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eBay Pitfall No.1 - The Shill (Schill)

Buying Safely on eBay

This is the first post in a short series we'll do on the eBay pitfalls we identified in an earlier post. Martin and I intend to expand on this in an e-Book.

In auction terms, a shill or schill, is a dummy bidder.  Put simply, a shill has no intention of actually buying (and paying for) the artwork in question; s/he makes a bid for the sole purpose of driving the price up.

Shills fall into two general categories:
  • those driving up the price on behalf of the seller, and
  • Trolls, those who are trying to be disruptive
The latter are a particular nightmare.  To use a current example: speculation is rife that the buyer of the Quianlong Vase called the Pinner Vase might be a shambolic shill. Theories as to why he (I think it's a 'he') did it abound; a popular one is that he's a Chinese nationalist protesting Western ownership and sales of Chinese antiquities.  That's as maybe; the bottom line is that if he wanted to bring chaos into a few people's lives, he's succeeded.

The price-inflating shill works in both 'real life' and online auctions.  We've discussed in-person dummy bidding in our Google Knol on auctions, and I can't improve on that in a short post.

Since this post is about eBay, the only thing you need to know about dummy bidding is that it is completely illegal in the eBay universe. Forbidden. Verboten.

It's also rampant!

I know of two men who are Deadeye Dicks when it comes to spotting dummy bidding on eBay.  One is a fellow from Western Australia, with the same sort of over-developed sense of justice that I have, and the other is my husband Martin.

Spotting and dealing with schill bidding is complicated, and Martin and I are going to write about it in some detail in the eBay protection guide we've just decided to write.  That'll take us a while, so in the meantime, here are some steps you can take to protect yourself:

  1. Be wary of eBay auctions with the buyer's identities hidden.  Unless the sale is for - ahem! - 'adult' materials, there's no real reason to hide identities.  President Obama is not likely to use his real name to buy new curtains for the West Wing, (and it would be scrambled in any case, see the point below) so, like, whom are they protecting from what?
  2. Check the buyers' purchase history of the folks who are bidding on the item you want. The identities are scrambled, (though with some detective work you can start to figure out the players given time) so you won't know the screen name, but you will know what they've bid on before.  Do they bid but never win the auction?  Have they only bid on automotive parts before and are now suddenly bidding on Royal Worcester?  Look for patterns, and ask yourself 'why?'
  3. If you suspect a sham, bid low!  It's the only way to really protect yourself from paying too much.
  4. Be educated!  You can't set an appropriate maximum bid without knowing what similar items should sell for. At the very least, use eBay's own 'search' feature' and check 'completed listings' to find out what the going rate has been for the last month.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to be sold at auction

She's a very special car!
You can't sell our lovely car to that nasty man!
I'm sorry, children, but I'm afraid I already have....
-Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang - the film
I've just read that Gen 11, the custom-built Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car, is to be sold at auction.

Sacre blue! I don't think it's an accident that the film opens with the fate of poor Chitty up in the air, as she's about to be sold to an unfeeling trader who's going to melt her down for scrap!

Apparently, the original auto has been in the loving care of Pierre Picton, one of the film's stunt drivers, ever since filming. Picton bought her in 1973 or so (there's a really nice documentary short about the car with license plate Gen 11 included with the gold edition of the film).

Now, I'm not an auto fan (Martin is, and I can't wait to tell him about this), but I love Chtty Chitty Bang Bang.  The cast has a lot to do with that, of course: I love Sally Ann Howes's lilting contralto voice and the hijinks of Benny Hill; I'm a fan of  Lionel Jeffries and a dozen more fabulous British character actors who appear in the movie, and I've been a Dick Van Dyke fan for yonks. The movie also boasts Sherman & Sherman's best score, and I regret that I was born too late to have seen Robert Helpmann dance on stage.  Sigh.  But I digress.

Pre-sale estimates are for between 1 and 2 million. If you've got that much hanging about, this may just be 'toot sweet' an opportunity to miss. She'd better go to a loving fan, that's all's I can say:

If you put her in the fiery furnace, you'll be guilty of murder!

Buying Antiques on eBay - postscript

I should follow this morning's post by pointing out that there are, actually, some really good and trustworthy people selling on eBay.

The problem is that the bad guys outnumber the good guys - or so it seems when it comes to antiquing online, and there are millions of eBay members.  You're bound to run into a baddun sooner or later.

Problem number two is that even good guys make mistakes - in age, in identification, in condition.

Problem three: the forgers are getting better and better, so it can be awfully hard to spot them.

The good news is that there are some steps buyers can take.  We'll tackle the major eBay pitfalls one by one in future posts.  Meanwhile, some things you can do right away:
  • Spend only modest amounts, particularly with a seller who is unknown to you, until you know them better
  • Go by word of mouth
  • Educate yourself
  • Join online forums for enthusiasts in your collecting area(s)
  • Actually read the feedback others leave, and the seller's responses to any negative comments.
Watch for my series on the eBay pitfalls, and what to do about them.

Can I Buy Antiques on eBay (safely)?

It has to be the number one eBay question we're asked.  Some version of  'Can I buy antiques on eBay?'

What people are really asking is:

Can I be certain that I'm buying bona fide antiques in excellent condition on eBay?

The short answer is:

And the long answer is:

 If  you're going to buy art, antiques and collectables on eBay you need to be 1) a professional or 2) have a professional consultation available, and preferably both.  Here are your main pitfalls:

  1. Schills
  2. Fakes (items, and people!)
  3. Undisclosed damage
  4. Undisclosed restoration/alterations
It's so bad out there, that we've decided to write an eBook.  Someone's gotta say something!

Could I elaborate?  You betcha!  Stay tuned!

Grandma's stuff - Part one

"It will be better if you say it very quickly...."
-Maria, regarding bad news, in West Side Story

One of the hardest things about dealing and appraising antiques in an indifferent market is having to tell people that their beloved treasures aren't worth a great deal of money.  For me, at no time is this more difficult than when someone very proudly (and usually emotionally) shows me 'Grandma's stuff'.

I like people.  I do.  I can't quite say, as did Will Rogers, that 'I never met a man I didn't like', but truly, I have rarely met a human I didn't like, if one considers all the thousands of humans I have met.  And I truly hate hurting people's feelings, which includes bursting their bubbles, particularly about 'Grandma's stuff'.  My grandmother's things mean a lot to me, and I'm sure yours do to you, too.

There are a few problems with Grandma's stuff.  One is that your grandma may not have been particularly old, so if her collectibles included mid-Century items mass-produced by the tens of thousands, they're worth diddly today.  The other is that Grandma may have bought it, but did she buy it two years ago at the modern equivalent of a five-and-dime?  Furthermore, Grandma may have bought it a long time ago, but she may not have shown great taste or vision in so doing.  I say this kindly, because my own grandmother was good for this; she would buy some amazing pieces, but she would also buy some absolute crap just because she liked it at the moment.  Crap jewellery, crap glass, electroplated silver when she *could* have made me rich buy buying sterling.  And why oh why didn't she scoop up all the Tiffany glass she could lay her hands on when it was still relatively cheap? Because she didn't really like a lot of it and Grandma (quite sensibly) bought what she liked.  After all, she was the one who had to live with it.

Point is, just because it's old, doesn't mean it's good.  Or valuable.  Not even if it was your Grandma's. If you bear this in mind, you'll have a much easier time of it when appraisal time rolls round, and you won't be cross and blame the appraiser for taking a professional and realistic approach to your treasurers.

But hark, now!  Grandma's stuff might contain ye olde 'sleeper', or a real treasure, and you don't want to get ripped off, either!

To be continued...watch for Part Deux!

Chinese Art Market Woes – Just how secure is this bubble?

"Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!"
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

We had hoped that we’d heard the last about the Qianlong Vase for a while, with news from Bainbridge’s that the account was due to be settled.

Now this artinfo article suggests that not only are things not settled with Da Vase, but that this is not a unique problem, and that the Chinese Art Market, seemingly a very lucrative one with some sky’s-the-limit buyers, may have some deep seeded problems, including schills just in it to make political statements.

In response, our good friends at Sotheby’s are set to start demanding deposits from buyers interested in high-ticketed items.  Talk about taking all the sport out of it…!  Evidently the buyers felt the same way; last week’s Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction, which required very large deposits, brought disappointing results.

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said "Bah!" again; and followed it up with "Humbug."

A New Twist on Ye Olde Get Rich Quick Scheme

Doncha just love Get Rich Quick! schemes?  They're seductive, aren't they? I especially like the ones that come disguised as something other than 'get rich quick' schemes.  'This is an incredible business opportunity!' 'Make sure you get in on this!'  'Tons of opportunity!' and, of course: 'Get rich quick schemes suck! You're too smart to be taken in by a get rich scheme! This isn't one of those!'

The bottom line, of course, is that the people who are really going to get rich quickly are the people selling you the scheme/book/franchise/whatever have you.

Now what has prompted Aleta to rabbit on about this? Well, this morning I was presented with a get rich scheme this morning, via my email 'inbox', from a reputable source.  A few clicks later I was reading all about the fabulous opportunity that was available for me - and a few hundred thousand gullible others.  The free instructional video to which I had been treated was a bandwidth gobbling infomercial.  Tune in next time! I was advised, to really learn how to do this (read: to be told what you're actually buying and what it costs.  Maybe.  Or maybe you'll have to wait for the third video, who knows?). What really set the alarm bells ringing was the idea that you could make $500...$1,000...$20,000...per month from the comfort of your own little desk in your own little home, and what could you do with all that money? 

So I said to myself, I said 'Self, when was the last time you learned of a real person making an extra $20,000 per month (legally) sitting on their ass?'

So why did I get into this in the first place?  Well, because it was talking about using social media for marketing, something which, if you've seen my new Facebook page, you'll know I'm very interested in, not because I need more glue applied to my computer seat, but because I'm in business and don't want to be left behind.

The most interesting thing I took from this was the opinion of a marketing guru, one Ms Li, (I want to say her first name was Charmaine but I've lost the link so I could be totally wrong on that and even if I had the link I wouldn't share it because why help publicise a get rich quick scheme...but where was I? oh, yes) Ms Li was quoted as saying that any business that didn't have a social media presence would fold within the next 3 to 5 years.  Of course, the crux of this is that Ms Li is an expert in - you guessed it - social media, so her analysis could well be coloured by the primordial urge to keep her job, but what do I know, anyway?

Anybody got anything to say about this?  Let me know, please, I'd love to hear your opinion.

Little girls and money, Part One

A little girl came over to our table at the Wentworth Park antiques markets the other day. Let me rephrase: a mother came over to our table with a family in tow.  Now, the little girl was absolutely fascinated with our wares. This in itself was not particularly noteworthy; little girls are almost always fascinated by anything glittery and glitsy.

What struck me about this particular child, though, was that she had a knack.  You know what I mean by 'a knack'?  She was drawn to and touched the most expensive items I had on offer, completely ignoring the more moderately priced pieces.  Some signed Moser glass - she went straight to it (there was flashier glass there - Little Miss Einstein ignored it).  A hand painted Charles Baldwyn Royal Worcester vase next caught her eye. Again, not a showy piece, just painted with Baldwyn's distinctive style.  But it was when the girl picked up a beautiful signed vase by John Stinton, again for Royal Worcester, that things started to happen.  I rescued it deftly from her fingers just as her mother caught sight of the $3.5K pricetag and began to turn green.

"Leave that alone!  That's expensive!"
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what struck me. Why do we do that, particularly with our female children?  We inadvertently start them fearing wealth from a very early age.

Seems to me that someone was always telling me that something was too expensive.  That's an important message to be sure; children must be taught value.  But if that's all they ever hear, then it seems to me that what they internalise is 'that's too good for the likes of you'.  And that's just not good.

I like to stress that antiques are not just chi-chi items for the super rich.  They are functional, decorative, green and here's the important bit: they can be good investments as well, and you can start collecting no matter what your socio-economic status. That's the message we need to get out to the young.

"Mommies' Hobbies" translate into cold, hard cash

I'll admit to being way behind the times, and a Forbes post I read this morning shows me that I need to get with the program.

In my mind, the blog world is in the same place it was eight or nine years ago, with savvy technocrats and businesswomen with good instincts getting in on what was still the ground floor of a new wave in advertising. Blogs promoted their business. But for a new type of businesswoman, blogs are their business.  And it might prove to be big business.  The so-called 'mommy blogger', whether or not she embraces the term, has learned to 'monetize' (yes, with a 'zed', whether or not one can write this with an 's' I've yet to learn) her blog.

No longer are blogs just the latest advertising media for au courant businessmen, and a stream-of-consciousness steam-venting medium for housewives stuck in their suburban ruts. Blogs are starting to become big business:  some serious names pay bloggers to write about their products.  They pay for advertising on well-trafficked sites.  They pay for reviews and referrals and clicks and all sorts of things.  Now I understand publicity blogs and advertising blogs, but the mommy blogs are still  pretty foreign territory.  However, when a rocket scientist quits his day job to create a blog community start-up, as described in the Forbes article on Blogfrog, well, it's time to wake up, smell the Maxwell House ® and take notice. And yeah, in case you missed it, that was a Forbes post on a blog.

Now, what has this to do with antiques?  Well, not all that much--yet. While I don't believe that the so-called social media, including blog communities, are netting beaucoup de bucks for antiques dealers yet (Facebook, for example doesn't even have an 'Antiques Dealer' business category), I do know that whether or not that ever happens, something will happen, and that 'something will' likely be on the Internet.

Many of our hobbies become our trades.  This is just the latest in a long enduring trend.  It's a band wagon we need to be on.

What is Art Deco?

A couple of weeks ago, I said that I was going to do a series about design movements.

I'll start today with one of the best known:

Art Deco is one of the most famous of the Design Periods.  Everyone has heard the term, and people may or may not know exactly what it means.

August Walther & Söhne
(Germany) c. 1935
Deco, which reached its height in the 20s and 30s, provided a respite from the gloom and austerity of World War I and the Great Depression that followed. It is easily recognised due to its bold lines. Art Deco was a radical departure from previous styles; its designs were grand, often colourful; they were geometric and streamlined. Its designers used unexpected materials. Paradoxically, Art Deco was considered modern and functional, with simplified materials and lines, and yet it was also very extravagant and large in scope. Art Deco permeated every field of design, from art and architecture to jewellery, fashion and transportation. The movement was international.

Art Deco takes its name from a French exhibition: l'Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Moderne, which took place in Paris in 1925.  The style was one of those in the Movement known as ‘modernism’ or style moderne ('modern style').  It was not called ‘Art Deco’ until the latter half of the 20th Century.

Some of the big names in Art Deco are:  
 Clarice Cliff's bold patterns,
geometric designs and bright colours
epitomised the genre.

Above: Blue Crocus Creamer
from the 'Bizarre' range
Clarice Cliff (UK) c. 1935

Preserve Pot in the My Garden pattern.
Clarice Cliff (UK) c. 1935
  • Clarice Cliff, Susie Cooper and Charlotte Rhead, ceramicists
  • Rene Lalique (he made fabulous jewellery but is of course best known for glass), 
  • Lloyd Wright, son of the more famous Frank Lloyd Wright, architect
  • Demetre Chiparus (sculptor)
  • Charles Schneider (master glassmaker)
  • William Moorcroft (designer and potter)

Small vase in the Eventide pattern.
William Moorcroft (UK) c. 1925

Of course, the top designers may have been working through more than one period. Art Deco followed an artistic period called Art Nouveau; as always, there was a period of transition, and Deco started before Nouveau ended.

Compared with long-lived movements like Romanticism, the Art Deco period was a short one.  Just as surely as it had once been considered stylish, lavish and opulent, it was soon regarded as over-the-top: garish, ostentatious and extravagant. The style fell out of favour as the hardships and shortages of World War II became a reality.  

Large glass vase in fer forgé armature. 
Charles Schneider (France) c. 1925

Deco was rediscovered in 1966 when a retrospective exposition, 'Les Années 25: Art Deco', was held in Paris. A book about the art form and another exhibition in 1968 helped publicise the catchy nickname. An Art Deco renaissance began in the ’70s.  

All things Art Deco have been much in demand since the turn of the Millennium.

We're Going to the Fair!

Oh, we're going to Kentucky,
We're going to the fair
To see the senorita
With flowers in her hair

Well, not really to Kentucky, which is thousands of miles from here, no, we're going to the Sydney Antiques Fair in May.  This should be a blast.
I’m planning this to be a combination exhibit-cum-brag-cum-meet & greet event for us, plus of course everything we have will be for sale.  So I have to get my act in gear and plan our booth (luckily the multi-talented Martin Curry is artistic and has already been drafted into the design process) AND we’re planning what to bring.

Some people have really outstanding exhibits, so we don’t want to look absolutely dreadful. At least, I don’t. Martin is so down-to-earth and take-me-or-leave-me that one wonders if he’s in the least bit concerned.  He always says, though, that one never gets a second chance to make a good first impression, so I think he’ll be a little bit more engaged in the process than he’s letting on at this point.

Stay tuned.