Read the Fine Print

Buying at Auction: Part Two

Written by Marcia L. Vose, Vice-President

Would you patronize a dealer who offered no guarantees on authenticity, condition, or even a reliable description of an artwork? I call your attention to the "conditions of sale" excerpted from recent catalogues of two very prominent auction houses:

"All statements made by us in the catalogue entry for the property or in the condition report, or any statements made orally, are statements of opinion and are not to be relied upon as statements of fact. Such statements do not constitute a warranty of any kind."

"We offer no guarantee regarding authenticity, condition, or description."

"All property is sold as is. We do not make any representation or warranty of any kind with respect to any of the following characteristics: age, authenticity, genuineness, attribution, provenance, origin, physical material, period, culture, source, or origin."

For years the public has been lulled into thinking that the larger auction houses stand behind the paintings they sell. What a costly assumption! Let me share with you some of our experiences buying at auction. A few years back, because we did not have enough time to examine a painting we liked, we relied on the auction house’s report, which stated the painting was in good condition. After we purchased the work, our restorer found a masking varnish that obscured in-painting, paint that had been applied by a conservator, covering nearly 25% of the canvas (our standard is a maximum of 5%). When we asked for a refund, claiming that their condition report was misleading, auction lawyers referred us to the catalogue caveat that all work is sold "as is". While the auction house will provide a report for our convenience, they cannot be held accountable for anything they say. One may then question why they bother to give a report at all! Furthermore, since our conservator had tested a tiny spot on the canvas, the auction house argued that it was not in the same condition as when sold and could not be returned! They offered to contact the underbidders to see if they would be interested in the work, a remedy that we declined. The painting is currently in our inventory at half what the price should be, but with the condition accurately described.

At a smaller auction last fall I asked to see condition reports on thirty-four paintings. Of these, the auction house reported that thirty-two were in fine shape. When I examined the group, this time in person and equipped with a black light, I found that all but one was covered with a heavy milky varnish, a sign that a masking varnish had been applied in order to obscure extensive in-painting underneath. To the unknowing eye, the canvases looked perfect – and all of them sold at good prices!

Certainly attending auctions is exciting and a great way to hone your eye, but for anyone thinking about buying, be sure to have a conservator examine the piece, and get advice from a professional regarding authenticity and the true merits of the work. One auction house, by the way, will not guarantee the authenticity of any painting executed before 1870!

We at Vose Galleries stand behind every painting that we sell. Period. The results of thorough examinations are always made available. Our professional research staff contacts experts in the field to verify attributions and provide valuable information about provenance and exhibition histories. By law we operate under very different rules. A dealer makes an express warranty of authentication be it verbal or written, and if a painting proves to be a fake, the dealer is exposed to breach of warranty. The buyer may take action within the applicable statute of limitations under the Uniform Commercial Code. Many reputable dealers will readily take back a work that is questioned because they know that both professional reputation and legal liability are at stake.

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