Ahhhhhhhntiques roadshow
March 9, 2011 10:30 AM   Subscribe

What legal recourse do I have if I feel an item sold by an auction house is misrepresented? (Antiques, estates and drama, oh my!)

Dong story short, my family sold through an auction house some art nouveau furniture that part of my uncle's estate. My uncle had always told us that it was by a particular maker, and had documentation to prove it. Through the years, the documentation got lost, and the rep from the major auction house said that they searched long and hard and could not find anything attributing the furniture to the maker. I was very busy with exams at the time and they were pushing for a quick sale, but said they thought the item would bring about half of what we had hoped for. In the end, it sold for 1/10 of what it would have sold for if it could be attributed to the maker.

With exams over, I had the time to look into the furniture. I googled the maker and bought the first book listed on amazon for $11. On page 68 is a picture of our furniture. Same handles, same bronze details, same everything.

Shouldn't the auction house have discovered this? Is there such a thing as auction house due diligence? They charged 20% from us, 20% from the buyer, and charged hundreds extra for moving and photography. I am livid. It seems that they would have wanted to maximize the sale price, but a part of me wonders if this oversight wasn't intentional - they didn't work something out with one of their regular buyers.

Of course there is an added layer of family drama. I am also angry because the sale was in my name and I never agreed to the reserves on the items.

Ahhh. Sorry.

Anyway, the question is: did the auction house have a responsibility to do basic research on the item after we told them it was by a well known maker
posted by ladypants to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Unless they said they would. No.

(IANAL) But you contracted them to sell the piece, they did that. I would be shocked if they had something worked out before hand with a buyer. It sounds like you should have sold the items at a privet party, rather then auction.

I am sorry for your predicament, I know art nouveau works can be valuable. But it sounds to me like everything was legal, just not done well.
posted by Felex at 10:37 AM on March 9, 2011

Seriously? No. Not a lawyer either.

It's a business and yes, from an ethical standpoint they should have given you a better price but from the business standpoint, they made a good transaction. It's not up to the auction house to do the research for you, they do the research for them to make a PROFIT. It's up to you to see how much you want to take for it. If you sold it to them but believed it to be a more expensive piece, you could have refused to do it. They took what they thought it was worth, and you agreed to it.

Sell an expensive baseball card, and see what happens when you take $10 for a $1,000 card. Same concept, your responsible to know how much you want for it and a ballpark range of what you want.
posted by lpcxa0 at 10:40 AM on March 9, 2011

Oh, sorry - there is most def. legal recourse if you can prove that the auction house intentionally defrauded you to make a profit such as selling to a relative at a reduced price who would then resell the furniture for a more acceptable price. But good luck proving this as conspiracy needs to be proven through communication or other means. Overall, I think you just got lazy and didn't do the research to know to walk away from the deal.
posted by lpcxa0 at 10:45 AM on March 9, 2011

We have had the experience of being disappointed when something we inherited turned out not to be worth as much as we, or the auction house, had initially hoped. Like you, we didn't have paperwork proving provenance but had family history about it, and the guy I hired to deal with selling it felt he could authenticate it. It didn't end up working out that way; buyers just weren't interested at the price he initially thought we might get based on his research. It's disappointing, sure, especially since we'd started seeing dollar signs after our initial conversations, but it never occurred to me there was fraud--just a combination of factors making our stuff worth less than we had hoped and expected.

You might ask them what research they did. Do you know they didn't? Our guy not only did his research, he drove 600 miles to a region of the country where our stuff was likely to attract more interest, and still came away disappointed. Maybe your folks really were incompetent or unethical in some way, but I wouldn't jump to that conclusion based on the furniture not being worth as much as you hoped it would be.
posted by not that girl at 10:58 AM on March 9, 2011

Oh, sorry - there is most def. legal recourse if you can prove that the auction house intentionally defrauded you to make a profit such as selling to a relative at a reduced price who would then resell the furniture for a more acceptable price. But good luck proving this as conspiracy needs to be proven through communication or other means. Overall, I think you just got lazy and didn't do the research to know to walk away from the deal.


What auction house settles for 20% of $500 dollars when they can have 20% of $500,000? As a favour to one of their buyers? I have been buying and selling at antique auctions for a decade and this scenario exists in your head only. It must sting that this has happened but it's your fault.

In most cases auctions want to protect their name by only attributing works which have cast iron documentation or provenance. It is in the auction's best interest to achieve the highest price possible for items because it is more comission for them, but there is no onus on them to devote their time to endlessly chasing down wrongly attributed or strange, unknown items. If it is not immediately apparent what something is, or it is not attributable with a cursory piece of research, they will stick in in an auction with a generic description because they don't have time to do anything else. The items like this that end up in auction rooms with titles like "Wooden Chair" rather than "Louis Majorelle mahogany chaise longue" or "Early ornament" rather than "Rare 16th century German fruitwood carving of the deposition" are how antique dealers make money. They have the knowledge that the auction rooms don't, and often more time and better resources to refer to the $11 books that unlocks the value of these objects.

As a matter of interest who is the "major" auction house? International? If they couldn't attribute the chair and you later discovered it in a widely available book I don't believe they were "major" at all. They should have clocked it on sight.
posted by fire&wings at 11:03 AM on March 9, 2011

It seems fairly incredible that the auction house and its presumably professional, experienced appraisers missed the value by that much; and then in the subsequent auction, presumably attended by professional decorators and others experienced with identifying and buying antiques, that the price wasn't driven up to at least near market value of the item. The discrepancy between what you expected and what you got are just too great for the number of knowledgeable people who would have seen the piece. Nobody likes hearing this, but there's a very great chance that the situation didn't play out exactly as you're describing.

It's over and done, unless you can prove that the auction house intentionally undervalued the item and misrepresented it auction, and tipped off a friend or accomplice to buy it for a song and resell for a higher amount. That likely didn't happen and you probably got a fair price for the piece, so you needn't feel bad about it. But those feelings aren't necessary logical and are hard to overcome so I would try to frame it as a learning experience:

"Next time I use an auction house and I am convinced of the item's value, I will set a reserve."
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:31 AM on March 9, 2011

Response by poster: Fire&wings: The auction house is Doyle, and yes, the items are a Louis Majorelle dining set that is on page 68 of the 1910 Louis Majourelle catalogue.
posted by ladypants at 12:27 PM on March 9, 2011

Response by poster: Well, okay, I am in a calmer mood now, so here's some explanation.

1. Yes, the pieces are a Louis Majorelle dining set (table, chairs, buffet, console) in pristine condition. Really nice, with beautiful art nouveau carving and bronze tree ornaments), but no marquetry. They sold at auction for about $4,000. This seems very low to me.

2. Theoretically, it could be a forgery, but who fakes a hand carved dining set? The workmanship is incredible.

3. The auction house is Doyle and they assured us that they had done extensive research.

4. The picture in the book has identical ornaments. Not similar... all the stuff in the book is in the art nouveau style. This is identical.

5. I majored in art history in college, which normally doesn't amount to a hill of beans, but I would say that my visual recognition skills are pretty good.

@lpcxa0 re: lazyness: I hear you. The frustrating thing is that I knew all along that the documentation existed in my uncle's house, but I live in a different state. A different family member was pushing for a quick sale. I said that I would not have the time to research it before finals, and they pushed for a sale before my exams were over. This is where the family drama comes in.
posted by ladypants at 12:38 PM on March 9, 2011

Response by poster: More clarification:

I should give the auction house the benefit of the doubt, but they sold only 2 out of the three pieces in the set. The third went unsold, and they offered to take it off our hands for a few hundred dollars. This may be normal practice, but after a while it occurred to me that this could also be a very effective way to buy items for extremely low prices - to split up a set, and lowball for the remaining pieces.
posted by ladypants at 12:45 PM on March 9, 2011

I am not your auction house representative - but formerly I ran a department of one.

To provide some perspective:

You can't tell them the piece was guaranteed to be by a certain maker - the piece has to say that itself. It didn't.

The larger worry would be their misrepresenting it to prospective buyers, by misattributing it without the necessary documentation. And an educated high-end buyer wouldn't need it to make their decision anyway, as the auction house offers and represents the item "as is", but doesn't necessarily "sell" it. They provide a service, uniting sellers with buyers and handling the marketing and transaction and taxes and paperwork, for fees less than the retail markup of just walking into a store and buying something.

Read not just your contract, but read the Terms and Conditions of their sales.

Case in point: a sculpture at our auction house offered with the sculptor unidentified sold through the roof anyway, because the bidders knew it was by Elizabeth Cox. Someone on our team slipped up - but, nobody suffered because the item was what the item was and sold accordingly in the right market. What a treat for that estate, though. Your item did not sell for less because it didn't have the auction house's attribution if someone really wanted it. It likely sold for less only partly because your family did not keep all the original papers and provenance with it to provide it for them, which does help - but if the auction house described the item accurately, that's all that's needed to sell a piece. Their (example - not the house I worked for) conditions of sale will clarify this.

But your item also likely sold for less because the demand for certain furniture depends on the market. The market for Art Nouveau is pretty soft because even antique furniture values fluctuate based on current design trends. It's why I can't by a g-d teak credenza here in Toronto for under $600, because people and their mid-century tastes and their flat-screen TVs and lofts needing storage mean that they're trending, when they used to be around for $25 bucks in my own recent memory. If Martha or Oprah had done something to bring Art Nouveau back to the forefront recently, it might have had a better chance. Look at what's happened to the value of white ironstone, McCoy Pottery, vintage glass Christmas ornaments and bottle brush trees, thanks to Ms. Stewart. And look what happened to shabby chic stuff, after a decade - it's waning.

If, also, your location is not the prime one for that piece of furniture, and they don't attract the primary buyers for it somehow, nothing would help it to have sold for more. It's why, for example, when Sotheby's partnered with another company here in Toronto, the high-end merchandise went through their international sales at certain times of the year in other markets to attract the typical buyers, and the low-end items remained with the other auction house in the smaller market. I also learned though a lecture at jewellery camp one year that there are only a few people through which you can reach the top six buyers for any item - so even if you've got the ultimate Art Nouveau piece in the whole world there, if you don't have the attention of the top buyers, it's going nowhere. You could ask how it was advertised. At our auction house I could point out that my local mailing list had X number of regular buyers and X number of influencers and X number of people in other cities with records of purchasing similar items, and you can bet that I called my top ten buyers personally, inviting them to come in for private jewellery viewings and bringing pieces to their attention. But that was for two- and three-figure pieces mostly.

Further, auction value is different than insurance value, is different than replacement value, is different than fair market value. (This site has a paragraph explaining that). Though your family may have had an impression of a potentially larger value based on who knows what conjecture, auction values are usually based on finding what a few comparable items sold for in a comparable market within a recent time period, and considering other factors and conditions (holidays, tax time, world events). A price in a book is not the most comparable auction value - and a price in a book is a year out of date by the time the book is published. It's often there as an exciting insurance value because that reads better. (And I'll admit, I'm curious about what you had - but only because I worked with people who came to the auction house and stores I worked for to compile price guides, and know how that's done from behind the scenes, and it's a bit um...sloppy sometimes.)

It takes a lot of work to come up with auction estimates - searching through results of other houses and descriptions and determining what's comparable and considering market conditions - but the ultimate auction value of an item sold depends on the time of day as much as anything! For example, sadly, the house I worked for had its first couture sale on THAT September 11th -- whatever sold didn't achieve its value because our bidders in NY either couldn't attend, couldn't make phone bids and halfway through, nobody thought it should even go forward (but we didn't realize the scope at the time). We couldn't use the prices realized from that sale for other sales, and the reserves protected a lot of the items, which was great.

As for the reserves, you have a contract that you signed. That was in there, that could have been negotiated, unless the auction house has a strict policy in the contract. Sometimes they're a few bids under the estimate, sometimes they're a percentage, sometimes they're enough to guarantee that you don't owe money. The fees for photography and moving at the house where I worked for were the negotiating points for us - we'd try to collect them, but would also just as happily cover them ourselves to keep a client happy in order to attract a major item. Of course it's hard to promote or attract attention to an item without an image, but often an auction house will include even more photos for their own benefit, because you're right, they want to make money. If I really wanted an item, I could also offer the consignor a lower consignment fee, though I was never allowed to mess with the buyer's premium.

It does sound like that at the pertinent times you were not interested in making it your job to help the item sell through the auction house, due to your extenuating circumstances. I don't doubt they did what they would normally do for any other item or customer, it's just that in hindsight, you feel as if more input or negotiation would have left you in a more satisfied position now, no matter what the results.

What I would suggest is that you speak with your auction house representative, express your regret with the transaction, and disappointment in the results. You could ask what was done to reach the top buyers for such a piece (if you know who they'd be, even). But really, it's too late and if there's anything to be saved, it's the auction house's desire to have a good reputation with a satisfied customer who might refer others to them. So you could also request, due to your disappointment at the price realized after your now seeming disproportionate costs incurred with their house, if they'd consider waiving or reducing any of the moving or photography fees, or perhaps reducing their commission.

But, to answer your question - their extent of their responsibility was made clear in your contract and in their terms of sale, and they likely fulfilled those by offering it according to those terms. Your hopeful expectations do not make obligations on their part.
posted by peagood at 12:56 PM on March 9, 2011 [63 favorites]

I had this happen to me by trying to sell an original valuable work of art through Sotheby's. They price fixed the sale so the artist's gallery could buy it cheap and resell it at a very large profit, I'm sure giving a kickback to a curator at Sotheby's. I found out I had been double dealt when I won a payout as part of a class action suit and the law firm sent me a check in the mail. I didn't even have very much contact with the law firm. So it happens.

Do some background research on the auction house selling the work.
posted by effluvia at 12:57 PM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

One would think that the Sotheby's/Christie's scandal would have put the second tier houses (like Doyle's) on their best behavior, but who can say for sure?

From the auction house POV - Value is what a willing buyer will pay at a given moment in time. Auctions swing to extremes both ways. The occasional screaming bargain is what brings in a lot of the punters. Reserve price protects you from excess, but if the family member cared more about time than money (as a lot of people do) and neglected that part of the deal, well, said family member at least got his money's worth. Cold comfort for you, and believe me, I sympathize, but there it is.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:14 PM on March 9, 2011

What are presumably your lots in Doyle's recent Belle Epoque sale are listed as "Attributed to Louis Majorelle." I'm not sure what you were hoping for, but absent any solid documentation, this is probably the most optimistic attribution they could give.
posted by gyusan at 1:19 PM on March 9, 2011

Should have previewed while typing my novel - but it seems your pieces were well-advertised, and they were also listed as "attributed to" - which is as it should be.

Smaller desks and other items with more defined nouveau lines would be more desirable - those prices don't seem out of line, looking at the items. They don't seem out of line with prices realized for comparable items at Christies London sale, looking at things like the salon furniture. Your pieces are lovely, but possibly just not trending in design.

It's also a bad time of the year to sell - for end users, it's tax time and the holiday bills are still coming in. Winter blahs - all that. There were other complementary items in the sale that would have drawn attention to your set - but if another sale is coming up that would be appropriate for the remaining pieces, I'd suggest asking the auction house about re-offering them again later in the spring, but before people go away for the summer. Our two largest jewellery sales were in June and October, for those reasons.

Also, auction houses generally, ethically, can't buy your items from you and can't sell them to someone unless they've been offered to the public first. Someone may have made an offer that was lower than the estimate or reserve, and they're asking if you'd consider an after-sale. Sometimes it's a favour, if an estate needs to be cleared up or if the owner isn't interested in prolonging the transaction, so the auction house asks, since they represent both parties. It's not a bad thing.

Here's something to consider though, and it's one of the reasons I got no pleasure out of that part of working in the auction business - because of the difficulties of family arguments in all this: It's found money. It was never yours until it's yours. You have nothing invested in the pieces. It's nice that they may be worth more, to someone somewhere sometime, but what are they worth to you? If you would pay the auction value for them if you had it, keep them and enjoy them. But really, you're thinking potential value, when the fair market value of an item is what a willing buyer will pay a willing seller in an open market with all conditions known and no time constraints. If that value is $2 or $200 or $2000, that's the value. That's what the auction told you (not the auction house - the procedure and results of the sale). If the winning bidder turns out to be a dealer, and then can translate the piece to a market where it now has a retail value, well, that's just how it works. You don't have a store with the right reach, or the client base, or the decorators with the connections at hand to make that happen. That's where again, skill has value and gets compensated by a different market.

Decide what you'd be happy to have out of this all and be done with it. It will otherwise eat you up.
posted by peagood at 1:49 PM on March 9, 2011 [22 favorites]

If you can find out who bought it, that will answer a lot of your fraud or not questions. Personally I'm pretty cynical and I'd be concerned too.
posted by fshgrl at 1:51 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

part of me wonders if this oversight wasn't intentional - they didn't work something out with one of their regular buyers.

It doesn't work that way. Or, I guess, the problem is that it does, but not that way.. The auction house does want a fast sale, and they do want their regulars to get some good buys. However, there is almost no chance that they specifically planned a fraud on a particular item. The auction house and its customers almost always have various informal understandings that result in "good business", but almost never an organized conspiracy. There isn't any payoff in conspiracy compared to the cost.

Also, antiques are pretty dead, and furniture is dead dead dead (with allowances for peagood's point about mid century modern). Even worse, I think dining room sets, along with bedroom sets, are just about the worst of the worst. So, while I don't know the specifics of that maker and etc, I bet you got a lot better price than you think you did.
posted by Chuckles at 11:19 AM on March 10, 2011

« Older Looking for health newsletter suggestions   |   Help me find my long-lost cookbook Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.