I have to respect what 1stdibs is offering with their announcement that “starting this Saturday (1/17/2009) dealers all across the country will be posting items that they have marked down to move quickly”.  Of course, those dealers are members invited by Michael Bruno to join 1stdibs (for disclosure purposes, I was invited by Mr. Bruno, but declined).


While dealer organizations may not want to advocate for changes in the industry and regulation of auction methods, the strongest motivation for an evolving industry will ultimately come down to economics. Low prices never hurt to motivate; and disclosure of dealer prices on the internet, at an antiques show, or in a showroom, can only enhance their position in the market.  


With auctioneers relying on deception, using secret reserves that require chandelier bidding, among other misleading practices, dealers have been offered a nice opportunity for price transparency. Realistic pricing can go a long way to developing market share.  1stdibs requires dealers to post their prices on their “Saturday Sale”, but not necessarily on their regular site.  


By disclosing a price, the dealer is creating his ceiling on an item’s valuation.  Having the floor price as the opening bid (a reserve) is something that auctioneers openly avoid in order to manipulate the auction method.  This secrecy really is unnecessary and abusive to everyone.


If our industry ever needed regulation, price disclosure is surely the 1st order.  Go buy a house, a car, a stock, there is always an asking price; real property auctions and government securities auctions have firm opening bids or lots are withdrawn.  While I never dreamed I would want regulation in the industry, I would accept it if it leveled the playing field.  


The duopoly of Sotheby’s and Christie’s are now bringing out their PR guns to explain away their new efforts to restructure, after some of their own abusive acts blew up in their face.  They are the ones who challenged the old rules for rules of their own design, and in the process intimidated dealers, collectors, and government agencies with their powerful boards and image management efforts.  The transparency of price, without deception is critical to deciding market activity and market share.


While I admire the way many fine and established dealers showcase their goods I made a very conscious decision not to join any group of antiques dealers, be it an internet site, antiques show, or membership in any dealer organization. Newel was probably David Redden of Sotheby’s first sales call to join their now defunct online auction, when he knew Newel was the 1st major dealer to post its entire inventory (including prices) online back in 1998.  My grandfather, who founded Newel, never expressed a thought of the pomp and circumstance of dealer organizations.  What could they do for him? He was too busy building his business while auctioneers acted as legitimate distributors.


I can’t change the world, and certainly know far less than I should about my own inventory of antiques and running a business.  However, I will go it alone unless I find allies in the trade who also advocate for fairness and transparency in the operations of this industry.  It’s what the public should expect and dealers should promote.



Letter to the Editor:


RE: Inside Art 12/29/08


Unfortunately, the New York Times has allowed its writer on the art and antiques trade, to condone without question the practices of deception and manipulation blatantly perpetrated by the Sotheby’s/Christie’s duopoly at public auction sales.


The casualness of Carol Vogel’s explanation of Sotheby’s irrevocable bid process exemplified how she condones it usage as almost being transparent.  Why didn’t she further explain in her article that because the final auction price was higher than the secret irrevocable bidder’s contracted price, the irrevocable bidder qualified for “compensation” (by any other term, a kickback) for doing so.  


Ms. Vogel looks to the auctions and their PR departments to foster exciting stories about their methods as auctioneers, but she should do it with a much more objective eye.  This duopoly, as leaders of the auctioneering industry, has the clear record of a government conviction for price fixing collusion.  The two of them are still far ahead of the distant 3, 4, or 5th largest auctioneers, let alone dealers.  They have probably duped writers and the public as much as any other forms of business, including the New York State legislature. Their concerted effort helped defeat a bill banning “chandelier bidding”, a method to manipulate bidding to a secret reserve price. And where is the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs?


Perhaps you might think the public should just accepts these unchallenged practices, but these times requiring a sense of transparency.  As the only international firms of their kind, they have been able to spread their methods with impunity around the world.

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