My concern focuses on established dealers with their own web sites. By and large, these ladies and gentleman are pleasant individuals, and their personalities endear them to their customers. It’s so much easier to part with money when you like the recipient, isn’t it? But if you want to be sure of what you are buying, you need your dealer to be both clever enough to detect any issues and honest enough to tell you about them. Of the many charming dealers in early figures, in my experience only two definitely check both boxes, and a third comes close. For the rest, buyer beware.
Yes, we all make mistakes, and we learn from them. But I often wonder how people who have spent their lives dealing in early pottery can make the “mistakes” that I see them make. Surely it can’t be ignorance? Can anyone really be that stupid? Where does ignorance end and the dishonesty begin?
Let me give you examples of issues I have encountered recently. The BADA (British Antique Dealers” Association) presents itself as the bastion of integrity in the antiques trade. Recently, I noticed a group listed on the BADA site. It comprised a male and a female figure before a bocage. The main problem was that the original male figure had been lost, and a replacement of the wrong form had been put in his place. There was no mention of this in the description, and the piece was priced for perfection. If this were not bad enough, the US dealer who was selling this assembled object had also listed a pair of late Victorian (Kent factory) deer as made circa 1825.
What was I to do? Instead of reporting this to BADA, I emailed the dealer, making him aware, as nicely as possible, of my concerns about his BADA listings. I received a curt reply, and the next week he removed both listings from the BADA site. BUT, many weeks later, those same problem objects remain on his own site. And as today, both are also on 1stDibs, where you can buy both for the princely sum of $5,000….but good luck when you want to sell them. I would not give you 50 cents for either.
I routinely encounter alterations that deceive. Last year, I was extremely upset to see two small figures altered to make a matching pair. When I challenged this, the explanation left me with more questions than answers. The dealer assured me that the figures had gone into his personal collection, so I let it go. Interestingly, he sent me a picture of the offending pair proudly displayed amidst his Kent figures!
Just this month, a pair of small figures sold very quickly at a high price, and “cuteness” may have been part of their appeal. I have been around long enough to know that the bocages were oversized for the figures. And I know without a shadow of doubt that the bocages are not original to the figures. The figures lost their bocages and a restorer stuck pieces of bocage from other figures onto the stumps. Any trained naked eye can detect this, but there was no mention of this major alteration in the description. In other words, the new owner parted with a hefty sum of money and acquired four figures that had been reassembled into two. I do hope he/she was made aware of this, but I suspect not.
When you see something that appeals to your eye, the rational part of your brain takes a back seat. I know this because it happens to me too! But when you want to sell, you have a problem. In my experience, those same dealers who profess to see no issues when selling acquire eagle-eyed powers of detection when buying. Moral of the story: ask when you buy, and insist that ALL issues be detailed on your receipt. Never trust, always verify.
This month, Bonhams is selling a menagerie. I first encountered this very menagerie in 2003 at Christie’s in New York. Every menagerie (like most pieces of early pottery) has issues, and this menagerie had a great many that Christie’s condition report detailed. In a room full of collectors, unenthusiastic bidding fell to two individuals, and ultimately it sold to the trade, and then to a collector in 2004.
Believe me, my collection has its share of restoration, and some things bought complacently in my early days from friendly dealers have issues that I was not informed of at the time, despite asking. Now, I don’t expect perfection in my purchases, but I do want to know what I am buying.
I have learned, and am still learning from my mistakes. To know what you are buying:
- Ask your dealer probing questions before you buy. I have seen umpteen figures change hands with little discussion of condition. “I trust him,” says the collector, as he/she basks in the delight of that purchase. But “he/she never told me,” complains the collector, many years later when the truth is revealed. Frankly, I am not sure a dealer is obligated to tell you if you don’t ask!
- Insist that your receipt detail all restoration.
- Buy a pair of high-power reading glasses and check out your purchase in strong light. Be paranoid. Assume all is not perfect. Think about everything that could have been done. Can you detect that the bocage, a head, or a limb might have been replaced? Look for changes in color at the points of joins. Feel for restoration, which usually feels a little warmer and stickier to the touch. And look for changes in the crazing.