When I need information I usually go straight to my trusty Mac to consult the internet god. Unfortunately, the internet is just as ambiguous, capricious, taciturn and frequently untruthful as any ancient Greek oracle. Still in its crude infant form, the internet is a very blunt instrument.
Commonplace in science fiction is the arrival of the heroes on a world housing ruins of an advanced civilisation long since vanished. Regardless of planetary system, the ruins are always covered with cobwebs: spiders are truly universal! Nevertheless cunning humans always have the computer system up and running in minutes, notwithstanding its having being dormant for aeons.
Although current technology seems to fail after about five years, it is a good place to start as it will frequently indicate which book to consult. Books have editors! Note that internet entries can be surprisingly elastic on things such dates of sovereigns and other hitherto immutable facts.
With a little coaxing, the internet can bring great treasures to our doorstep from faraway places. We can buy antiques and collectables online through direct purchases from dealers, through auctions, and via media such as eBay from private citizens anywhere in the world, at any time of day. We press the button at 3 am after four glasses of pinot. Cyber banking whisks money from our accounts immediately and our purchase arrives in a box somewhat later. Mostly we are thrilled.
Most transactions are successful, I believe. Some are not. Buying from a private vendor on the web can be the cyber equivalent of buying something from the guy at the pub.
Most memorable is the girl who won two ikons from Poland online from a private vendor for a few hundred dollars. She showed me what allegedly arrived. Perhaps she should have unpacked the box under the CCTV camera at work, so she could have proved that this was really what had been sent? The vendor will no doubt deny it. What she unpacked were two split tree branch segments, complete with bark on the curved side, with colour photocopies of the ikons sticky taped to the cleaved flat wood parts. She had bought the world’s most expensive firewood!
Buying through online marketplaces from reputable dealers and collectors substantially diminishes the possibilities of unpleasant surprises. Should you trust the product description by the earnest Mrs Jones, octogenarian housewife of Truth or Consequences in New Mexico (I kid you not!), who is selling her mother’s jug collection online, as much as you would trust the product description supplied by a jug dealer of 40 years experience? Using online conduits between you and the vendor has the possible advantage that you can communicate directly with the seller, thus possibly gaining a feel for their knowledge and integrity.
Traditional auctions, online or corporeal, separate the seller from the buyer, making each anonymous. This holds true for completely online auctions, and for traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ auctions which have online catalogues and bidding mechanisms.
Fools rush in, while angels read the fine print in auction catalogues. Some familiarity with ‘auctionese’ is desirable.
I am periodically paid (lavishly: I save clients lots of pretty money!) for my expertise in vetting Russian items at auction. Sometimes a client will ask if a lot is genuine. The auction description ‘bears the mark of Faberge’ is a clear ‘auctionese’ indication for a fake mark and by extension, a dud piece. While one still has to check the lot to be certain, cautionary descriptions such as this are usually depressingly accurate. Similarly, a ‘George II chair’ is a description that may describe a chair made up of old bits. Far from being arcane knowledge, kept secret by the trade, this is clearly stated in the fine print in catalogues, for all astute folk to read.
Auction catalogue descriptions are a guide only (66 is the chair and 99 is the mirror!) and not a guarantee. Some auction houses give useful pointers. A ‘George II chair c. 1730,’ a ‘George II chair’ and ‘George II style chair’ are each a description that has a very different and distinct implication for authenticity.
Auctions are not what they once were decades ago. Once upon a time auctions were dusty wholesale sources and sales took place when most lay people were at their nine-to- five jobs. There were no descriptions or estimates and one had to know one’s stock and prices to buy well. Incredibly, in those golden days the total cost of buying was less than 10% seller’s premium. The buyer actually paid the hammer price. Now retail auctions are all the rage and prices realised are likely to be comparable to shop prices. Record prices for things are always auction prices, you‘ll notice! With the advent of the buyer’s premium and GST the auction house fees are now not much different from the shopkeeper’s profit.
On a thousand dollar hammer price, the fees may easily be $385. However, now stock is beautifully presented, we have champagne viewings, hotel size floral arrangements and glossy catalogues that are a publisher’s triumph. This useful development has made it quite possible for a dealer to sell his stock through auction and to realise a profit for both him and the auction house. A win-win situation, with no inconvenient lay-bys.
Compare before you bid
A little comparative shopping homework is also useful. I was recently titillated when a pair of useful objects, correctly described in the catalogue with no mention of age, sold for over $3000 to the lucky bidder. The self same objects were available, boxed, at $850 each in some homewares boutiques.
My conviction is that retail therapy in Paris and New Orleans (online if necessary) is the minimum requirement for a defensive shopping experience. The bronze reference to Rodin (illustrated), a recent Chinese contribution to our joint cultural heritage, was bought as new in Melbourne for about $350.
In September I saw about 70 of these in the Paris antique markets, priced between A$900 and A$1800. No soul being so indecorous as to mention age, many a rich Serbian and Korean tourist carried his ‘antique French’ bronze home in joyful triumph. Bought at the flea markets (for cash, no wrapping, no receipt), it follows that the bronze must be both old and cheap.
Just as the internet has brought the world into our living rooms, bedrooms and offices, it has taken our shops, garage sales and auctions to an international audience. With prices for antiques, both old and new, evidently often much higher in Europe and even financially embarrassed America than here, Australia’s bargains are being snapped up and our very economical Australia Post is flourishing. I sometimes wonder if in 20 years I will have anything left in Australia to sell apart from vintage Tupperware; will it sell better with a smart tartan ribbon bow?
Thanks to my accessibility on the web I know that somewhere in a bleak central European winter, someone is pressing the button, after four glasses of vodka, and I will soon be off to the Clifton Hill Post Office again with a parcel under my wing. I have always said that I loved the internet, have I not, gentle reader? ■