Issue #148  9/28/2008
What to Do to Protect Yourself When Making Purchases At Auctions

Given the cautionary tale above, you may decide that some new care is in order. As the auction houses note, albeit very discretely, in their own catalogues, and collectors and curators keep ignoring at their peril, buying at auction is clearly on a "Buyer Beware" basis. When the auction houses sold primarily to the trade and experienced collectors, it was one thing; but one would think that when the auction houses expanded their business to the inexperienced general public and went full retail that they would have backed their sales with a guarantee of what they were at least claiming in their catalogue descriptions and condition reports, but such is not the case.

I urge all my readers to actually spend some time and read the backs of the catalogues for the term of conditions. I think most of you will be quite shocked with how little the auction houses stand behind their own words. In fact, except for the name of the photographer (and the title of the work at some auction houses), virtually nothing is guaranteed by the auction houses, including most of their descriptive language on lots, their condition reports and their personnel's verbal statements. And even the meager piece of information that is guaranteed is subject to numerous caveats that nearly make such guarantees impossible to enforce.

Is there an alternative? Maybe. I would suggest that you find a gallery or dealer who you trust and who is willing to guarantee the work that they sell you. Perhaps this is not as exciting as standing up in an auction or calling in on the phone and setting a new record for the world to see, but then you might not be stuck with a very expensive pig-in-poke that was overhyped later.

At the very least, if you are going to bid in an auction, then get some real professional third-party help in evaluating and buying at that sale, and don't just depend on the people at the auction house, whose job it is to sell the item. Most of the auction house personnel usually mean well, but many do not have the same level of expertise as many dealers and appraisers. Further, time constraints on cataloguing and issuing condition reports often lead to mistakes that the auction house will not take financial responsibility for.