I would like to respond to Mr. Miller’s Jan. 13, 2010, article, “Top Ten Reasons to be wary of online bidding.” Mr. Miller’s article might as well have been titled, “Why Bidding at Auction is a Risk.” As the President of an online auction site and former Director of Online Auctions for Sothebys.com, I have overseen the sale of hundreds of thousands of objects in online sales at prices ranging in excess of $1 million for a single lot, and would like to offer another perspective about bidding online.
Online bidding is simply another tool for dealers and collectors to bid at auction. Whether selling online or “live,” it is always preferable to view an item first-hand, but sometimes this is not feasible, and when it is not, online bidding is a great improvement over other options. Bidders, whether they purchase via the Internet, in a salesroom, or by telephone should follow some basic guidelines. Those who follow these guidelines overwhelmingly have a successful experience purchasing online or in a “live” auction.
1. Familiarize yourself with the auction company or person offering the items for sale. Read the fine print, understand the limits of guarantees (if any) and if there are no guarantees, realize that the risk is greater than with a company or individual that offers guarantees. If a company guarantees the property to be as described and is reputable, then you will have recourse if you purchase that object without viewing it first-hand and it is not as described.
If it is sold “as-is” with no guarantees, you should be wary of bidding without viewing that object first-hand or having a trusted advisor view it for you. Using the auction house bidding or left bid service is a very good time-saving tool, but most often is at the risk of the bidder and if errors occur — a bid is incorrectly executed at a lesser amount or completely missed — most auction houses have waivers that absolve them of responsibility.
2. Photographs, condition reports and other information is useful in proportion to the reputation of the auction house. A single illustration in a catalog does not provide as much information as does 10 images of an item on an online site, but neither are sufficient if the company is known for chicanery. The same goes for descriptions, designations, and footnotes. Good scholarship is generally found in the major auction houses, but also in some smaller houses as well, depending upon the experts employed at the house. Online images should show overall views, front, back, sides, and details of the good and bad, and the condition report must be complete and detailed. Objects without this information should be viewed with wariness and skepticism, and objects with this information, but not covered under meaningful guarantees should be approached with caution.
3. Understand the fee structure, payment policies and shipping options. All auction houses have different fee structures. Buyer’s premiums differ, some charge extra for online bidding, paying cash vs. credit card, and some require deposits to bid. Payment options vary as well. Some auction houses have an immediate payment policy; others provide more time, particularly for regular clients. Shipping can be in-house or through outside companies. If possible, particularly for large items, get a shipping quote in advance before making a decision to bid. Understand who bears the liability in the event an object is damaged in shipping before you finalize a shipping arrangement.
In summary, bidding online is about the same things that concern any auction buyer: trust and reliability. Auction houses that sell through a third party provider are only as good as the information they provide the third-party service and if the online auction platform does not offer uniform guarantees covering all auction houses and sellers that it represents, then the prospective purchaser should make sure the individual seller offers suitable guarantees or be appropriately wary. Online sellers have a special obligation to furnish the prospective bidder with all the information that is needed to make an informed judgment. The sellers that take this approach offer a more transparent and open process than is typically the case in many “live” auction settings where hidden reserves and the absence of guarantees is the norm.
Lark Mason is the founder and president of iGavel.com, an advisor with Timothy Sammons, Inc., and formerly the director of online auctions for Sothebys.com, Mason is an instructor on the subject of Art Auctions at New York University.
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