Learn how to protect yourself at auction with the owner of a leading U.S. auction house. He says: “This advice won’t make me many friends in the auction world.”
At the age of sixteen, David Rago began dealing in American decorative ceramics at a flea market in his home state of New Jersey. Today, he oversees the auction house that bears his name and sells privately in the field. He is an author who lectures nationally and an expert appraiser for the hit PBS series, Antiques Roadshow, where he specializes in decorative ceramics and porcelain.
David Rago entered the world of auctions in 1984. His auction series was the first to introduce the famous Puck Building into the world of antiques. He founded David Rago Auctions, Inc. incorporated in 1995 and relocated to Lambertville, New Jersey, midway between Philadelphia and New York City. With partners Suzanne Perrault and Miriam Tucker, the size and scope of the sales gradually – and then rapidly – expanded.
Today, Rago Arts and Auction Center (known as “Rago”) is a leading U.S. auction house with $30 million in annual sales. It serves thousands of sellers and buyers yearly, providing global reach, personal service and competitive commissions for single pieces, collections and estates. Rago holds auctions of 20th/21st c. design, fine art, decorative arts, furnishings, jewelry, Asian, militaria, coins and currency, silver, historic ephemera, and ethnographic property. Rago also provides a range of appraisal services conducted by USPAP (Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice) compliant appraisers, performed to the highest standards set by the IRS, insurers and the Appraisers Association of America. Rago is located in New Jersey, midway between New York City and Philadelphia.
To give you an idea of the scope and tone of this column I’ll end this first installment with something little understood by many auction buyers, especially newer ones.
How do you protect yourself from any undisclosed or undiscovered condition issues, and what is your recourse should a problem arise?
Damage and misattribution are certainly factors of value and may also affect your decision of whether to even bid in the first place. Is there an aggressive rip in or permanent stain on the fabric of that sofa? Is the hole in the bottom of that pot original (made for a lamp base) or did someone drill it after it left the kiln? Was that coffee table really made at George Nakashima studio in New Hope? Especially if you’re buying from only photos and/or an auction house’s description (“sight-unseen”, in trade parlance), you really need to understand what the seller
is selling, and whether or not they can be held accountable for nondisclosure.
Remember this first and foremost. YOU are the customer, and YOU have every right to press an auction house not only on condition, but what their guarantees encompass, on record. Some auctions are “as is, where is”, in that they make no guarantees about anything. There is nothing wrong with this, but they should tell you this up front and you should bid accordingly.
Most auctions however, especially when selling more valuable objects, make claims of vintage, originality, authorship, and so on.
Questions you should ask:
What does the auction guarantee? Condition, maker, date? Begin by reading the terms of sale, usually in the back of an auction catalogue and posted on line. Then, ask specific questions
and demand specific answers. If you are at all uncertain of a company’s guarantees, GET THEM IN WRITING! You can request an email or a fax, or anything that memorializes what they are saying about the pieces you are buying. Have the department head or if a smaller firm, an owner, sign off on it. If they refuse, don’t bid. An email trail is usually sufficient here, one that claims a guarantee of the condition report memorialized in the exchange.
Does the auction offering the material know enough about what they are selling to really offer valid assurances? To be fair, not all auction houses are experts in everything, if they are experts in anything. Ask them how well they know the material, asking specific questions, and then use their answers to determine their level of expertise. You should expect more transparency and experience from a specialty house (more on this in another column). I mean it’s obvious that a firm selling vintage Eames furniture for decades should know a whole lot more than a local firm that chanced into a few pieces.
You should also direct questions towards collectors and dealers you know who’ve dealt with a particular house that is new to you. What is the word on the street about the level of knowledge of a company’s department head(s), and do they live up to their word?
When your purchases arrive, inspect them all IMMEDIATELY. If you have an issue with something, call the auction’s employee or owner with whom you dealt before the auction. Do this as soon as possible. You’ll have an easier time getting a refund if you request a return before the auction house has paid the consignor who owned the piece. If an object has a minor flaw that you honestly feel lessens value BUT you would like to keep it anyway, you can often negotiate a lower price. But please, don’t be the sort of buyer who manufactures a problem, using it as a wedge to save some money by beating up the auction house. That may work once but we auctioneers have seen every trick you can possibly imagine. Is it really worth blowing off
a viable source to save a few bucks? A good negotiation is a two-way street, with both parties bringing value to the equation.
Act in good faith and extend the benefit of the doubt. That said, if you are cheated or otherwise fare poorly with no offer of suitable restitution, tell everyone you know. This advice won’t make me many friends in the auction world. Expect more of the same in future columns.