Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Slightly Irreverent Look at Auction Terminology

During years of combing regularly through online auction sites and printed auction catalogues to locate items of interesting for my own (changing) collecting interests, I have developed my own interpretation of auction terminology.  Here in alphabetical order is my personal lexicon:

Antique:  According to common practice and import laws, “antique’ applies to an object that is at least 100 years old.   While a pair of worn out boots that have been lying in the attic for decades might qualify on age, unless they were worn by George Washington, they do not qualify as something worth collecting.  Yet every day on internet auction sites items that might be 100 years are offered as antiques when they might better be relegated to the garbage can. Often too items are offered as antiques such as the blue and white vase here.  It recently was offered up as an antique.  Yet I have one similar to it that I bought off the equivalent of a Chinese pottery assembly line some years ago, after watching the artisans at work.  In 90 years mine may qualify as antique.

As Is:  Red flags should be raised every time this is a description of an auctioned item.   For example a Philadelphia art frame shop that was in the process of downsizing, offered the art print shown left “as is.” It is wrinkled and torn, the reason given that it was stored for 40 years at the bottom of a file.  While it might reasonably be sent to the recycling bin, the owner helpfully suggest that if it were matted “it would just about eliminate the losses.”  Problem is, anything that might cover the torn part likely would jeopardize the integrity of the image, even to erasing part of the artist’s signature.

Attributed To:  I have some expertise in Theumler ceramics from the Pittsburgh area, pre-1908 when Otto Theumler died.  He marked many of his pieces but not all.  Because there are collectors of his beer mugs and steins, I often see on auction sites attributions to Theumler.  Often very little about the item, its size, shape or decoration bespeaks his work.  But this is small potatoes compared to the art market.   Above is a picture at Internet auction “attributed to” Albert Bierstadt,” a well recognized 19th century American artist whose paintings hang in many of the Nation’s museums.  The painting is done in his style but lacks a signature.  Recently a New York City paper quoted an art dealer commenting on an unsigned scene that that a seller had claimed also was a work by Bierstadt.  “I am bombarded with fakes,”  the dealer said, referencing the painting.  “Wherever you turn there’s a fake out there.”   In short, hold on to your wallet when “attributed to” is proposed.
Best Match:  This is strictly an eBay concept.  Each morning when I run through my roster of newly listed items to watch and possibly bid on, eBay helpfully puts up a string of “best match” items.  Recently, for example, the internet auction site put foremost for my attention, a paperweight with “Mother” embedded in it.  While from time to time I do buy weights, I have never bought one even close to it.  Who or what decided that this was a match for me?   My suspicion is that the sellers of these items are paying something extra to be thrust into my attention —and irritate me.

Estimate:  Auction houses almost always provide an estimate of what a item should sell for, usually expressed in a range.  If an item sells for a great deal more than its estimate at a New York art sale, it often makes the papers.  If it fails to sell, that may be publicized as well.  It the selling price falls within the estimate, that is “ho-hum” and no one seems to care.
Important:  This is a favorite buzz word for some auction houses.  Showing a handled urn such as illustrated above, the catalogue or auctioneer sometimes will anoint it as “important.” No one ever says important to whom or why.  Just important.  Often the items seems as undistinguished as this urn.  My interpretation of this term that it is important for the auction house to sell the item and get it out of its storeroom where it is taking up space from something presumably more important.

Provenance:  Publications issued by museums to illustrate their holdings often contain the history of ownership for each of the art works shown in order to validate its identification.  Over the years some art works have passed from owner to owner before being acquired by a museum.  I find it fascinating to track the succession.  That said, too frequently I see feints at provenance like the one provided for the painting shown here:  “Unframed gouache on paper signed illegibly to my eye and dated (appears to be '60, for 1960). Provenance: Arthur Nevin Gallery, Quakertown, Pennsylvania. The painting has a German Expressionist feel to it.”  These sentences are followed by a long paragraph on German Expressionism.  All this is patent nonsense.  The art work obviously was done well after that era and, besides, is amateurish in execution.  It is also damaged, although the seller rhapsodizes:  “A great piece with a real presence to it!”

Rare:  This is one of my favorite auction terms, seen frequently on internet auction sites, as in “rare beanie baby.”  That is, rare in the eyes of the seller who may be 1) stretching the truth a bit knowing that 100,000 were issued, or 2) has just not seen one in the recent past.  I have seen items listed as “rare” that I owned once and know that there are hundreds of others out there just like it. Rarity, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder, especially if the beholder owns it and wants to sell.  Case in point:  this headline from eBay: 32.15 CTs NATURAL RARE BLACK NEEDLE IN PREHNITE PEAR CABOCHON.  This is a jewel made from a gemstone found in South Africa.  Who really knows how frequently a “black needle” shows up in prehnite?  

Salesman Sample:  This is a favorite description of miniature items being sold on internet auctions.  It is supposed to confer worth, indicating that there are just a few of these in circulation.  Here for illustration is a  pot bellied stove that was touted on eBay as a salesman sample.  It weighs more than 12 pounds. I have a hard time believing that many traveling “drummers” carried around suitcases full of these to be shown or gifted to potential customers.  Whatever their purpose, these items may well exist in the thousands.

Sold for:  Some sellers like to cite a prior sale of an item (obviously not “rare”) that fetched a very handsome price and upon which they are basing their estimate of value.  Harry Rinker, a recognized expert on antiques, has provided some wisdom on “sold for.”  He notes that in some auctions two or more collectors will vie aggressively for the same item and drive up prices.  He suggests that in that case the amount a third bidder was willing to pay would approximate the true value.  Personally, I have found that view to be insightful. An example is this advertising beer mug.  It sold for $369.89 recently on eBay. The second high bidder went to $364.89 before dropping out.  Using Rinker's rule, the third bidder at $250 likely is a better gauge of its worth.

Vintage: Normally a term associated with wine, “vintage” has morphed into the lexicon of internet auction sellers.  I take it to mean items that have have not reached the age to be considered antiquities, but are old enough not to have been made yesterday.   Generally the terms refer to the 1930s through the 1960s.  But not always.  Here is a pendant being sold on eBay that was described as “vintage” in its headline.  A careful reading of the description indicates that is a brand new item and but that the dragon image is considered “vintage” by the seller. 

If there is a conclusion to be drawn from this lexicon it is “buyer beware” and know as much about an auction purchase as possible before it is made.  My object lesson is a tall wooden statue of St. George and the dragon I bought in 1970 at a dusty antique store in Guatemala City.  Assured by a companion that it must be quite old,  after I had paid and the dealer was wrapping up I asked him how old it was.  “Oh,” he said, “we made it here.”   I later sold it at a yard sale for $2.00.

Note:  By my count this post marks the 200th on my “Bottles Booze and Back Stories” blog.  Begun in April 2009, it has covered topics indicated by the title and many areas beyond, all in keeping with the motto: “More Things Than You Can Shake a Stick At.”  As of this date I have had more than 227,000 “hits” on the blog and 11 “followers,”  many of them likely my relatives.  For the foreseeable future, I will be continuing to add posts to this blog approximately every two weeks.


No comments:

Post a Comment