Friday, June 4, 2004

Some Dangers of Online Auctions

The following article appeared in InformArt Magazine

by Peggy Kinstler
Publisher, InformArt Magazine

Online auctions have become a way of life for many of us. . . we poke around to see what's there. . . we compare prices in stores with what we can find. . . and sometimes we say, "Heck, the buyer is protected," so we start bidding.

Sure, I have heard of situations when a buyer has returned something that was not what he expected and his money was refunded. For the educated buyer, that works. But what about you? Are you an educated buyer when it comes to buying artwork? Take limited edition prints: when you receive your print, can you tell if it has acid-burn; do you know if it is faded; if it was sold framed, do you know how to tell if it is conservation framed and are you sure there's no damage hidden under the mats; does it have certificates of authenticity and, if it doesn't, do you know how much that should have affected the price? If you can answer "yes" to all those questions, fine, buy anywhere you can get a good deal. But if those questions make you uneasy, you might be well advised to buy through a reputable gallery that assumes the responsibility for those all-important details and stands behind the product.

While most artwork listed on auction sites is as advertised, there are too many exceptions for anyone to be complacent. I don't like to use the I'm-married-to-a-prominent-artist card, but I will to make my point. Here are three incidents, two that occurred just this week, as I'm writing this editorial.

First an "original drawing" by James Montgomery Flagg (best remembered for the famous I Want You poster from World War I) appeared. My husband, Everett Raymond Kinstler, is considered the authority on Flagg's work, having authenticated pieces for both Sotheby's and Christie's, among others. This drawing, he said, instantly upon seeing it on the screen, "is a forgery, and not a very good one at that!" He emailed the seller, who wrote back in broken English, saying it, yes, was a Flagg but asking for Ray's credentials. Ray sent them, and the second reply conceded that the seller might have been mistaken. I don't know if he took it off the site, or if he did, whether or not he'll put it back later.

Second, a gallery in a wealthy east coast community listed a Flagg drawing that was also a forgery. Ray contacted the gallery by telephone and the owner insisted it had been sold to him as authentic, but under some pressure from Ray, he removed it from the auction site. A month or so later, however, when another appeared, Ray said it looked like the same forger. Again, Ray called, but this time the owner wouldn't return his call.

My last example (not the last one I have, but the last one I'll use here) was a signed and numbered print by Everett Raymond Kinstler. When Ray saw this he exploded, "That's not mine. I was never that bad." Again, he contacted the seller and upon closer examination, the seller admitted that he had misread the signature. He apologized, thanked Ray for calling, and assured him that he would correct the listing.

These three examples make it clear that there are some fraudulent pieces of art on the auction sites, some offered knowingly, like the east-coast gallery, and others through ignorance or carelessness. On the other hand, there are some great deals to be had, both prints and originals, that are exactly as they are reputed to be. The question is, do you have the knowledge to know the difference?

If you are unsure, the place to begin is your local gallery. Perhaps the price isn't as good as you can find online, but consider the difference in cost the price of the gallery's expertise. We pay for expertise all the time rather than getting it ourselves (lawyers, accountants, doctors, plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics). So why not pay for a gallery's expertise when you are buying art?

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Knstler, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.