eBay Talk (2)

There are fraudulent or misattributed art works everywhere. On eBay, it is more complicated. Unlike professional galleries and fine art auction houses, everyone can sell items. More than once, I have seen the sellers who are innocent or at least pretend to be innocent for some misidentified works that they are not aware of. Checking feedback helps only in a limited degree because a five-dollar stamp brings the same one-unit score to the feedback as a $5000 painting and if you want to browse exactly what the sellers used to sell, eBay only allows you to check items within 3 months.

Although it is possible that those “Antique Roadshow” junk to riches stories play out on eBay, it is usually better to stick to some sellers who are reputable and experienced on eBay.

But what a task it is! If such species still exist, I wish I could find a few.

Deprived of (or in others’ opinion released from) the direct communication with customers, those art dealers on eBay rely on their description, in which they certainly do not think modesty is a virtue. If you read something like “John Constable BRITISH 1776-1837” (which is actually currently offered) in the title, you will soon find out that it is actually a work from the circle of John Constable, which means it is from the period of the artist and of his influence. However, as you read further, it was dated and signed. Well, it means that if the seller knows it cannot be the work by John Constable, it should be described as “manner of” “school of” or “after”, which is light year away from being a Constable work.

If it is understandable that the seller, who has 0 feedback, may not be familiar with the terminology (which I doubt), then such tricks from art dealers should cause special attention.

Simply put: there is rarely a bargain from eBay art dealers. They sell hundreds of paintings; they know what they are doing. Big names that can bring five or six digits of income would certainly not be presented in eBay since to fetch such a number by selling them online is dubious and too risky compared to consigning with auction houses. Or in other words, if such names do appear on eBay from them, it is certainly the case that they know that to get the approval that the work is by certain artist from the a reputable auction house is unlikely.

In other words, the values of most of the paintings on eBay fall below $1000, which is an embarrassing number because an auction house consignment would not bring much profit after consignment fee and yet the chance of not being sold there looms. In such cases, eBay, where millions of people may watch everyday, guarantees a low-risk investment.

If one follows the rule of only buy works that you like, there is really nothing to lose from eBay as long a purchaser bears in mind mediocre valuation is what often summarizes eBay art works. However, the market value of such works does not necessarily reflect their artistic values. Therefore for those who hate decorating walls with pictures from IKEA and want an investment at least keeps the value, eBay is a great option.

There are different types of art dealers on eBay. I will introduce three of them for comparison, whose names will not be disclosed in the article.

The first one is from Vienna, Austria. As with all other boastful art dealers, the titles are composed by words like “top”, “magnificent” or “wow” as if crying in front of a Tiffany store window. Even worse, there is really nothing to wow for those listed works. And the title, unfortunately, betrays their antiquity in the end by including the inventory number. They are brand new and painted from China. An inventory number is used to locate the same work from the painting mills.

There is nothing wrong with art works MANURACTURING, and one should not feel ashamed if a beautiful oil painting, still wet, hangs above his living-room fireplace. It is a shame if guests only see the bank account digits without noticing its beauty. But what really bothers me is how the seller sells them cheap by exaggeration and less than straight-forward practices. All works are listed as original works from the 19th century and marked with an estimated value of five digits. The originals were from the 19th Century, but these copies aren’t.

The seller lists all art work as private so that the final sale prices cannot be extracted easily. I am sure that buyers are aware of the real condition of paintings. But they are usually irritated by extended shipping times since the seller did not mention they are shipped from China.

The second one is from Demark. In recent years, Demark art dealers have been very active on eBay. This one, in particular, sells more paintings labeled with 18th or 19th century works. Like the first one, most of the titles start with an adjective such as enchanting, lovely, superb, sober or brilliant. Because of the subject matter, words like “moving”, “mysterious”, “mythological” or “master” are seller’s favorites.

To make the listings more professional, the seller used to have authentication reference. (Note: The current listings do not have authentication by so called experts any more) The authentication experts have background in museum (yet detailed job is not disclosed).

But what an authentication processes they are! Once a copy of “The flute concert” by Adolph Von Menzel was not recognized (or not willing to be recognized) by the expert in German Art of the 19-20th century. In another case, the painting is not only signed and dated but also has a label on the back describing the painter, yet it was not mentioned by the expert who once worked at Portrait Gallery in Tuzla, Slovenia. It would be unbelievable if one found out that the so-called expert never used the black light to check the signature!

The seller may not be expert in recognizing copies or attributing works, but certainly he has great skills in PhotoShop. More than once the painting images have been lightened, and saturated through image processing. Sadly, buyers regret that the vivid color is only available online.

The seller boasts about his express shipping service, yet be prepared to spend another couple hundred dollars to fix the frame damage caused during the shipping.

The third one from UK, unlike the previous two, specializes in 19th century British (and Scottish) art. He even posted a useful guide on eBay for reference. He usually only sells listed artists, mainly R.A., R.S.A., R.S.W etc. (British landscape paintings, compared to Hudson River School paintings, are much more affordable in general.) He has done some research on each listing so that the biography and example works strengthen his assert of market value.

A lot of works on eBay by listed artists come from auction house brought items. Some eBay art dealers take the unsold items on eBay. Some of the items are sold at a price lower than their estimation in auction house, but it is better to realize some gains quickly. More importantly, there are some reasons for such items unable to sell at auction: poor examples of the artists work, reserved prices too high or simply not the right day with the right people. This seller obtains some of works through such channels, which are usually more reliable than opinions of some “experts” if you can trace at what auction house the item was before. (AskArt.com shows all auction records including unsold one.)

However, he takes too liberally the use of “provenance”. Provenance cannot be simply a gallery label. In essence, provenance should be traced back to people who at certain period owned the work and such ownership is recorded. An old label does not speak out although it usually bears strong indication of its authenticity.

In other cases, he has quietly removed “attributed to” from the description of the auction house. One of the works by “James Webb” was listed as attributed in the auction house, yet in his hand, somehow it became an authenticated work in his authoritative description. At another instance he claimed the work that he listed was the best he has ever seen on the market for Horatio Mcculloch. I am certain that he knows that in April of 2006, Sotheby auctioned one of his biggest works. However, an exact work named “A lowland river” exists and even an engraving by William Forrest is quite popular. The painting listed on eBay has bluer sky which usually does not appear in Mccolluch’s works. In a book “Painting Past and Present 1620 – 1908” by James Jaw published in 1908, it reports that Mcculloch was quite popular in his later years and the demands were so huge that he not infrequently signed his names with a few touch-ups on the works by the assistants. With the seller’s knowledge in 19th century British art, it is unlikely that he was not aware of the same painting in Glasgow Museum of Art. But we all know there is a light-year difference between “attributed to” and “by” and to list a work in the manner of Mcculloch is not that profitable. Oh well, it will only embarrass the buyer if someone points out in future that the claimed work is actually displayed in the museum.

All art dealers strive for profit, and a few if necessary do tricks. eBay dealers, being almost anonymous, maybe less concerned about ethic integrity. The only way to counter such fraud is to equip yourself with knowledge. Do research, dig deep and when necessary, confront them with the facts.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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