, plaid shirt and down-home country good-ole-boy demeanor; namely, he’s as slick as an eel and most likely as knowledgeable as any high end dealer. He’s probably run hundreds if not thousands of auctions, and seen tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of individual antiques of every conceivable description, value and category. If you think a French and Indian War incised powder horn, a Prior Hamlin portrait, a period Chippendale chest, a 19th century Native American artifact or a Baltimore Album quilt will slip past him, unrecognized as to its approximate value by everyone except you, then you’re worse than an idiot – you’re an arrogant fool deserving to have your pocket picked.
Auctions are, in fact, a fantastic classroom for learning about a great many things, and one of those things is … ready for this … contemporary physics. There, bet you didn’t expect that. But what contemporary theories of the universe teach is that everything is relative and that there are no certainties. While Einstein’s theories, and the concepts embedded in quantum mechanics and string theory might yield only headaches and nausea to nearly everyone, anyone experienced with auctions has, in effect, an intuitive understanding of the inherent indeterminacy of things and of the fact that whatever happens, whatever they observe, they observe and can interpret only in relation to everything else around them. There are no isolated events. This manifests itself most clearly in the impossibility of giving a meaningful answer to the question “what’s it worth?” when directed at some object. I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked that question as if my experience with antiques should allow me to give a definitive answer. I know I’d get only quizzical looks if I chose to answer “relative to what; relative to when; relative to whom?” If ‘value’ or ‘worth’ is what an object would bring at auction, then anyone familiar with auctions knows that everything depends on what else is being sold that day, whose attending the auction, the skill (and honesty) of the auctioneer, the setting of the auction, when the item in question comes up for bids, and perhaps even on sunspot activity.
To underscore what I’m saying here, consider the coin silver tea service in Figure 4-1. Made by the noted Philadelphia silversmith John McMullin, ca 1815, the identical creamer and sugar were auctioned in 2015 by Sotheby’s. Estimated to bring between $1,200 and 1,800, they actually realized $28,125 — more than fifteen times the high pre-auction estimate. So now, you tell me, what’s my set worth, which includes the teapot? Is it worth something north of $1,800 or north of $28,125? Damned if I know. It might seem safe to say that it’s value is some number between $1,800 and $28,125. But wait … who was bidding on it at Sotheby’s? Does the under-bidder still want this set; is the winning bidder in search of the matching teapot; did the under-bidder decide afterwards they’d experienced a moment of irrational excitement when bidding and are now delighted they were overbid; did the eventual buyer experience buyer’s remorse or were they willing to go even higher if need be? None of these questions can be answered, in which case no definitive answer can be given to the question of what the set is worth for the simple reason that ‘worth’ has no objective isolated meaning. We can’t even say that its value falls somewhere in the rather expansive interval [1800, 28125].
Fig. 5-1: My McMullin Coin Silver Tea Service
Whatever lessons might be learned from this example about antiques generally and auctions in particular will be repeated countless times in this chapter and the ones that follow. So rather than dwell here on what is obvious to most antiques dealers, let me return to auction venues and ask: What is a country or farm auction? Good question. To label something as such doesn’t mean it was held on a farm or in the country. Rather, to qualify (which isn’t to say there is an official judge somewhere adjudicating labels), the auction won’t be a regularly scheduled event or held in some motel. Farm and country auctions are on-site affairs, wherein the content of an estate is what’s being advertised. Now I’m sure the wife and I attended some auctions that fit this definition precisely, but if you think that every auction with the label ‘farm’, ‘country’ or ‘estate’ is what it claims to be, then I bet I can sell you some Ikea furniture as antique. Lets just say one’s suspicions are raised after they bring out a third dining room set or a fourth kitchen table from that 2-bedroom home. Call me a cynic, but when judging an auction – ANY auction — cynicism is as essential to your survival as is oxygen to breathing. The simple fact of the matter is that a good share of auctioneers will “seed” a sale with the things they own even if a majority of the merchandise is from the estate in question.
OK, I’ll admit it – in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this. But seeding is only one element of a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) list of potential deceptions. To understand auctions as a venue for buying and selling antiques, keep in mind that country auctioneers have three essential qualities. First, they can talk at what seems like a 45 rpm record played at 78. There’s a reason for this I’ll describe shortly. The second essential quality is that they be stand up comediennes. If they weren’t auctioneers, they’d most likely be on stage at the Comedy Club or holding forth in Vegas with a huge billboard on Interstate 15 proclaiming them the “new Mr. (or Ms.) Vegas”. Aside from providing some diversionary entertainment as you sit for two hours waiting for the one thing you want to bid on to come up, there’s a higher purpose being served by all the humor. That purpose isn’t served, though, unless the auctioneer possesses a third quality: Being everyone’s friend. They typically are, in a word, the friendliest people in the business, never angry, never cross, never arrogant and never demeaning – the mirror image, at least on this dimension, of the sociopath. They’re someone to have a beer with. And the role played by all three qualities is that they leave you unconcerned that you might in fact be bidding against yourself, or bidding against no one, and hence, overpaying for things – or at least paying more than if the auction were strictly on the up and up. Indeed, they give truth to the assertion that the term “honest auction” or “honest auctioneer” is a primary oxymoron of the English language.
To illustrate some of the deceptions you might experience at the hands of an established country auctioneer, one of our favorites back when we lived in Pennsylvania (I’ll call him Dave) typically didn’t issue a bidding number ending in the numeral “5”. He kept those numbers – 15, 35, 105, 215, etc – for himself. Now Dave didn’t have those numbers so he could buy things — there was a good chance he already owned what was being sold and preferred cash over buying something back in. Lets just say that Dave wasn’t the most honest auctioneer out there, and if he was “running” someone by calling out non-existent bids (or sometimes, against no one at all but hoping that a live body would suddenly jump in at some point), a real bidder might suddenly and unexpectedly quit bidding. In that case Dave needed a fictitious number he could call out as the winner. This, though, isn’t the only trick to be played. Ever sit at an auction as the auctioneer’s barely intelligible cadence moves back and forth from one bidder to another at a speed that defies your ability to turn your head when he suddenly stops and points to someone in the audience and says “weren’t you bidding?” The usual response is a dazed look by whoever he’s pointing at as they self-consciously wonder whether they’d inadvertently moved a hand or twitched their nose in a way that could be interpreted as a bid. Well, let me tell you: An experienced auctioneer knows the difference between a bid and a twitch; heck, he knows the difference between a hand wave meant as a bid versus one in which someone is doing nothing more than waving to a friend to tell them where they’re seated. Thus, in 999 times out of 1000 when an auctioneer says “weren’t you bidding” he (and they are almost all male – women’s lib hasn’t yet made many inroads into the country farm auction business) was running the bid on someone and got caught – any real bidders, if they existed at all, unexpectedly dropped out and left the auctioneer hanging with a high bid that belonged to no one. But rather than drop the sale on a non-existent number, he chose to “back things up”. After apologizing for misinterpreting the non-existent twitch, he points to the last in-the-flesh high bidder and says “sold”.
Now you might ask: Don’t the dealers – the pros — know what’s happening? Answer: Of course they do! Heck, even a novice with a healthy dose of cynicism can figure things out. But those in the know – those experienced with the games auctioneers play — can protect themselves. They know what they’re willing to pay and are correspondingly less likely (but not altogether unlikely – even the pros are human after all) to let the heat of the moment and their egos lead them to absurd bids. In addition, they and the auctioneer know that with respect to dealers at least, this is a repeat business, and an auctioneer isn’t about to consistently screw his regulars. But even if the auctioneer doesn’t know you and thinks you’re a one-time retail buyer (read: idiot or naïve), and if you don’t want to get run up on your bid, you too can protect yourself.
Some time ago I attended a local auction where it was my first time at that establishment. My sole interest was an 18th century Queen Ann highboy. It wasn’t a great piece, but it was honest and back then such pieces could be readily sold if the price were right. So waiting the hour or so until it came up, you might think I’d be bored just standing around with nothing to do, especially since everything else there fell into my categories of used furniture and junk. But I did have something to do; namely, watch the auctioneer from the back of the room to see what shenanigans were his specialty. In that interim it became obvious that his favorite ploy was to run bidders by calling out non-existent bids and then doing all he could to cajole someone into raising their bid. He was aided in this by two floor personnel who, jumping around like spastic puppets on elastic strings, would instantaneously and loudly yell out “yes” every time the auctioneer called for a higher bid. The ostensible purpose of these two overly animated characters was to insure that the auctioneer didn’t miss any bids. Trust me: Auctioneers don’t miss bids; they manufacture them. Their real purpose was to create a frenzied atmosphere and a belief among the naïve that if they didn’t bid now and bid quickly, they might not get to bid at all. This isn’t to say I had evidence that would stand up in a court of law, but this was hardly my first experience with such things, and with my natural skepticism I convinced myself that bids on at least half the things being sold were nonexistent. One has to be careful here, of course, since dealers often do not want others to know they’re bidding, and therein employ a variety of difficult to detect movements that the auctioneer quite legitimately takes as a bid. But retail buyers rarely employ such subterfuge and on the pieces I knew were being bid past what any rational dealer would pay, I often couldn’t see a competitive bidder in the crowd. Of course, I was paying special attention since the highboy was the best piece in the sale and the auctioneer, not knowing me, might mistake me for a retail buyer and treat me as he appeared to be treating other such buyers. This meant establishing a firm limit to what I was willing to pay while accepting the possibility that I’d have my bid artificially run up to that limit. Sure enough, the bidding quickly moved to that limit and then past it by one bid. But when the auctioneer pointed to me for what he presumed would be my inevitable next bid, I put my hands in my pockets and shook my head No. Just as I‘d predicted, he pointing to someone in the front row, and after saying “I thought you were bidding,” turned to me and said “sold”.
You might ask now why anyone would subject themselves to the possibility of being cheated at an auction with a less than stellar reputation. First, while an auctioneer might run a bid or two, most won’t do so to the extent that, as I already suggested, they lose a repeat customer’s business. The general public is fair game, but repeat customers (read: dealers) are treated more carefully. That’s not to say an auctioneer won’t occasionally run a bid on someone they know well. But consider this: Suppose something can reasonably expect to bring something in excess of $1,000 but the bidding stalls for whatever reason at $125. No one absent a strong belief in the tooth fairy expects quality items at that much of a discount, and none but the greedy object to paying $300 or $400 for such a piece if that’s what they collect or deal in. So even a dealer is unlikely to be terribly upset at having a run bid move the price up a bit from the stalled $125. Dealers understand that an auctioneer has two clients – those who buy and those who consign, and it’s only fair that auctioneers protect their consignors as much as they try to be fair to their repeat buyers.
An example of where, as part of the ‘game’, I allowed myself to be run was provided at an auction house I’ve done business with for years. In this instance it was one of their quarterly sales, but this being Los Angeles, the things offered consisted mostly of high end contemporary art, fancy French and Italian furniture and expensive English and Continental glass and porcelain. There was only one piece of Americana in the sale – but what a piece it was: A pristine late 18th C walnut Pennsylvania Dutch cupboard, probably from Lancaster County, with eighteen lites and a rare drawer arrangement (see Figure 5-2). Back East such a piece might in the right context command a five digit number, but in this case the auction estimate was a mere $2,000-3,000. One might suppose that such an estimate was intended to suck people into thinking they could get a bargain. Perhaps it was, but is also reflected the fact that the Americana market out here, especially for large case pieces (and Lancaster County furniture rarely comes in anything but XL and XXL), is at best thin. In any event, as soon as I showed up, everyone on the auction house’s staff knew precisely why I was there, so from the point of view of having a bid run on me it was as if I had a target on my back. And sure enough, when the piece finally came up, they opened the bidding at $1,000, pointing at me, and from there it climbed quickly to $1,800 in increments of $100 before being hammered “sold”. Frankly, I’d have to see a videotaped replay, certified by the FBI and sworn to by three witnesses not associated with the auction house, to convince me there was another bidder in the room. But I didn’t care. I knew I’d gotten a bargain. And the auction house knew it as well. Moreover, based on past experience, the auctioneer also knew I was most likely willing to pay more than $1,800. But here we must keep in mind that the auction house was serving two masters – me and the consignor. They couldn’t sell the piece at the opening bid of $1,000 since that would most likely cause hell to pay with the consignor whereas they now had the excuse “the back bidder unexpectedly dropped out early.” And they didn’t want to run me too far since I was a reliable bidder for any Americana they might get in the future. So their solution was to let me have a bargain just shy of an utterly and blatantly absurd one.
Fig. 5-2: My Pennsylvania Walnut Dutch Cupboard
But when it comes to running bids or to any of the other games an auctioneer might play, this is where being a stand-up comic and nice guy come in. Human nature being what it is, we’re more likely to accept the idea of an auctioneer serving the interests of consignors at our expense if there’s an element of good-natured camaraderie about it all. People can be too busy being entertained to become terribly upset about what’s happening, even if it happens to them. Heck, I’ve even seen auctioneers tell a successful bidder that he ran them, but in a way that left the bidder thinking it was all good fun. There are times, moreover, where to solidify his hold on a customer and to “sweeten the pot” – or, should I say, to take the sting out of being run up on an item — that the auctioneer will close out the bidding abruptly so as to give someone a bargain as ‘compensation’. If the merchandise being sold does in fact belong to an estate or was consigned by someone who isn’t at the auction, this costs the auctioneer little – a few dollars in commissions from unrealized bids. But the long term gain can be significant. Naturally, this means that if you’re going to consign something to an auction of this type, you best be present to at least keep an eye on what’s happening so that the auctioneer is less likely to use your merchandise to reward his regular clients.
Before you judge all such ‘farm auction’ shenanigans too harshly, contrast all of this with the opposite extreme of a stuffy formal auction house where auctioneers wear business suits, men wear ties and women wear ankle length black skirts. It’s all business here — no cadence, no jokes, and the auctioneer could care less about being or acting your friend unless you’re a Hollywood mogul or have a corner office on the 65th floor of some Manhattan skyscraper. Most likely bidding is wholly legitimate but unless there’s something of burning interest to you being sold, I find them as boring as CSPAN. If they’re on, say, lot number #65 and what you’re interested in is lot #225, the time it takes to sell the hundred and sixty intermediate lots (generally about two hours) will seem an eternity. Hopefully there’s a fast food restaurant nearby where you can grab a bite to eat.
There are, of course, a great many other auction types that lie between these extremes such as Pook & Pook, Eldreds, Northeast, Skinners, Cowans, Garths, Julia’s, Conestoga, and so on. If you’re a “serious” collector of Americana, but not in the market for a $1,000,000 highboy, a $250,000 Philadelphia Chippendale chair or a $1.5 million dollar sampler, these are the auction houses that will most likely interest you and often make you drool with envy and lust at the things pictured in their catalogues. The great new difficulty here for the average buyer, though, is that essentially all of them, like their more formal cousins, now allow for online bidding. That means you might very well be bidding against the world. And I mean that literally. One auction establishment here in California even moved its catalogued sales from evenings to afternoons to make it more convenient for potential buyers from the East Coast and Europe to phone and internet bid. And there is nothing more maddening than to sit there, prepared to bid on an upcoming lot, only to see one of the staff at the phone bank talking on the phone, knowing that most likely you’ll soon be competing against someone 6,000 miles away – someone with deep enough pockets that they are unconcerned with the cost of having things shipped to them.
You’ll note, by the way, that throughout this book, I’ve pretty much assumed that furniture and associated accessories come in some simple standard categories – chairs, tables, cupboards, desks, sofas, paintings, candlesticks, and so on. Most of you will find this unexceptional. But then there are those of you who will from time to time attend an auction at one of the more upscale establishments – Bonhams for instance, or even Sotheby’s or Christies. Establishments, in other words, with plush carpeting, comfortable seating and perhaps even a glass of white wine before the auction begins. Well, if you travel that route and begin to branch out in the direction of European antiques, you’ll quickly learn that my categories are anything but satisfactory. It seems that your complimentary glass of wine comes with a string attached; namely, the requirement that you learn a whole new vocabulary. Digging back into your high school French, you best become familiar with such words as tazza, girandoles, torchieres, epergne, gueridon, bergere, bouillotte, bras de lumiere, enenfilade, thuya, bureau plat, famille verte, secretaire a abattant, fauteuil, ambulante, champlevé, chinoiserie, and so on. It’s no longer a centerpiece table, it’s now a table de milieu, and no longer a writing table but a table a ecrire. Will someone please tell me why it has to be called a bibliotheque rather than simply a bookcase? Seems that simply calling something a mirror, tall candlestick, side table or a secretary won’t do, and that if there isn’t a fancy French name for a piece (with occasional Spanish or Italian thrown in from time to time to put you off balance), the suggestion seems to be that its not worth bidding on (what, you don’t want a pair of semainiers — what’s wrong with you?). Once upon a time England had most of the world’s money, but France had a claim to high culture, elegance and wonderfully powdered wigs. Those who crave a home that looks like Versailles apparently want things called what Marie Antoinette called them before she headed to the chopping bloc. In contrast, Americans with their ostensible cultural illiteracy called things what they were … a table was a table and a chair a chair. And herein lies one of the great benefits of focusing strictly on Americana and dealing with more pedestrian auction venues – one doesn’t have to learn any affected nonsense. For those of us focused on American antiques, the most technical terms we’re likely to encounter are tilt top, whirlygig, milk paint, peel, trammel, etc. You might have to learn to pronounce “provenance” the French way and not make it sound like a city in Rhode Island, but I can live with that.
So suppose we take a step down from these exalted and imposing venues and ask: If I’m in the hunt for Americana, what’s the chance of finding a steal when an auction house offers a reasonable share of Americana? What are the chances, in other words, that something will slip through the cracks to the extent that if you buy it you can be accused of committing legalized theft? My answer, sadly, is “slim”. That’s not to say it never happens (I’ll offer some examples shortly), but if that’s your buying plan, you won’t be buying much. Think about it. Even without the internet, if there are fifty potential bidders in the room, the odds are there are no less than twenty five who know a good deal about what’s being offered and who individually have decades of experience with buying, selling and collecting. Taken one at a time they may not know all there is to know, but as a group their knowledge will run deep and cover the spectrum. And if there are collectors or dealers with clients who have deep pockets and if prices depart significantly from wholesale, the odds favor having them depart to the high rather than the low side. If you don’t believe me, pick up any of the several contemporary price guides that report realized auction prices from houses like Pook & Pook, Northeast or Garth’s. If you’re reaction a good share of the time isn’t “who the heck paid that for that?” then the daily balance of your checking account has a few more zeros to it than the average person’s.
To underscore what I’ve just said, let me recount a little story in which, this time, I’ll name names. A few years back, when previewing a local general purpose auction I encountered a Mariner’s Compass quilt that was both signed and dated: Mary Strickler, 1834 (see Figure 5-3). Now the fact is one doesn’t encounter too many quilts of that age, but not only was this one old, signed and dated, it was absolutely magnificent! However, it had a problem: Part of its patterned border consisted of small brown “dots” wherein each dot was now a small hole – the ferrous compound used in the dying process had done its job and eaten the fabric. Unsure of the quilt’s value with the damage, using my cell phone I emailed pictures to a friend, Larry, who was far more knowledgeable than I about a great many things, including quilts. Larry, who has since sadly left us, immediately replied “Call Julie Silber at the Quilt Complex!” Julie, you’ll recall from my discussion of the bed rug, is one of the premier authorities on quilts in the country so I did as told when I got home, telling her I’d just previewed an auction with a quilt in it signed and dated Mary Strickler 1834, and that our mutual friend Larry told me to call. Julie’s response was simply “you’re kidding, aren’t you?” or some such incredulous reaction. I told her I’d email her some pictures, and no sooner had my fingers hit “send” than the phone rang with Julie at the other end: “I want that quilt!” I explained to her that I didn’t have it yet and that it was merely coming up for auction: “How much do you want me to pay for it?” Answer: “Buy it!” “But did you see the damage around the border?” “Yes I did … buy it!” As it turns out, many moons ago she owned that quilt and named her first shop after it (a fact that Larry had somehow stored in his seemingly inexhaustible memory banks). It was, moreover, of such quality that its image had been reproduced in several books on early American quilting. However, in a moment of weakness Julie sold it, regretting it ever since. Suddenly, decades later, there it was again in some offbeat weekly auction. During our conversation, she asked me what I thought it would sell for, and ignoring the point I’m about to make here, I speculated that given the type of auction it was at, probably no more than six or seven hundred. I’m not sure she believed me, but she told me to buy it regardless. Well, damage to the border or no, that quilt is now back in her private collection. But here’s the point of this story: There was no other Americana at this sale, and most of the dealers there were interested in jewelry, European furniture, Chinese antiques of marginal quality, glassware and, to be blunt, low end junk to stock some of the funky cooperatives in and around LA. And keep in mind that the quilt had damage, so you might suppose that the stage was set for a steal. Sorry, but it took a $1,700 bid for me to get it. I knew, moreover, that I hadn’t been run up. The auction house thought so little of the quilt they had one of the owner’s sons – an apprentice in effect – sell it. He started the bidding at $100 and later asked me “what the hell is it with that quilt?” The point here is that even dealers who don’t specialize in Americana or quilts recognized quality and weren’t going to let this quilt slip thru for pennies on the dollar
Fig. 5-3: Mary Strickler’s 1834 Quilt
This isn’t to say that true bargains can’t occur. And that’s precisely what happened a year later at the very same auction house that sold Mary Strickler’s quilt. Now keep in mind that this is an auction house that holds weekly auctions in which a good share (upwards of a half) of what’s sold more properly belongs at a church yard sale and where the density of Americana is consistently thin. As a consequence, there’s a good chance that unless it’s self-evident to even the wholly uninitiated, a good piece will be confused with a reproduction. Moreover, given the thinness of their Americana market, mistakes cost the auction house little relative to their overall sales, and thus leaves them with minimal incentive to correctly identify what they’re selling. And this is precisely what happened when they offered a legitimate William and Mary gate leg table. This is a style that’s been reproduced continuously from day 1 and where comparably aged pieces have been imported from England that sell for a fraction of what an American piece will bring. And my expectations (hopes and prayers) were not disappointed when they brought it up for bids, describing it simply as “drop leaf table.” I’d have to say that paying $200 for a legitimate 18th century maple gateleg that would sell back East for upwards of $2,000 made for a very good day!
Fig. 5-4: My “$200” William & Mary Maple Gateleg Table
Now keep in mind that despite such examples, dealers don’t attend auctions under the assumption that bargains abound. Concerned at all times with how much they can sell something for (unless, as is sometimes the case, they themselves fall into the category of collector), they’re focused on whether there’s enough profit left to make it worthwhile to bid. If the price on something seems absurdly low, there’s generally a good reason – a flaw in what’s being sold such as ended out legs to a chair, replaced parts to some early toy or “original paint” that’s original only in that the piece is question was never painted until someone recently took a spray can to it. That wonderful looking highboy might turn out to be “together by association” — fancy words used to denote a piece in which the top and bottom are from separate pieces of furniture. Or more damning still, how about the words “made of antique elements”? This is merely shorthand for saying that its been assembled out of parts from several busted up pieces of furniture and might include wood recently acquired from the local lumber yard. And by all means watch out for the words “with some restoration”. No one on the planet knows precisely what those words mean since it opens the door to everything and anything.
Such words raise the question as to whether you can protect yourself against nasty surprises and mistakes by reading the condition reports that some of the “better” auction houses offer. Unfortunately, the short answer here is No, but for a more reasoned response let’s consider a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. A typical auction will normally offer as few as 250 lots and sometimes as many as 800. For purposes of an example and ease of calculation, lets pick the number 600 and suppose these lots fall into four categories: Furniture, Asian, fine art, and the general catchall of decorative accessories. Suppose there is one person working for the auction house deemed “the expert” in each of these categories and is responsible for generating the condition reports for the 150 lots falling in their assigned domain. Now if this person puts in, say, a 36 hour work week, a third of which entails various “administrative duties” such as making coffee and debating with coworkers about where to go to lunch and a third with writing up condition reports, that leaves 12 hours per week to review those 150 lots. Suppose the auction house allocates two weeks to preparing for the auction, in which case the “expert” has approximately 9 minutes on average to inspect each item (24 hours times 60 minutes per hour divided by 150). That might be good enough for a piece of decorated stoneware or a needlework sampler, but what about a period chest-on-chest or a pair of federal era portraits? How thorough do you think that inspection will be (and keep in mind that a good share of those 150 lots may consist of multiple items grouped together)?
Admittedly, the preceding calculation is rough and surely the time spent by an auction house’s staff inspecting things will depend on their initial estimate of its value. But I think it conveys the message that there’s no substitute for using your own eyes and knowledge. This isn’t to say that condition reports are useless. O a;ways request them if they’re available. They can point out things you might otherwise miss or, by alerting you to major flaws, save you time and effort. If they tell you that feet are replaced or that the paint is of a later date, it’s generally best to believe it. But assuming that condition reports tell you all there is to know is an assumption no experienced dealer or collector makes.
Here’s perhaps a good example of what I mean: A few years back I spotted a needlework sampler upcoming at an auction of one of the established houses where, as previously described, business suits for the staff are the uniform of the day (check out Figure 3-10 in Chapter 3). The sampler was listed in the catalogue and on their internet site as “American or English” with an estimate in the range of $300 to $500. There was only one problem with this attribution: Stitched clearly on the sampler was the name of the state in which the young lady resided when she made it sometime in the 1830s – a name for which there is no British counterpart (the state was Tennessee, derived from the Cherokee village Tanasi; and insofar as I know, the UK is a tad under-populated by members of that tribe, at least in 1830). Thus, even the most cursory inspection would identify the sampler as American. Not only that, but a little internet searching would tell you that the sampler was a rare form — there was at the time only eleven other documented equivalent examples — and worth far more to a collector in Tennessee than the auction estimate. Now you might ask, how could such a thing happen at a major established auction house? The simple answer, of course, is inattention and sloppiness. But that’s less an explanation and more a description of what happened. Frankly, I don’t know the explanation for this error, but I suspect part of it lies in an overburdened staff that was focused on evaluating other seemingly more expensive lots (not that the sampler sold in the estimated price range – I wasn’t alone in the ability to identify the name of an American state).
For a converse example, also dealing with an early 19th century sampler, there was the time I encountered a nicely executed example that I assumed by its form was American and was identified as such by the auction house. In this case the presale estimate seemed on the money and I ended up paying close to that estimate. There was, though, one quirky thing about it that intrigued me – its central motif was a building, but one that was too complex to be a normal residence. It had four chimneys, a rather elaborate portico and two seemingly spacious wings off to the sides of the main structure (see Figure 5-5a below). After bringing it home a genealogical search suggested that the sampler had originated in Zanesville Ohio in 1820, a Mathilda Clements having been born there in 1812. But that only deepened the mystery since it was unlikely that anyone living in Ohio in 1820 had a home to match the one on the sampler. The most logical possibility, then, was that it was a public building of some sort, but poking around the internet looking for examples of early buildings in Zanesville yielded nothing. During that poking, though, I learned that Zanesville had been the temporary capital of Ohio between 1810 and 1812, which led me to search for images of Ohio’s early capital buildings. And sure enough, there it was, or at least what I assumed it was – a single image of the long since demolished county courthouse that had served as Ohio’s temporary capital (see Figure 5-5b). Now forget about what you think this sampler might be worth. But a reasonable estimate of the time I spent tracking down this information would be parts of two evenings or, say, six hours. Do you think it’s reasonable to expect an auction house would invest this much time researching something they think will sell for between $500 and $700? Not on your life, or at least not unless they think they’re about to sell something worth multiple thousands (a category of value my sampler approximates only alongside the fantasy of me becoming a billionaire).
Before I give the punch line to this example, let’s first try another back-of-the-envelope calculation. Suppose the auction house believes that further research into determining precisely what that building is has the potential for upping the sampler’s value from $500 to $2,000. But suppose, on the basis of past experience, they think that such a thing is likely only one quarter of the time. Thus, that additional $1,500 will be realized only one fourth of the time, for an average or expected gain of $375. Only a fraction of that $375, though, goes to the auction house. They’ll get 25% from the buyer in commission and then perhaps another 25% from the seller as the selling commission. Thus, the time spent doing the research nets the house $187.50. But now divide that number by my six hours, and we see that the hourly gain to the house is but a tad more than $32/hour, which is probably what they’re paying their specialist were his or her salary computed on an hourly basis. In other words, the research appears to be a wash for the auction house. But wait, it’s actually worse than that from their perspective. Those six hours spent on the sampler could have been spent on something else. So there’s also the opportunity cost of the specialist not having spent those six hours on some seemingly more promising item – and who knows what that cost is. No one, then, should be surprised that the auction catalogue’s description of my sampler went no further than “probably American, in good overall condition with light toning to the background linen” – information that took their specialist a minute or two to establish. All of this, then, validates what is perhaps the best statement of the differential incentives to examine a piece to assess its market value, Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire (Penguin Books, 1993): “The market does not penalize an auctioneer the same way it punishes a dealer for making mistakes. If an auction house believes a reproduction Queen Anne tea table to be genuine, the auction house loses no money by miscataloging it. But a dealer who makes the same mistake – who pays $10,000 for a thing that worth only $1,000 – loses everything.”
Figure 5-5a: Ostensible Zanesville Ohio Sampler
Fig. 5-5b: State Capitol Building, Zanesville Ohio, 1810 -12
But now here’s the punch line to my story: It isn’t American after all. Its Scottish! There’s several such samplers featuring the identical building, so the auction house’s estimate of value was on the money. For those of you who might remain unconvinced or who hold out hope against hope, consider the three Scottish samplers in Figure 5.5c found on www.pintrist.com under a search for Scottish samplers. Convinced now? In this instance at least the auction house’s decision not to devote hours tracking down the sampler’s precise origin was correct.
Figure 5.5c: A Sample of Early 19th Century Scottish Samplers
I’ve made special note of the preceding examples not because bargains such as my Tennessee sampler and gate leg table are a common occurrence, but they reveal that the potential for a bargain (and tragic error) lies everywhere, including established auction venues; and they also tell you that you’ll find those bargains or avoid errors ONLY with the application of your own due diligence. It’s true that in the case of my Scottish sampler, I didn’t do the research until after I owned the piece. But by keeping my bid within the house’s estimate, my risk was minimal. However, if you’re a gambler with a limited pocketbook in the search of bargains there is a way to increase your chances at some of the well-established auction houses. Specifically, except in the case of a truly unreserved auction (which corresponds to most farm auctions and those held weekly in some established venue) it’s not uncommon in today’s market for upwards of half the lots offered for sale to go unsold – to not meet their reserves (the minimum the consignor is willing to accept for an item). The question then is what happens to the unsold items. Some will simply be returned to consignors and who knows what happens after that. Some may be sold in an “after market” sale. If you see something you want that fails to sell, no bolt of lightening will strike you dead if you call the auctioneer and ask if the piece is still available and what it would take to buy it. You might be surprised to learn what percentage of things in listed sales sell this way. But there’s a third possibility: Some auction houses will run a piece thru successive auctions if it fails to meet the reserve, and here’s where it pays to know which houses do so (and I’ll leave it to you to figure that out – I can’t do all your work). On the first pass there’s a chance the auction house set an unreasonably high reserve because they missed a flaw, because they couldn’t talk the consignor down from an overly high expectation as to value, or simply because the house set a high reserve to make the consignor feel good.
Let me give you a first-hand example. Some time ago, a splay-legged 18th century butterfly table caught my eye with a pre-sale estimate of $5,000 to $7,000. Now such numbers might not seem reasonable to most people, and the table, however rare, was certainly out of my reach. But it did retain its original paint, which made it something I could lust for. And butterfly drop leafs are rare in their own right, refinished or otherwise. Since my wife allows me to review post-auction prices realized and drool, I noticed that the table hadn’t sold. Rather than put it out of my mind, I knew this auction house often sold things at one of their secondary auctions if it didn’t sell at a highlighted sale. And sure enough, a few months later, it was up for sale again with its presale estimate lowered to $3,000 to $5,000. With an estimate now moving in the direction of (but not to) my pocketbook, I took the time off to preview the auction and immediately saw why it hadn’t sold the first time around: The top had apparently developed a diagonal shrinkage crack along the grain which was then “repaired” by cutting out the crack and inserting a ½ inch wide strip of wood in the removed section. So the table had a flaw, though the base and the underside of the leaves did indeed retain an 18th century painted surface. But now there was a new problem: The top, which was simply pegged to the base (as it should be on such a piece), had loosened up. This allowed the butterfly “wings”, which swung out to support the leaves, to be removed (the bottom of each wing went into the bottom side stretcher while the top went into the loose tabletop itself), and now one of the wings was missing. I asked the auction house staff where the missing wing was since a complete table was pictured in their catalogue: “Oh, I’m sure we have it … it must be in our warehouse.” With the ending to Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark in mind, who’s to know where in their warehouse it was and whether it would ever be found. So neither I nor anyone else was about to bid on the table, and once again it went unsold. By this time, though, I’d learned to keep my eye open and sure enough, a few months later it was listed again with an estimate reduced further to between $2,000 and $3,000.
Now before we interpret this sequence of lowered estimates, here’s something you need to understand about those who deal in the mid to upper end of the market, especially Americana: They like to advertise their wares as “first time on the market” or “fresh from an estate”. For such dealers the table was now “overexposed”. Unfortunately, my house isn’t one of the mansions that Presidential candidates visit when raising money for their campaigns, so I’m in no position to put my nose in the air at something that’s been passed on for various reasons. So I called the auction house and learned that they’d recovered the butterfly and the table was again complete. OK, so I’m ready to go. But before moving ahead, here are a few other things to consider: The estimates provided by auction houses are a function of multiple variables, only one of which is what the house thinks is an item’s fair market value. Sometimes a house will offer a low estimate in the hopes of making potential bidders think beforehand that bargains are in the offering. The theory here is that once the bidding begins, a certain amount of irrationality can arise as bidders become stubborn, over-enthusiastic or testosterone driven. But this cannot happen if people are scared away by high estimates and don’t even show up for the sale. Alternatively, an auction house might set high estimates as a way to seduce potential consignors into consigning their treasures to them. There’s no guarantee that a consignor will understand why the auction house might want to publish an estimated range of, say, $500 to $700 on a piece the consignor is convinced is worth $2,000 since that might (erroneously) be taken to indicate the house’s lack of confidence in its selling abilities. Alternatively, to at least temporarily placate a consignor, the house might establish and estimate of, say, $2,000 to $3,000 even though it knows such prices are likely to be realized only if two potential bidders simultaneously experience erratic brain function. Estimates can also be tied to whatever reserve is associated with a piece – the price below which the piece will not be sold. Although I have no first hand knowledge of how different auction houses work, it’s been my experience that reserves are typically one half to two thirds of the low estimate where the reserve is itself a function of a complex nexus of things. I have here in my house an 18th century Chester or Lancaster County Pennsylvania walnut architectural corner cupboard that is 100% original right down to the locks on the doors and drawers. For California, though, it has a serious drawback: It’s an inch or two over eight feet tall. Thus, it takes a home with high ceilings (which mine has), and that makes dealers cautious. What I didn’t anticipate was how much its height would hold it down – to approximately a third of what I deemed its fair wholesale value. A few weeks after the auction I talked to the auctioneer and asked why it was allowed to sell so cheaply: “It would have been quite reasonable for there to be a reserve several thousand above what I paid for it.” His answer was simply that the consignor did so well on other things in an earlier auction that he removed the reserve on the cupboard and decided to “let it fly.”
Fig. 5-6: The Above Mentioned Corner Cupboard
In any event, returning to the butterfly table, with a two to three thousand dollar estimate I guessed that the reserve (if there even was one at that point) had been lowered to something between $1,000 and $1,500, which put a table I’d been eyeing for a little more than half a year in my price range. There was still the chance it would shoot above those numbers, but I also hoped that competition for it would be minimal, since those who’d seen it offered before would now deem it “stale” merchandise. Some might even assume it was still missing its butterfly wing. Well, it doesn’t always work this way, but I was right about the lowered reserve and I was right about the absence of competition.
Fig. 5-7: The 18th C Butterfly Table
Before proceeding further let me say a few more things about reserves, which are rarely explicitly revealed to potential bidders. I suppose you can say they’re a substitute for shenanigans. Instead of Dave’s missing 5’s in his bidding cards, the auction house – the upstanding institution that it wants to appear to be – simply doesn’t sell an item if the bidding fails to reach a predetermined number. The question, then, is how is that number arrived at? There are multiple possibilities and multiple motives. First, when consigning to an auction house, a reserve might be set by the consignor on the basis of god-knows-what, in effect saying something like “if the bidding doesn’t exceed $X, I’ll take it home.” Alternatively, the auction house itself might suggest a reserve, telling the consignor “it’s not worth selling for under $X” or “I don’t recommend that you let this go for anything less than $X”. In this case, the house’s motive might be that it doesn’t want potential future consignors seeing good things sell cheap. Or the auction house might tell the consignor that if the bidding doesn’t reach $X, they’ll run it through a later auction at a lower reserve. Even if the consignor sets no reserve and tells the house something to the effect of “get rid of it … my husband got it from his ex wife,” the house might establish its own reserve by buying it in for itself. And then there’s the possibility that the merchandise is owned by the auction house itself, in which case the reserve might be the item’s initial cost plus a margin of profit. And while reserves are rarely if ever explicitly revealed before bidding commences, there are signals from auctioneers that you should learn to recognize for what they are. There are, for instance, auctioneers that proceed thus: If the reserve is, say, $500, the ‘bidding’ will start at $350, quickly move to $400, then to $450 and finally to $500 before the auctioneer even looks out at the audience for a real bid. In other words, the auction doesn’t actually begin until the auctioneer calls for a bid that meets the reserve. Or the auctioneer, to indicate that the reserve has been met, will say something to the effect of “it’s going to sell folks … do I have any advance to ___?”
Reserves, of course, can be an annoyance and a source of considerable frustration. You might have attended an auction willing to pay what you deemed a fair price for whatever it was that excited you, only to learn that it wasn’t going to be allowed to sell unless the bidding reached a price above even high retail. One cannot, for example, preclude the possibility that the auction house knows the reserve is excessive, but it nevertheless abided by a consignor’s wishes. Auctioneers don’t like to waste their time, but that doesn’t mean they’ll avoid incurring that cost if that’s what it takes to have a consignor consign other things to them.
Now sometimes reserve and auction house estimates are meaningless and it pays to figure out when that’s likely to be the case. Take for instance the Pennsylvania blanket chest in Figure 5-8a. In this instance, the auction house’s estimate was $1,200 to $1,800, but when it tried to open the bidding at $600, for whatever reason there were no takers. One problem with such chests is that they have a huge footprint and this chest was no exception, measuring 50” x 23” x 30” high; the other problem is that although a chest of this quality could readily fetch a price in the range of $2,000 to $4,000 back East, it was being sold in California. Now if my house wasn’t already packed with furniture, I’d have been all over it, even at $600. I did, though, know someone in his late 20s who was just starting out with collecting Americana, especially treasures from eastern Pennsylvania since that’s where he’s from originally. So I told him about the chest, emphasizing that it had been consigned to the auction by a local museum. That almost certainly meant that not only didn’t the auction house want to store the piece until some future auction, but also that the museum had already written the chest out of its collection and didn’t want it back. There was a good chance, even, that the museum acquired the chest only as part of some collection willed to it and never planned to exhibit it. This all added up to one thing: There was a good chance the blanket chest could be bought with an absurdly low offer. And that’s precisely what my friend did, tendering a $300 offer, which the museum quickly accepted. Now before you think this is something that happens only once in the proverbial blue mood, take a look at the painted mule chest in Figure 5.8b. Admittedly mule chests aren’t the easiest piece of furniture to sell, so despite the fact that this chest bore its original red paint with a fantastic patina, the auction house’s estimate of $800 to $1,200 was possibly a bit high. So when it too failed to sell, another friend of mine was able to scoop it up with a $225 post-sale offer. Not bad, I’d say.
Fig. 5-8a: Pennsylvania Blanket Chest
Fig. 5-8b: Early 19th C Painted Mule Chest
Surprises, good and bad, can occur at any auction, but perhaps they are no more likely than at a farm or country auction where, if they are true estate items, things are often examined in a cursory way by the auctioneer and reserves are non-existent. There is, for instance, the heavily painted blanket chest I once bought wherein three or more coats of 20th century paint inside and out wholly hid the identity of the wood. But upon getting it home I discovered that the entire chest was made of fabulously figured tiger maple. Similarly, there’s the #7 Enterprise coffee mill I bought that had who knows how many years of accumulated grease and grime covering it. But at $60, it seemed worth a gamble, which paid off when cleaned because it was then that I found that the grease and grime had actually protected its original paint and factory applied decals. Bargains can also be had at auction even if the people in attendance know precisely what a piece is but don’t themselves collect or specialize in such things. It was only a few years ago that I bought a pair of ca 1835 oil on canvass portraits – a nicely executed husband and wife pair with the naïve style that folk art collectors value. But there could be no uncertainty about anything here in anyone’s mind: Notes attached to the backs of both portraits recorded the couple’s identity and genealogy. Moreover, the husband held a scroll that not only identified him, but also where he lived and his profession. He was a master mason living in Hartford Connecticut and the Main Street bridge he built, which was in the background of his portrait, still stands today. So it was all there for anyone to see. Nevertheless, I was still able to purchase the pair at a price that allowed me to sell them to a Back East dealer. No one else at the auction dealt specifically in Americana, and those who bid against me did so only because they knew the portraits had value and guessed it wouldn’t hurt if they were able to buy them at a small fraction of that value.
What success you’ll have at auction, then, will depend on many things, including what appeals to people in your area in combination with the auction’s overall contents. For example, the Pasadena California area is noted for its many examples of Arts & Crafts style housing such as those designed by the late 19th and early 20th century architectural firm of Greene and Greene. Correspondingly, there’s a healthy demand for Mission style furniture here, and if an auction in the area were to offer a significant inventory of such pieces, prices will hold up across their offerings. I suspect, though, that if you were to move that inventory to the Midwest, the prices realized for a handful of the best pieces might hold up, but lesser quality items would most likely sell for what people in Los Angeles consider a bargain. In contrast, the market in Los Angeles for early country Americana is weak (what would you expect of a place that is moving to artificial grass for front lawns and that builds cell towers of steel and plastic to mimic palm trees?), and anyone foolish enough to consign an entire estate of such things to a local auction would be in for some unpleasant surprises. As costly as it might be to move the contents of an Americana estate two thousand miles east, it would be well worth the effort.
It’s no wonder then that the few of us in the area who collect Americana or deal in it dream of the next load of what we lust for being put up for auction here. It has happened, though far too infrequently for my taste. I know that top of the line items will sell well regardless of where they’re sold. I think we could have landed on the moon sooner if we’d first unloaded an Americana estate there and put it all up for auction since dealers would have found a way to beat Neil Armstrong to it. Thus, I wasn’t totally surprised that the price realized for a truly unique 19th century game board set an all-time record when auctioned off in Los Angeles a number of years ago and even warranted a write up in The Maine Antiques Digest. Several small early 19th century watercolor portraits by known artists as well as some rare burl items also brought strong prices, but for everything else sold that day that fell into the category of mid-market – painted corner cupboards, Windsor chairs and work tables, unattributed watercolor portraits, coverlets and sundry accessories – saw realized prices that were a fraction of what they’d have achieved back East. This was not, I hasten to add, a unique occurrence. It’s happened several times over that past two decades. But the words “several times over that past two decades” means an event that is decidedly uncommon. Auctions filled with Americana are a monthly, even weekly, occurrence back East. But buyers are as common as weeds in which case an auction filled with goodies doesn’t necessarily yield a handful of items bringing solid prices while everything else languishes. Yes, that happens even where Americana remains in demand, but not with any regularity. All of this, then, is a long-winded way of saying that your auction experiences will depend on where you are and what people in your region are most interested in.
No discussion of auctions is complete today, though, without reference to eBay. It used to be that eBay’s focus was strictly collectibles and antiques. Not anymore. With publicly traded shares and management having to satisfying stock holders and fund managers, its primary efforts are directed at competing with the likes of Amazon and other online shopping sites. Nevertheless, eBay remains an important part of the antiques and collectibles market, especially for items that can be squeezed into a box and shipped by USPS or the likes of UPS and FedEx. Now let me state at the outset that I rarely buy anything on eBay. But that’s more a personal taste and a preference for wanting to hold something in my hands before buying it. At this stage of my life, I much prefer discovering things on my own by walking the flea markets or crowding into some estate sale. For me at least the thrill of discovery is missing if it occurs on my computer screen. Also, because eBay is one of my primary outlets for selling what I buy, I’m hesitant to try to make a profit by reselling things on the same website from whence it came. But my preference for not buying here has a more explicitly rational component to it. Despite the company’s efforts at precluding fraud, it can happen. No website can provide a 100% guarantee when it isn’t the manager of the merchandise being sold. In my case the unhappy event occurred in a way that let me know in no uncertain terms that entities such as eBay, at least as the company operated some twenty years ago, are more concerned with their image than with protecting customers. I emphasize that this happened some twenty years ago and there are now more protections in place for buyers, but here’s my story: After buying a trade sign that was advertised as having hung in Coney Island at the turn of the century, the sign arrived and turned out to be made of fiberglass. Sorry folks, but fiberglass didn’t exist in 1900 or anytime soon thereafter. But when I told the seller I wanted to return the item, he responded, in effect, with “toughshi shitski”. Several emails passed between us, where the seller’s last email said simply that I should list the trade sign on eBay and sell it as he had. Well, I did precisely that, but advertised it as “Fake Trade Sign”, set an absurdly high opening bid of $1,000 and included in the description all emails that had passed between the seller and I. A few days later, eBay removed my listing and forever banned the eBay name I used at the time, ostensibly for having violated their policy of confidentiality by revealing the identity of my antagonist, thus leading me to conclude that at least the early incarnation of the company was far more concerned with avoiding public evidence that bidders could be defrauded on their website than anything else.
EBay’s policies and the opportunities to secure a refund have changed dramatically and it’s perhaps unfair to judge the company today on the basis of what is now ancient history. In fact, the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction wherein it’s the buyer who is best protected and where sellers can find themselves incurring return shipping costs and lost under-bidders simply because the winning bidder changed their minds and elected to return their purchase. There was, for instance, the $1,500 weathervane I sold that was returned to me with the excuse “It’s smaller than I thought” despite its dimensions being duly noted in the listing. Or another less expensive vane being returned with the excuse “it didn’t fit with what I’d planned.” If I had to guess, I’d say buyers were dealers and their customers backed out. But maybe that’s just the cynic in me. Be that as it may, eBay can be a tough road to ride if you’re a seller. Not only can buyers change their mind weeks after they’ve received the item and ship it back to you with you having no recourse other than to accept the return, but any buyer can leave negative feedback on your listings for no apparent reason other than that they feel especially grumpy that day while the seller has no recourse to this form of libel other than writing a brief rejoinder that not only highlights the negative feedback but that becomes part of their record and not the misanthropic buyer’s. Quite clearly, despite all the nice words, eBay sees as its customer base those who bid on their auctions whereas those who sell are treated more like part-time employees.
OK, so much for venting. Despite my reluctance to do anything but sell on eBay, I know that bargains exist there – I’ve too often provided them myself when putting my latest flea market and estate sale finds up for bids. And there are good reasons for that. For things that appear regularly on eBay, people tend to be “price buyers” – willing to bid but only if they perceive a bargain. Moreover, when bidding online, people are unlikely to get caught up in the sort of excitement that can grip one at an onsite auction and which can lead to letting your ego take control and have you bid more than you planned. There’s simply too much time to think about things in an auction that lasts 5, 7 or 10 days. So if you’re looking for that decorative kitchen country collectible, eBay is as good a place to look as anywhere. It’s also a good place to look for more lofty items, even things that sell for above, say, $1,000. Take, for instance, early 19th century needlepoint schoolgirl samplers. I wouldn’t be surprised if, on any given day, there are a hundred or more samplers, both English and American, being offered for sale. Most are not of interest to any but the novice cash-strapped collector, but there are always exceptions and I don’t doubt that with hundreds up for auction over the course of several months, an especially good one slips thru as a bargain from time to time. And if not a bargain, then often for no more than a fair wholesale price.
Or, for another category where bargains can be had, consider quilts. At the time of this writing, a search under “pre-1930 completed antique quilts” yields more than 6,000 listings. That’s one hell of a lot of quilts! Only a minority of those listings, though, (a bit more than 900) are in an auction format – the rest are “buy-it-now or best offers” wherein established quilt dealers use eBay as their internet store, offering quilts at full retail. But even 900 is a big number, which gives the average consumer an opportunity to take price into consideration as much as pattern, condition and color. That is, with 900 choices and with new listings appearing daily, there’s little reason to fall in love with any specific quilt to the point that a person would readily bid any extravagant amount to own it. For a specific illustration, suppose you’re in the market for a 1930s Grandmothers Flower Garden quilt such as the one in Figure 5-9a. This is anything but a rare pattern, and as I type this sentence there are approximately 100 listings on eBay with that title. A Double Wedding Ring such as in Figure 5-9b is another popular and common pattern and there are presently over 40 listings. Clearly, then, it’s only reasonable for people to follow the strategy of “bid low so that if I get it, it will be a bargain; if I don’t get it, I can always search for another.”
Fig. 5-9a: Typical 1930s Grandmothers Flower Garden Quilt
Fig. 5-9b: Typical 1930s Double Wedding Ring Quilt
There are other reasons for supposing that the prices realized at internet auctions will rarely exceed what they might be ticketed for in an antique shop or prices realized at onsite auctions. In addition to the reasonableness of a “bid low” strategy, unless your buying some standardized item buyers of antiques are dependent on a collection of pictures plus whatever the seller chooses to reveal in their descriptions. For some things such as collectibles that are a standard form akin to a specific TV model this is good enough provided the potential flaws are few. But for other things such as paintings, nothing can fully substitute for holding the item in your hands. Quilts pose a problem similar to paintings. First, there’s the issue of color. The fact is that between one’s camera and a computer screen, colors change – sometimes subtly, but at other times quite dramatically. How does one then answer a potential bidder’s query such as “what kind of orange in that?” or “is the purple closer to blue or to lilac?” or “is the blue Colonial Williamsburg blue?” More critically there’s also the issue of condition. How is one to judge such statements as “shows minor storage discoloration” or “a few small areas of wear”? Is the seller understating a quilt’s imperfections or are they being overly critical of their own merchandise? Consider, for instance, Figures 5-10a and 5-10b. Both show the deterioration common to the silk of a late 19th century log cabin quilt. The deterioration in Figure 5-10a, though, is considerably less pronounced than that shown in 5-10b. Unless one demands absolute perfection, the deterioration in 5-10a can perhaps be lived with (especially if the quilt is to be used as a wall hanging) whereas that in 5-10b definitely needs restoration. So when a quilt is reported to have “some scattered deterioration to the silk” what precisely is it that the seller is referring to?
Fig. 5-10a: Minor Deterioration
Fig. 5-10b: Deterioration Warranting Restoration
These uncertainties lead buyers to be risk averse and not prone to buy or bid as much as when they see an item in the flesh. So let me now ask how likely are you to find a sleeper, a true bargain, on eBay? Frankly I don’t know – no one does. But you might also ask: What has this question got to do with people being risk averse when bidding. OK, here comes some stories along with a bit of social-psychological reasoning. I’ll begin by telling you a bit more about my late friend Larry. Larry knew a lot about a lot, from period to high end Victorian furnishings, from tall case clocks to pocket watches, from chamber sticks to the very best oil lamps of the 19th century. Larry was also an eBay junkie. Unmarried and in poor health, he spent countless hours sitting at his computer looking for sleepers or things that otherwise appealed to him. But Larry also had tended to shoot from the hip and to bid simply because something had eye appeal on his computer screen. The problem there is that eye appeal on the screen isn’t the same as eye appeal when one is in physical possession of the item. So according to Larry, about one third of the time the mailman delivered exactly what he hoped to get, a third of the time he was pleasantly or even more than pleasantly surprised, and a third of the time he kicked himself for having ever even seen the item when searching thru eBay’s listings. Larry eventually realized that his propensity to pursue goodies this way was akin to being hooked on drugs. Unfortunately, there isn’t an AA association for this addiction. So instead, he consented to showing me what he proposed to bid on before bidding. It was easy for me to be cynical about things since a good share of what appealed to him didn’t appeal to me regardless of its legitimacy, so I did reel him in a bit.
But, you might ask, what’s the worry? Can’t you always return an item if dissatisfied and the piece isn’t what you thought it was? The answer, generally, is yes and eBay makes it quite easy to return items (some sellers would say ‘too easy’). But now a new problem intervenes. As I wrote earlier, when evaluating an antique you should always take the view that the item in question has to prove itself to you – as if you were telling it “prove you’re legitimate, that you are what you’re advertised to be or what the pictures suggest you are.” But when thinking about returning something bought via the internet, there’s a subtle difference in the dialogue. Now it’s almost as if the burden of proof falls on you and that the piece in question is innocent until proven (by you) guilty. Don’t get me wrong. According to Larry, most sellers will readily issue a refund if you’re not satisfied. But to illustrate what I mean by my twist on the burden of proof, consider the example of a sheet metal weathervane. As any collector knows, they’ve been making such vanes from before the 18th century up to today. It’s also the case that a great many deliberate fakes have arrived on our shores that look, via the power of modern chemistry and low offshore wages, quite good in terms of craftsmanship, surface wear, oxidation, etc. Even experienced dealers can be fooled. So suppose a vane is advertised as late 19th century, and in the pictures at least, the surface looks great and the vane itself seems to have the requisite wear. Now it arrives in the mail and upon closer inspection, you discover subtle inconsistencies that lead you to suspect you’ve bought a 20th century piece or perhaps even a contemporary fake. You’re not sure yourself what you have in your hands, but the uncertainly eats at you and had you been given the opportunity to inspect the vane in person, you’d probably have walked away from it. So suppose you’d like to return it. But notice the subtle change in your status. Originally when bidding you perhaps cautiously took the view ‘guilty until proven innocent’ with respect to the vane’s age, but the subtle details that now bother you weren’t apparent in the photographs. Those inconsistencies may indeed be subtle so in stating your reasons for wanting to return it, you are, in effect, pitting your opinion against the seller’s. In contemplating what to do, you know that most sellers will agree to a refund but you also know there’s the occasional disagreeable soul out there (there’s a little paranoia in all of us, and even paranoids have real enemies). And if you’re like me and unless you are firmly convinced that the seller deliberately misrepresented the piece, there’s a good chance you’re a conflict avoider. In this case, when contemplating the prospect of encountering such an individual and knowing that you cannot prove definitively that the vane is a fake, there’s a chance you’ll swallow your concerns and learn to live with your purchase.
To put some teeth into this argument with a specific example (and to return to the matter of fraud), consider the tooth trade sign in Figure 5.11a, which I found at a flea market and sold a week or so later on eBay. Because it was unpainted, it was difficult to judge age – unfinished pine can darken and weather quickly if exposed to the elements. So without knowing if the sign had in fact hung outside, inside or never hung at all, one could at best label it vintage. But now look at the trade sign in Figure 5.11b. Yes, that’s right – it’s the same tooth, the same sign. However, notice the not-so-subtle difference between the two pictures. Specifically, the tooth in Figure 5.11b now sports a worn white wash that cannot be more than a month or two old! In fact, after having sold the sign, it moved from the hands of the dealer I sold it to onto those of someone who sells extensively on eBay and Figure 5.11b is one of his listings, advertised now as definitively 19th century. Suppose you’re the buyer of this recently painted tooth and that upon receiving it in the mail you decide the paint just doesn’t “feel right” – there’s the occasional paint in a crack that shouldn’t be there, the white is too clean, or you see paint residue on some of the new eyehooks used to hang the sign. Keeping in mind there’s no evidence that the sign isn’t 19th century just as there is also no evidence that it is, what do you think you’re likely to do? Convinced the paint isn’t nearly as old as the tooth itself, you might reasonably prefer to return the tooth. You might even feel you’ve been defrauded by having the sign advertised as 19th century. If the paint isn’t 19th century, then how old is the sign itself? But before you go charging ahead, you reread the eBay listing and notice (as was indeed the case) that paint was never mentioned. In other words, the less-than-forthright dealer who sold the tooth never made any claims about the paint. Of course, by claiming that the sign was 19th century – something that’s difficult to dispute – he encouraged you to believe that the paint, if not wholly original, at least had some age to it. In this way he shifted the fault of misrepresentation from him to you. It was you, after all, who consciously or unconsciously made some unwarranted assumptions about the paint. Now it’s true that you can still return to tooth for a refund, but I’d bet that absent definitive evidence that the paint if not the sign itself is as new as your most recent trip to the car wash, there will be some reluctance on your part to do so. Caveat emptor has just given you a whack on the side of the head and you blame yourself as much as you blame the unscrupulous dealer who sold the sign.
Fig. 5-11a: Tooth Trade Sign As Initially Sold on eBay
Fig. 5-11b: Tooth Trade Sign as Subsequently Found on eBay
For another example of why due diligence is essential when buying on eBay, consider Figure 5-11c. On the face of it, it looks like a quite nicely decorated tole tray, with decoration that beautifully mimics 19th century Pennsylvania German. But is it 19th century? Well, it was in fact listed as such under the title “An Extremely Early Pennsylvania German Paint Decorated Tin Serving Tray, Superb”. There’s only one problem with that title … the tray is most likely from the 1930s! First, a piece of tin that size (22 inches x 18 inches) would have been virtually impossible to acquire in 1800. And second, the form is one produced by machine stamping the tin as opposed to hand working it. The fact that the paint mimics early Pennsylvania German tells you NOTHING since any twelve year old today could do so in art class with the proper instruction.
Fig. 5-11c: Fraudulently Advertised Tole Tray
Now comes the fun part in our thinking about sites like eBay. Presumably, you’re a smart person, in which case even before you decide whether or not to bid on anything you’ll try to anticipate the variety of psychologically distasteful and financially costly possibilities that await you. Quite reasonably, then, you’ll be hesitant to bid on something unless it’s a true bargain. And even if you do bid, unless you HAVE to own it (whatever ‘it’ might be) you’ll discount what you’re willing to pay by the likelihood of ending up in a disagreeable situation. In other words, whether you want to be or not, you’ll tend to be a price buyer who adjusts your willingness to pay in accordance with any uncertainty as to a piece’s value or legitimacy. If people only bid when they judge something to be a bargain and if they discount for the inherent uncertainty of the internet, then prices will be held down and the likelihood of a bargain will increase. This process, in turn, reinforces itself: The expectation of a bargain becomes, when taking the beliefs and actions of all people together, a self-fulfilling prophesy. Here, though, is where things get even more interesting: If all X’s sell at a “bargain price”, is that price really a bargain anymore or has it become X’s fair market value? In other words, how do we even define the word “bargain”? I can’t answer that question, but I think perhaps you can see why internet websites such as eBay might actually depress prices for certain things (i.e., non-unique things such as quilts, coverlets, painted pantry boxes, decorated stoneware, portraits, pewter chargers and coffee pots, and so on) so as to make the prices realized in more traditional auction venues and the prices reported in price guides irrelevant to what you can expect either to pay on eBay or to be realized when you sell there. One can also suppose that prices will tend to be depressed on things in which there is some inherent uncertainty – things such as weathervanes, early bottles, wrought iron kitchen collectibles and watercolor portraits – owing to the proliferation of fakes and reproductions.
In all of this one might ask: Where’s the bottom? Won’t prices continue to drop? Here the economist steps in – at least his academic persona — to devise mathematical models that no one understands with assumptions that bear little relation to reality but which nevertheless prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what we all know – prices do not go to zero. The painted pantry box you bought ten years ago for $475 now sits unsold at a buy-it-now price of $225, though you know it would sell for $150. It’s still the case, of course, that one sees a blue painted firkin pictured in some price guide as having sold for $800 or more that you can now buy on eBay for $350, but don’t hold out waiting for prices to drop to $10. The impersonality of the internet and the fear of getting something in the mail other than what you thought you were going to get might lead people to discount what they’re willing to pay for things, but that doesn’t mean they’ll discount to zero. So perhaps prices have stabilized somewhat – they surely seem to have as of the writing of this volume. But as they say, only time will tell.
To be fair to eBay in all of this, it remains a terrific place to sell and, for collectors, to buy, especially for uncommon collectibles. It’s even a place to sell things you’re uncertain of as to value and it sometimes helps correct your errors. Here’s a few examples. Some time ago a friend and I bought a one gallon Pennsylvania decorated saltglaze canning crock at an estate sale. As I recall it had a stenciled fruit on it and little else. At the time we both felt it was priced a bit too high, but it was still there when packing up our purchases so I made an offer that was accepted. We put it in my friend’s shop, pricing it as I recall around $550. Well, it sat there for months with nary a fingerprint on it. So we decided to list it on eBay and sell it for whatever we could get. Lo and behold, in less than 24 hours we got an email offering $1,500 if we’d end the auction early. Now when that happens – when you get an offer to end an auction early that’s two or three times what you think a piece is worth – you just got a signal that there is something about what you’re selling that you don’t know and won’t know unless you let the auction run its course. And that’s what we did wherein the final price realized was in excess of $4,000. Curious as to what was special about the crock, I emailed the successful bidder and asked why he paid such a price. He replied that he was a serious collector of Pennsylvania stoneware (confirmed by attached pictures of his collection), that Hamilton & Jones made canning crocks in this style in three sizes (1 gallon, 1 ½ gallon and 2 gallon) with four different fruit per size, that he had eleven from the series and that the one we sold completed his set. He went on to say that he knew of only two others that size with that fruit … and they weren’t for sale. In other words, for a serious collector of Western Pennsylvania stoneware, the crock was akin to the holy grail. Holy grail or whatever, I know this: That sale was some 15 years ago, but if we hadn’t listed the crock on eBay, it would still be sitting in my friend’s shop.
Not only is eBay a great place for dealers and collectors to find each other, its also a great place to learn what you have. There’s the example of the three small Bennington glaze picture frames I and the same friend bought at an estate sale. Two were quite fancy while the third was an utterly plain oval frame that we deemed an afterthought. As a matter of fact, I’d grabbed the two fancy frames seconds before another dealer spotted them, and both of us left the unimposing one hanging on the wall. Later I went back and seeing the $25 price tag, added it to my pile. This, I should add, was the same sale in which my son, racing to the back of the house, scooped up that Bennington collection with a sweep of his hands. But this meant we now owned a huge collection of Bennington and Rockingham glaze items, and if we simply displayed them in a shop it would take years to sell half of it. So it was time once again to charge up the batteries to the camera and take pictures for eBay. But with so many items (I’m guessing on the order of four or five dozen), we … ok, I … got sloppy and paid as much attention to that oval frame as when buying it. Soon after listing it, though, we got an email asking if that was a signature on the frame’s back. Frankly, neither I nor my friend had looked at the frame close enough to notice. All we were concerned about was to make certain we reported all chips and dings, if any, to the multiple pieces being listed. But sure enough, there was an inscribed name, John Bell – a name with which you should now be familiar (Hint: read again the chapter on estate sales. Should I give a test at the end of this book?). In any event, while the frame was hardly an especially interesting example of his work, it was an example nonetheless. So lets just say that the frame, which we nearly left behind at the sale, paid for ALL the Bennington we bought that day. Absent the national visibility afforded by eBay, it, like our crock, might still be sitting unsold in my friend’s shop.
Here’s perhaps an even better example. I know little to nothing about playing cards, and rarely give them a second glace. But there was the one instance in which I ran across a deck at a flea market priced at $90 that for whatever reason appealed to me in some special way. The lithography was great and the cards were certainly 19th century. So I bought them and listed them on eBay without the foggiest idea as to whether I’d even recoup my investment. Once again I was lucky – the final bid was in excess of $1,500. My instincts were right and the cards were indeed rare. But here’s the more interesting fact: Of the seven or eight bidders, not a single one was from the good old USA. ALL were in Europe – The UK, Germany, Spain, Italy, etc. Now without eBay in this instance, what are the chances I’d have found one of those bidders or they’d have found me? Indeed, what are the chances I’d have found anyone with the slightest interest in these cards at anywhere near what I sold them for? Well, I think I know the answer since I bought the cards on my way out of the flea market, three hours after the market had opened and after dozens of dealers had seen them where I found them.
One final note now about the differences between eBay and on-site auction venues. Suppose you’re a dealer whose decided to unload some merchandise, all of which has flaws – vintage or antique toys with replaced parts, chipped glassware, stoneware with hairlines, and so on. Listing such things on an internet auction site is almost certainly not the way to go. If you fail to note the flaws, you’re inviting returns and negative feedback. And if you do list them, keep in mind people’s propensity to be risk averse, which they are in spades if an item even hints at being compromised. Thus, your pieces will most likely sell for pennies on the dollar on the internet, if they sell at all. Alternatively, consider consigning your stuff to an on-site weekly auction. There you needn’t describe anything – it’s strictly up to potential bidders to find the flaws. Moreover, things are normally sold caveat emptor, as-is, no returns. So which would you choose? The answer should be obvious.
Now keep in mind that the auction venues I have in mind for damaged or compromised merchandise don’t include those that aim at selling things that meet some minimal standards of quality – Pook & Pook, Garths, Northeast, Julia’s, Morans, Cowans, etc. But between them and the farm auction lie a multitude of alternatives that offer anything from pots and pans to rare works of art; houses that get a good share of their merchandise from estates as well as dealer consignments and who commonly begin an auction with a stream of “box lots” – unsorted merchandise, much of which would be discarded by the Salvation Army. From box lots they’ll move on to broken picture frames, particle-board bookcases, over-stuffed sofas with worn upholstery, 1930s bed frames and Empire chests without feet. It will only be later in the auction that they’ll get to the “good stuff”, and even there items with any value will be mixed in with things that probably should have been donated to charity. If you want to unload your damaged merchandise or the fake you thought was real when you bought it, this is your preferred outlet. In all likelihood it will sell for next to nothing, but at least you don’t have to answer any questions afterwards or worry about returns. And who knows, maybe you’ll find the next unaware or uninformed sucker up the line.
What I’ve just said should, of course, alert you to the dangers of being a buyer at such auctions. The question, then, is whether there are bargains to be had at auction venues that sell less than sterling stuff? The answer is a decided Yes – as long as you’re on your toes and carefully inspect whatever interests you. Not long ago, for instance, one such house in the LA area was given an estate literally loaded with good quality mid-level Americana, including pieces that ANY auction house would be delighted to sell. The wife had collected for years, but her husband hated the stuff, so when she passed, he simply wanted it gone. And in this instance the estate included not only a supply of painted firkins and bowls, decorated stoneware and early lighting, but also a dozen or more early 19th century needlework samplers (most American and one with a log cabin and an American flag), sponge paint decorated document and storage boxes (including one that was signed and dated 1832), vintage decoys and baskets of various descriptions, decorated Scandinavian brides boxes, miniature footed and paint decorated blanket boxes, several federal-era oil on canvas portraits, a collection of early 19th century watercolor portraits of children, silhouettes and at least one good 19th century silk-on-silk mourning picture. Not everything sold at bargain basement prices but since this was a venue that rarely offered much in the way of Americana, a good share of it did. This was also the auction house where on another occasion I picked up an 1885 Harris & Co. sulky weathervane that apparently everyone else mistook for a common reproduction and a sheet metal horse weathervane that, although also an extensively reproduced form, was in fact mid-19th century.
If there are auction venues near you of the sort just described, then the advice I gave with respect to those who run estate sales applies as well to auctioneers at them – be nice to them, become friends with them if you can, and don’t get all uptight if once in a while they run a bid or two on you. First, being on good terms with an auction house can save you considerable time and energy. Not all auctions run their sale according to some catalogue in which the item marked #208 won’t be sold until items #1 through #207 are put up for bid. The order with which things are sold may be utterly random, and there’s often nothing more frustrating that to see the only piece you’re interested in brought up, set against the auctioneer’s podium or under a table in front of him, and then for it to languish there as countless other things are sold. But if you’re on good terms with the auction house staff, you can generally get them to put that item up for bids as soon as it reaches the stage.
There are other reasons for becoming friends with auctioneers and to let them know the sorts of things you’re in the hunt for. Because the things local auction houses get to sell are often wholly random – they sell whatever is brought to them – there’s a chance you’ll inadvertently miss a sale or two each month and thereby miss that treasure you didn’t know they had. But by making yourself a known, reliable and non-aggravating entity, there’s a chance they’ll call you when they have something good, something you’re likely to lust for. The more established venues don’t need to do that, but auctioneers who live as much on the edge of oblivion as do most dealers are likely to operate differently. Finally, being on good terms with an auctioneer can pay dividends at the auction itself. I recall a sale in which there was a variety of Americana and good country decorative things for sale that I wanted to bid on, including an especially nicely decorated Scandinavian bride’s box. This was a sale, though, that ran from 10AM to 4PM and where things were brought up in a haphazard random way. So that meant standing around for six hours not knowing when any of the items I wanted to bid on might be put up for sale. Well, I don’t know about you, but at my age it’s nearly impossible to spend six hours doing anything without having to visit the “little boy’s room” at least once. And wouldn’t you know it … when exiting that room at the far end of the auction hall I could see the bride’s box being held in the air with the auctioneer now asking for but not getting a $200 bid. I thought I was doomed since getting the auctioneer’s attention would have required a desperate sprint across the hall while trampling a half dozen people. Well, not so. Spotting me out of the corner of his eye the auctioneer pointed to me and yelled out “you want this, right?” That box sits today on my painted bucket bench.
Let me end this chapter now by addressing the issue as to whether there’s a best way to approach auctions – a way to minimize what one pays for things? Frankly, I’m not sure. Naturally, the first bit of advice that is simply common sense is to see if you can’t figure out, with any specific auctioneer or auction house, when and if they run their bids. This may mean attending an auction the first time simply as an observer and seeing if you can detect any shenanigans. However, for reasons I’ve outlined, shenanigans are unlikely at the major auction houses where the bidding proceeds typically in a slow careful manner with the auctioneers speaking understandable English. Such venues protect themselves and their consignors with their reserves. So what if anything is your best strategy then? My guess is that there are none. In this instance the auctioneer is much like the dealer at one of Las Vegas’s blackjack tables – readily replaced by a robot, and a rather simple-minded one at that. If strategies exist, they can only target other bidders. You might for instance bid rapidly and determinably so as to try to convince competitors you’re tenacious and not about to give up. Alternatively, you can hesitate and advance the bid only when the auctioneer is about to close out the bidding, thereby trying to signal that you’re not sure the piece is worth what it’s selling for. Bidders including dealers are often unsure as to what a piece is worth, and its not inconceivable that they will interpret your seeming lack of enthusiasm as a signal that you think things have reached a logical end. It remains an open question, though as to whether any of this has an impact on anything.
There is in fact a branch of mathematics — the theory of games (complex decision theory) — that deals with such situations in which there are things people don’t know about each other and so instead they use indirect signals to attempt to infer or at least narrow the range of possibilities. Much of the seemingly nonsensical utterances of diplomats when talking to each other can be interpreted as subtle signals intended to mislead or at least to encourage beliefs of a certain sort amongst allies and protagonists. To my knowledge no one has yet attempted to model the meaning of signals in the context of live auctions such as assertive and rapid bidding versus calculated pauses and feigned uncertainty as to intent. I don’t doubt that such research lies on the horizon, but since it doesn’t yet exist I can’t offer any advice here one way or another. So absent that, the best tactic perhaps is the one any dealer or auctioneer will give you – set the max you’re willing to bid beforehand, ignore whatever tactics others might be trying, and bid accordingly. This, at least will keep your testosterone from yielding an outcome in which you end the auction by mumbling to yourself “why the hell did I buy that?”
The strategies available to you at online auction sites such as eBay differ from those at other, live auction venues. One strategy, the simplest, is to enter a bid corresponding to the most your willing to pay for a piece and then to turn your computer off – turning it back on only after the auction has ended. A second possibility is what I call the ‘pile up’ strategy. Suppose, the current high bid on an object is $100 but that the current high bidder actually left a bid of $125. Assume you’re willing to pay $180. Instead of bidding $180 directly, though, you might first bid $105, which pushes the current high bid to, say, $110 with the high bidder unchanged (the actual increment employed by eBay will depend on to current cost of an item, so I’ll use $5 here for purposes of a numerical example). So you might then bid $115, which pushes the high bid to $120 and still leaves you as the back bidder. So next suppose you next bid $130. Now you’re the high bidder and if no one else bids again, you win and pay $130. However, suppose you keep going … bidding $135, then $140, then $145, $150, $155, $160, $165, $170, $175 and finally $180. None of these bids above $130 changes anything since you cannot bid against yourself. But what other potential bidders will see (if they chose to look at the current bidding history on the object) is a column of disguised identical eBay IDs (yours) alongside the number $130. Only if someone bids above $130 will the price of the object increase. If, for instance, someone bids $156, then all your bids between $130 and $155 are overtaken, but you still beat $156 with your $160 bid so tthe high bidder will still be you, but now at some number greater than $156. Frankly, I’m not sure what purpose this strategy serves other than to communicate to potential bidders your determination to win the auction. Perhaps, then, it is intended to intimidate others, but I have no idea as to whether that works or not. A third strategy is the snipe bid. There exists countless programs to which you can subscribe that will automatically enter a bid for you some 15, 10 or even 5 seconds before an auction ends. The presumed advantage here is that no one will know if your interest in the object or even of your existence until the final seconds of an auction. The snipe bid, then, is the opposite of the pile up strategy. Of course, you might not be the only one using a snipe program. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen something about to sell at a bargain basement price only to watch the bid jump by hundreds of dollars seconds before the auction ends, all with the high bidder and perhaps two or three of the back bidders appearing out of nowhere with their snipe bids. Snipe bidding, them, is akin to the first strategy of picking the maximum you’re willing to pay and then walking away from the auction, letting a program enter your bid. So what’s the best strategy. Well, after selling literally thousands of items on eBay I can’t say that there is one. I’m actually tempted to say that the strategy you choose is a matter of taste as opposed to cold hard mathematical calculation of the odds. This isn’t to say there isn’t a best strategy, but if there is one and if it can be revealed by mathematical analysis, I have yet to see that analysis or its manifestation in the things I’ve sold on eBay.
Now one final comment about auctions and auctioneers that doesn’t apply to eBay and with a funny final twist to the story. Earlier I told you the benefits from being on good terms with those who run estate sales. Well, the same is true with auctioneers. After the husband of an long deceased local dealer in Americana passed away and the heirs to the estate hired someone to run a sale to empty the contents of his home, the person they hired had little experience with higher end Americana. So that person contacted a local auction house hoping for advice. The auction house, though, had moved away from selling Americana so it could better cater to a more international clientele with a taste for Continental goodies. They, then, recommended me as someone who could come in and help price things for the sale. I warned everyone beforehand what my pricing rule would be given the nature of California’s Americana market: I’d pick a number that seemed low as to an item’s fair market value based on recent auction records and then, for the estate sale sticker price, divide that number by 2. I also explained that the norm for a two-day sale where the primary objective of the heirs was an empty house would be to discount even that price by 50% the second day.
Now keep in mind that what was being sold did set this sale apart from a typical Southern California estate sale: A Hepplewhite serpentine front cherry sideboard, two Massachusetts Hepplewhite chests with inlay, a cherry slant lid desk with OG feet, a pair of Ammi Phillips portraits (but with some significant restoration), four other unattributed portraits, a variety of Queen Anne and Chippendale side chairs and mirrors, a Boston or Salem card table with satinwood inlay, several New England Pembroke tables and candlestands, a 3-part Hepplewhite cherry dining table, some early copper, silhouettes, several early silk on silk needleworks, and a set of four painted Maine arrowback chairs that matched one pictured in Dean Fales’ classic American Painted Furniture: 1660 – 1880. I also took special note of a pair of reverse painted on glass ship silhouettes dated 1814 and signed by Isiah Whyte (Figure 5-12). I had no idea how to price them as there were no auction records to go by. But I also told the estate sale manager that I had a severe conflict of interest here; namely, that I’d love to own them. That’s when I was told what I hoped she’d say: “I can’t sell them to you now, of course, but you can buy whatever you want on the second day like everyone else.” It’s then of course that I had a deeper appreciation for my good relations with the auction house that gave her my name.
Fig. 5-12: Pair signed Isiah Whyte Reverse Paintings on Glass dated 1814
In any event, to make an otherwise long story about the sale itself short, after spending at least 3 days at the house researching and pricing things, I did end up buying those two paintings. But now here’s where the story gets long again and rather interesting, at least in terms of revealing the power of the internet in the antiques business. Spending countless hours on the internet researching Isiah Whyte, I finally encountered an article in Antiques and Fine Arts magazine from September 2012 titled “A Bit of New England In Pennsylvania” and there, two thirds of the way down in the article, I found the clipping reproduced in Figure 5-13.
Fig. 5-13: From Antiques and Fine Arts magazine
Trust me … realizing you’ve stumbled across something old and uncommon is indeed a thrill and for the next 4 or 5 months I reveled in the thought that I owned two of four known paintings of a specific type by an American folk artist. But that as it turns out is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of illustrating the role of the internet here. I got a message on my cell phone from a friend in Florida who had, for the heck of it, been checking the auctions in and around Virginia and guess what he found on an upcoming auction? Yup, you guessed it … the painting in Figure 5-14. Seems that there are just two Whyte reverse painted ships, nor are there just four — there are at least five, and god knows who many others lie undiscovered. But now think of what we have here … one person in Florida, another in California, an auction in Virginia, the estate of a dealer who dies around 2001, and a magazine article from 2012. And its the internet that brings that all together! So it is indeed an understatement to say that the antiques business is experiencing something of a revolution with changing technology.
Fig. 5-14: Isiah Whyte’s “The Maryland” dated 1809
OK, still one more final comment … but this time about selling rather than buying. Earlier I advised that if you do consign to an auction it pays to keep track of things lest the auction house use your merchandise as something to reward repeat customers. I want to reiterate that warning with a specific example to illustrate that auction houses need not always take the greatest care of the things in their possession. Some time ago I previewed the auction of one of those establishments that held weekly sales (along with a quarterly special). This particular sale though was mid-December and the last one it would hold until the next year some three or four weeks later. They were still in the process of setting up, which meant that there were a number of unpacked boxes laying around yet to be emptied. Well, poking around led me to a rather sizeable (I’d guess 30″ x 24″ x 16″) with countless ‘things’ wrapped in newspaper. When I began unwrapping I realized the box was a collection of vintage totem poles. Now here’s the problem: I know preciously little about Native American crafts and knew that to keep on digging into the box wouldn’t give me any idea as to what the lot was worth. So after unwrapping 4 or 5 of the totems, I put things back and continued looking around to see what would be upcoming in the sale that I might know something about. However, when it came time to fill out my absentee bidder card (there wasn’t enough there to make me want to return the next day and ‘waste’ an afternoon), for reasons that now escape me I left a bid on the totems for the sheer hell of it. And when I say the hell of it I mean it since I was certain my bid was meaningless … that the totems were worth ten times what I’d left for a bid. Well, you can imagine my surprise when I got a call the morning after the sale telling me that I’d won the box of totems. How the heck did that happen? And the mystery deepened when I returned to the auction house to pay for and pick up my purchase and saw that the box was precisely as I had left it … not a single additional totem had been unwrapped. Now when the gods smile at you, don’t ask them why … just tell yourself that they are a mercurial lot and no explanation is possible. OK, time to make a long story short. When I returned home with my box I learned that it contained well over 50 totems, several of which were carved out of ivory. This was no ordinary box of Native American tourist mementos. Pulling the two out of the box for myself — the two in Figure 5-15 … I sold the rest and found that my left bid wasn’t one tenth the value of everything, but rather one twentieth. So OK, how the heck did this happen? Well, basically there was only one possible explanation. I knew that there were probably upwards of two dozen people in the auction room that day who’d know what these totems would be worth …. but only if they had unwrapped to to see what was in the box. And nothing had been unwrapped. So the answer to everything was that the auction house messed up and failed to unpack the box and put the totems up for bids. But then, realizing their error after the sale had ended, and not wanting to store the totems until the next year (perhaps they simply wanted to clear the books of unsold consignments) they simply sold them to me, the only person who had left a bid on them. I have no idea who consigned the totems to the sale. Perhaps it was someone settling an estate and could have cared less what they were worth. But if they’d been consigned by someone who know that the box contained I can imagine both shock and anger when their consignment check arrived in the mail. So I’ll say it again for those of you considering selling something at auction: Be warned.
Fig. 5-15: Two Northwest Coast Totems