Buying antique jewelry at auction sounds like a lot of fun. It is, but the process is also fraught with pitfalls and traps and I will tell you about some of them today.
Today, auctioneers, especially the big famous auctioneers have set themselves as gods apart. Prices realised at their sales are astronomical – well over what I consider retail. This remains a mystery to me for the following reasons.
1. Most auction houses provide a single, postage-stamp sized ‘photo. It is taken by a professional photographer, trained to make the item look great. They do not show multiple angles; they do not show flaws; they do not show faults. What you see, is not what you will get.
2. While the professional staff at some of the well-known auction houses are incredibly arrogant about their level of knowledge, even they are apt to make mistakes. I have bought items that were described as 14k and which had clear 9ct hallmarks (not shown in the ‘photos of course); wrong measurements; peridot was called demantoid garnet – a huge difference in value. I’ve had one very arrogant lady ascribe a ring to the Deco period, but it proved to have been made a few weeks before and had the signature (not reported of course) in the shank to prove it. Attributions are made with nothing but the seller’s say-so to back them up. It is now common for many auction houses to refrain from identifying the metal. They can have all the excuses in the world, but when I buy something, I want to know whether it is 18k gold or goldplated. There is a difference. Faults are glossed over – never mentioned unless you go through the rigmarole of asking for a condition report.
3. When these mistakes are made, guess what: they do not stand behind their descriptions. The adage says: “buyer beware” and that is the case when you buy at auction. Their mistake: so what – it’s your responsibility. Some of them, while going all out to encourage long-distance purchasers, have the cheek to recommend that bidders first inspect the items in person. They know full well that this is not possible in most cases. But do they do anything to compensate? No, certainly not.
4. Now, this is not the auctioneer’s fault. It is to his credit and the credit of his merchandising team, that prices realised for interesting pieces at auction will be considerably higher than either the high estimate or what one would expect to pay for a comparable piece on the open market. It’s their job to get the highest possible price. Most buyers that I come across are interested in getting the lowest possible price. Somehow, at auction, people forget themselves in the competition to buy that one fabulous shmonze.
5. ok, so you are willing to chance the above. You bid, you buy. At auction, there is always a buyer’s premium. Today, in most cases it is a whopping 25%. Overseas, you are charged VAT as well and it’s your problem to prove that the item is shipped overseas before you can think of chasing that one down. Then, there are the auction houses overseas who will not allow you to pay with your credit card. Banks are now charging $75.- for a wire transfer and some auction houses actually expect you to pay the wire transfer fees from their bank as well. Some more generous auction houses will take credit cards, for an additional 2.5% and up. By now, you’re about 30-something percent above hammer price. And, it’s not the end.
6. Auction houses today do not provide shipping services. They are kind enough to provide you with a list of possible shippers. I bought a brooch overseas recently. Not an expensive brooch, but the shipping quote was approximately $150.- It is worth doing a little shopping around. One item that needed to be shipped from a nearby location was quoted as $60.- just to pick up and pack (shipping was to be on my account), while another institution quoted me $12.- for the exact same job.
7. It’s not over yet. Having found a shipper and come to an agreement, you need to fill out forms for the shipper to take to the auctioneer before the item will be released. Just one more little headache on the road of buying antique jewelry at today’s auctions.
8. So, finally, you have utterly overpaid, the item arrives and not only do you not like it, but it is not at all what was described. Guys, you just learned a very valuable lesson. There is nothing you can do. No returns, no refunds. Buying antique jewelry at auction is not so simple.
While not every auctioneer is guilty of every crime listed above, lots of them are. Expensive advertising campaigns have persuaded the public that their overpriced sales are a good deal. I suggest that you find a dealer you can trust, who stands behind their merchandise, who has done all of the legwork for you, who provides detailed descriptions and pictures (including flaws), who doesn’t nickel and dime you on every detail, who does their best to give you the fabulous service you deserve and who will always offer a refund if something is wrong.