Issue #22  11/15/2000
On Getting Carried Away At Auction

In the last newsletter we noted that a record price for a photogravure on eBay was set recently when a Paul Strand of "Wall Street" sold for $9100 (my thanks to reader and West Coast dealer Bob Tat for the lead on the original story), but apparently the deal was not completed, according to one of our newsletter readers, Michael Diemar.

Diemar had been trying to find this image for some time, but to no avail. Diemar reports: "When it turned up on eBay I thought "finally, this one's mine." I put in the first two low bids and gradually watched it rise, expecting to pick it up for around $5,000. Just to secure it, I did what I sometimes do on eBay, stick in a late and ridiculously high bid, this time $9,000. Well, in this case my tactic backfired. In a last-minute frenzy (of bids) another bidder took it to $9,100. Needless to say, I was disappointed but also very surprised that somebody would go so high. A week later I received an email from the seller, an antique dealer who had taken it on consignment. She explained that the high bidder on "Wall Street" had bid successfully on four other gravures, had still not paid for any of them, was making endless excuses, and would I like to buy Wall Street for $9,000? I explained to her about my bidding strategy, pointing out that I would have honored my commitment had bidding stopped at $8,600, but that since I wasn't the successful bidder we would have to negotiate a price. I pointed out the auction record and made an offer of $6,000 for it. She came back with an offer of $7,000 and we finally met halfway at $6,500. Still an auction record for it, I think, on eBay and elsewhere."

In addition to this gravure, another paper image of Geronimo, which sold for just over $10,000 on eBay in September, may also have been caught up in a similar wave of "bidding exuberance." To my knowledge, the photo is the highest price paid for a paper photograph on eBay. Reportedly, C.S. Fly took the photo in 1886 in the Mexican desert just before Geronimo surrendered. The image was reported to be "in fantastic shape" by the dealer, who auctioned it for a consigner. It has handwriting on the back by C. S. Fly presenting it to the recipient. The photo also came with a letter of provenance from the consigner, tracing the history of the three owners. According to the dealer V. Ruple, "The winning bidder told me it fit a niche in his collection."

While the winning bidder didn’t respond to my emails, the underbidder did. While they didn’t want to be quoted by name, they did say, "If I were you, I would not take an eBay moment of bidding exuberance too seriously."

The underbidder, who is a newsletter reader, noted the rarity and good provenance when he told me: "I bid far more than I assumed the image was worth, hoping to get it for $5000 or so. Oh well, someone was crazier than me! God Bless that market value thing. I did get a thank you note from the seller...Wow. What a great image it was. Captures the West doesn't it?" My thanks to reader Manny Prince for giving me a heads-up on this auction.

All this does serve to illustrate a problem to avoid. Don’t leave bids that you won’t or can’t back up. You will be banned from a dealer’s auctions (all it takes is a request to eBay), word does get around to other dealers, and if you do it a few more times, you can even get banned from eBay entirely. If you did it at one of the major houses, you would be banned from their rooms. As I understand it, you can also be legally held responsible for the bid amount, if the dealer chooses to pursue it. Don’t take your bids lightly, or put in "buy" bids, unless you are willing to pay that price for it.

If you need to arrange a payment plan or you think you may be delayed in paying, the time to ask is before you bid. Many dealers will try to accommodate buyers, especially past customers, but they need to know upfront, especially on a consignment item. For every tale of a bad vendor on eBay (usually NOT a photo dealer but an antique dealer who ran across an image), frankly I have heard of 10 bad bidders. Fortunately, there aren’t that many of either in the photography world.

Yes, it is easy to get carried away at live or electronic auctions. Set your outside limits upfront, so you do not overpay or do not have the funds to complete the deal. And don’t put in "ridiculously high bids" unless you are prepared to be stuck with the results. I have seen many instances (on eBay and elsewhere) where two parties had the same strategy and the results were disastrous for at least one party. I know of one instance at a London auction where two parties apparently hired third parties to bid for them on a toy worth about 30,000 pounds at tops, with a "buy" order from each. The toy went into eight figures before the bidding stopped. As the cop used to say on the old TV program Hill Street Blues: "Be careful out there."