The ethics of secondhand selling
July 19, 2020 12:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering doing some secondhand selling of vintage pieces, and I'm wondering how ethical selling secondhand jewelry is...

Seeing as quarantining is going to be lasting for some time, I've been interested in the idea of doing some online selling of secondhand vintage pieces and jewelry. I recently stumbled into the world of online auctions. I really don't know anything about auctions or where/how auction houses source their merchandise (if you have information about that, please let me know). I've seen some really beautiful jewelry at incredibly low prices, but my ethical concern comes from the idea of selling someone's art for my own profit. Particularly sterling silver jewelry that is listed as "Navajo" or "Native American" with the actual artist's name listed. Is selling secondhand jewelry unethical?
posted by orangesky4 to Shopping (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You might be interested in researching and reading about Artist Resale Rights. In a few places, when art is resold under certain circumstances, the original artist gets a cut of the increase in value. That's one way of dealing with the ethics of Resale and you could probably do that even if it isn't a requirement in your area or for the type of work you wish to sell. It would be harder, because there won't be a mechanism in place but if you know the artist you could reach out to them and let to send them money and if you don't you could donate a preventative of sales to a charitable program that serves the community the work is from.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:24 PM on July 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

And by preventative, I meant percentage, obv.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:40 PM on July 19, 2020

The vast majority of art (jewelry and others) in the world becomes near worthless after the first sale. Most secondhand jewelry is worth approximately the spot price value of the precious metal it contains - that's not something the artist was responsible for.

In general, I do not attribute loss of value in a piece to the artist, and would never think of sending an invoice to an artist when I lose money on resale of their work. Correspondingly, in the rare instance where art appreciates, I do not worry ethically about an artist receiving any value when I sell a piece. I do not attribute rights on art that do not exist in other objects.
posted by saeculorum at 12:56 PM on July 19, 2020 [18 favorites]

I can see your concern when you compare physical art to something like music, film, or writing where we have whole systems set up to make sure the original author continues to profit from their work.

The fact that a system like that does not exist for physical art I think tells you a lot about where our society stands on the topic. Whether your personal ethics demand something above and beyond that is up to you.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:12 PM on July 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

I can see your concern when you compare physical art to something like music, film, or writing where we have whole systems set up to make sure the original author continues to profit from their work.

Speaking as a publisher -- the same lack of protection applies to the second-hand sale of music, film, and writing as to jewelry -- the author and publisher do not get any royalties if one of their books is sold second-hand. The right of the buyer to resell the copies of intellectual property they buy is built into US law (first sale doctrine) and anyone who makes stuff to sell recognizes that the second-hand market is just part of the rules of the game. As the buyer, part of what you paid for when you bought the item was the right to resell it, and it's not unethical to exercise that right.

As to your question about where the jewelry is from, I don't know, but would strongly suspect most of it is from estate sales.
posted by phoenixy at 2:53 PM on July 19, 2020 [11 favorites]

It seems as fine as reselling anything else? Like, I've often sold used books/DVDs/CDs/clothes/household goods, and all of those items were made by someone. That person got paid the first time. I don't see any reason to treat jewelry differently.

(You could make an argument that any resale is unethical, because instead of buying a book from a used bookstore you should buy it new so the money goes to the author (or insert whatever other product/creator here), but that feels...exhausting. Plus like, we should really be encouraging people to consume less new stuff, yeah?)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 3:24 PM on July 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Given the genocide of, and theft of resources from, Indigenous peoples, I think extra ethics apply here.

I would send a percentage of the profit to the artist if known, and if unknown, donate a percentage to an org that supports Indigenous people.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 3:36 PM on July 19, 2020 [9 favorites]

I see three central questions. As noted, auction jewelry appears inexpensive only because of the massive overvaluation of retail jewelry and these auctions are a closer representation of jewelry's actual value. Selling work on the resale market is actually a great service as jewelry follows fashion trends and folks who reject today's trends are only left with custom and resale. If you can figure out what folks are looking for that isn't being addressed in the retail market then you will have brisk business - but if not you will be saddled with unsold inventory. And then you end up at auction selling the jewelry in lots.

The third issue around the type of work. That is a much harder issue. nouvelle-personne is right, especially in regards to authentic work. But what if it isn't actually authentic? If you can't verify the origin I strongly suspect that most work sold as Indigenous and First Nations is only in the style of those traditions. It would not be ethical to represent the work as authentic if you can't definitively prove the work's providence, so how the work is described and presented is critical in resale. And then the question becomes if it is ethical to sell that style of work?

And I say the fact that you have asked these questions and marked nouvelle-personne's answer indicates that you are approaching this with care. So if you choose to resell this type of work be as clear as you can in the description - and I suggest using geographic in place of "Navajo" or "Native American". So the jewelry is in the style of the American Southwest, unless you know for certain it's from a Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni silversmith, and never describe it as 'costume jewelry' or the like.

Good luck!
posted by zenon at 7:46 AM on July 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

You can ease some ethical burden by giving a percentage to Native American non-profits. You might even be able to use N% of sales/profits donated to %Group as a selling point.
posted by theora55 at 5:07 AM on July 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

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