Coaching on being wary of even “major players” in the fine art and antique market.

“There are only four thousand Picasso etchings, and over seven thousand of them are in the United States”. Hahaha, I love that quote, which I picked out of a good short article which was presented to me in LinkedIn and come from the Art, Antiques and Luxury Design Blog. This article is a great teaching tool to new collectors on the subject of “Trust” in the fine arts and antiques buying world. Again, and I will talk about this over and over and over, provenance, trust and caution are critical, and the above quote and this article brings that home. I think that the quote would be more accurate if it said, “There are only four thousand Picasso etchings, and over thirty thousand of them are in the United States”. There are more fakes than real ones, I have no doubt about that. It also brings home the fact that just because an art or antique dealer “says it’s so” does not “make it so”, without proof that “it is so”, so ask for proof or hire someone like me to check it out for you before you buy. If they can not prove it, or we believe it is questionable, do not buy it, regardless of what your emotions want to do. There is always another cool thing just around the corner. Also, because the dealer is a “major player” or “well-known,” does not necessarily mean they are actually good at what they do or can be trusted, often ego and narcissism are involved, so “buyer beware” is THE RULE! Someone who tells you that they are not sure and/or need to look into various aspects and get back to you about it is far more trustworthy than someone who always knows every answer. Just ask yourself this, do you know everything about your highest expertise in your life, let alone all of your interests? If you do, you are a rare bird and congratulations! If you are in an art gallery that only sells Picasso works, they may indeed know almost everything about Picasso and his works, if you are not in such a specialty gallery, then you must be your best advocate with your money until you have the proof, then you can let your guard down.

I was just told a story 3 days ago about a situation where one of the wealthiest families in the US/world found they had been duped into thinking that they were buying monolithic antique Chinese ivory tiled statues. They had surely spent several hundred thousand dollars on them. When they later had them appraised, they were shocked and embarrassed to find out that they had been sold fakes made in the 1990’s! These statues still had value, about $10,000 each, but not hundreds-of-thousands! Ouch! So, wealth is not a barrier against being ripped off either. You must check your ego at the door when buying, and expect that you are being set up – period! The lesson from this, which I have previously written about, is that once you have found something you love, it is well worth paying a professional like me to pre-examine them before you buy. In this family’s case it would have been more than well worth flying me to China, if that is where they were purchased (I do not know that part of the story), let alone to another state, let alone to another city, etc., which costs are small compared to the loss due to fraud. Caution is the better part of valor (desire) in the fine art and antiques world. We (experts) are well worth the cost versus savings, and we might instead even help you find a real find for a really great price too.

Remember this, despite it being a sad fact, over 95% of all art and antique “dealers” are dishonest to one degree or another. Yes really! Let me state that again, over 95% of all art and antiques dealers are dishonest to one degree or another! Sometimes it is a small “addition” to the facts to try to “entice” you into being excited into buying, some times it is out right fraud. But what is the difference either way if you get ripped off? For me, the point is, even a little lie makes one dishonest forever, and it is unfortunately all too true that this behavior is rampant in this industry, which is very dangerous for a trusting new collector. Once a dealer has done it once with positive effect for their increase in sales, it has only one way to snowball, the wrong way. Yes, really, 95% – or more! And preaching that they did not know, or that the person who they acquired the piece from said so is not an acceptable excuse, unless they genuinely apologize, are curious about their error and what was found, do not put the piece back out for sale with the same information(let alone excluding the new information you bring to them) and most importantly pay you back in full, which may or may not include shipping costs. If they do this, I would still trust them, otherwise, do not! I had a very rare policy in the antiques industry for my old fine Asian art and antiques gallery, which was, if you could show me through an authority’s statement what I missed or why I was wrong about one of my descriptions/dating/etc., I would buy the piece back, with no expiration date, as long as I was still running the gallery. I never had a piece returned, because I up held my end of the bargain in being a dealer because I had done my work on each piece before I would put it on the floor for sale.

I continue to be shocked when I go into art and antique galleries by the huge number of terribly misidentified items, materials, dates, locations, etc. It is the dealers job to know, that is really what you are paying them for, to know the difference so you can be sure of what you are buying from them for your good money, right? Right! If their policy is “all sales are final”, then  you can ask them to modify that policy and put it in writing on the receipt, it must be in writing! If they will not, then you can bet they do not know their business. The reverse of this is that they might miss something valuable, and you may come across a great find cheap! It does go both ways if you know more than they do.

The lesson a beginner needs to get, be smart, do not fall for the sexiness of what you are being told and look for red flags! Make sure all aspects can be backed up including the medium things are made in/what they are made of and what the provenance is! Before buying expensive pieces, have them put those facts in writing. If they don’t, be careful! Legit dealers have true confidence in what they are selling and have no problems putting it in writing. To be successful as a real collector,  you must deal with caution with everyone in the art and antiques industry at every level until you have a long and very well established relationship that is built on results, which then produces trust. This is exemplified in this story. The other important thing to understand is the wise old statement that “extraordinary claims, require extraordinary proof.” In the case in this article, the story falls apart very quickly, as there was no provenance and the “dealer” could not even properly identify the medium used to create the work! This is like having an aircraft carrier sized red flag being waved right in front of your face – “BUYER DO NOT TRUST THIS LISTING!” So, have a nice read, the article can be found at: http://art-antiques-design.com/2013/03/25/educating-art-buyers-part-2-by-lawrence-klepper/?goback=%2Egde_153474_member_226094189. The image below is from http://www.rottingtelevision.com/lmfao-big-red-flags-blog/.

Which are you looking at? The sexiness “of the piece” or the red flag? Final question, which is going to win, your emotions or your intellect? It is your choice, choose wisely! And, do not be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help! We may save you thousands, hundreds-of-thousands or even millions of dollars! Well worth our costs.

red-flags-294-1258668772

Greg C. Brown, MS, ISA.

Advertisements

BBC News story about the crisis occurring in the illegal trade of animal parts.

This is an interesting news story about the problems occurring with the illegal trade in animal parts, focused on ivory and rhino horn in this case: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21652437

Another interesting article on the art collecting market from the New York Times.

Here is another interesting article on the art market from the New York times. There are things to be aware of if you plan to enter into this high-end part of the art market, such as the ghost bidding. I have been given both good and bad comments about why this is legitimate or not from prominent auction house owners and employees here in the US, who I am not going to name for confidentiality sake. However, I think the key here is to be aware that this happens before you go in bidding, as it may change your bidding structure, and it will minimally protect you and inform you of the bidding process.

Enjoy the  read and learn, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/28/arts/design/as-art-market-rise-so-do-questions-of-oversight.html?pagewanted=all.

Sincerely, Greg C. Brown, MS, ISA, CAGA.                                                                                         gregcbrown@asianappraisals.com

sub-regs-articleLargeG

How strict is ivory enforcement?

A client asked me the other day, “how strictly does the US Government enforce the trade in legal and illegal ivory?”

So I told them this little story. They are so strict that even the Juggernaut eBay is scared enough of them not to allow the word “ivory” to appear on their site in certain categories. If an item appears in certain categories on eBay with the word “ivory” in it, it sends out a notice for immediate review, and the listing can be immediately taken down. A few years ago I had a long discussion with eBay customer support about a verified antique Japanese okimono I tried to list because I did not understand why my listing was taken down by them when I had disclosed everything. They did not care that I had made the disclosures and that it was clearly pre-ban, antique ivory. What they cared about was that I had the honesty to use the word “ivory” in my listing!

However, eBay’s fear of the US Government only goes so far! Their hypocrisy is tremendous, because if you don’t use the word “ivory” in your listing, you can still sell your real ivory pieces, regardless of age or animal, on their site with relative impunity. There are constantly a large number of real ivory pieces for sale on eBay if you know which key words to use to search. Also, the sellers are “cleaver enough” to use code words like “ox bone”, “bone, “wood”, or use no descriptive word at all, which has taught them that eBay will ignore their listings and not take them down, despite them being real ivory, let alone post-ban ivory. The sellers way around the inability to use the word “ivory” in their listings is circumvented by the use of specific search words and of very clear images and lighting angles in their listings, which show that they are selling real ivory or superior faux ivory. For example, nearly anyone can easily learn to identify real elephant/mammoth ivory in a good photograph by referencing the Schreger pattern/lines (the natural cross-hatched appearance found in all proboscidean ivory), which these sellers some times explicitly show in their images. Here is an excellent example from a listing on eBay today, January 23, 2013, exhibiting exactly this “allowed” behavior, note the search terms “Ox Bone” associated with clear Schreger lines seen on the face and around the neck of the carved figure, let alone the fact that this is clearly an elephant’s ivory tusk: http://www.ebay.com/itm/Huge-Solid-Ox-Bone-Raw-Tusk-L-K-Statue-Head-Sculpture-Bust-Okimono-Netsuke-/121056013400?pt=Asian_Antiques&hash=item1c2f802c58.

I even offered my services to eBay’s legal team, to help purge the real ivory pieces on a daily basis from their site if they wanted to take their “ban” on ivory sales seriously. However, despite being given the eBay legal department’s phone number by the eBay representative, and leaving a message with my contact information and my offer of help, no one ever returned my call! After waiting in vain for a reply, I then called the USFWS and spoke to an officer who is a specialist in endangered species explaining everything noted above. They told me they have been trying to work with eBay for a long time on these issues, but were glad to hear my story and observations, as they had not known of this loop hole.

As a final comment on how seriously USFWS, and in this case the State of New York, takes the illegal trade in ivory, please reference these two New York Times articles that address exactly that. Just this past year, two dealers in NY pleaded guilty to illegal ivory trading charges in NY. The ivory they had in their possession cost an estimated 25 Asian and African Elephants their lives due to poaching! The fines are far too small in my opinion! 

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/13/nyregion/illegal-ivory-leads-2-to-plead-guilty-in-new-york.html?_r=0 

http://online.wsj.com/article/AP37fe357e82724b84b502dbfbae99ee56.html

Greg C. Brown, MS, ISA, CAGA.                                                                                                              President, Greg C. Brown & Associates, Inc. Appraisal Services.                                                             Minnesota Sub-Chapter Chairman, The Explorers Club.                                                                                     (888) 355-6939.                                                                                                          gregcbrown@asianappraisals.com

What are the rules on Fossilized Ivory?

What are the rules on fossilized ivory? Well, again, I premise this with, to have the most up-to-date information, you need to call the USFWS at 1-800-344-9453 and/or visit their website at:http://www.fws.gov, and also contact the proper department in your State Government.

According to the USFWS, all fossilized ivory, from any animal, is legal to own, buy and sell, national and internationally, except when raw materials and cultural artifacts are taken from public lands, removed from archaeological sites, Native American (Indian) lands, or private lands without permission of the owner, i.e. any item that is acquired legally and under all applicable laws is fair game. There are no known international bans that I am aware of or any known laws that say otherwise, I would be glad to have input from anyone who knows more about this. However, if you are in a foreign country, it would strongly behoove you to check with that government before removing anything, as the pieces can be confiscated from you by US Customs or other US Government officials and repatriated back to the country of origin, and you will not get your money back, as it is your mistake. Also, generally it will not be legal to own, buy or sell pieces that arrive in the US when they violate other Governments export laws, and just because a dealer in China tells you it is legal to transport back to the US, what do you think their main motivation and knowledge base is anyway? The US Government will always blame the error on you, regardless of how much you plead your case by telling you that ignorance is not an excuse!

Here is a document from the Government of Alaska that addresses exactly this issue back in 1994: http://www.law.state.ak.us/pdf/opinions/opinions_1994/94-004_661940484.pdf. The key to this document is the conclusion, which states,

“In summary, applicable federal and state law provides that fossilized ivory may not be excavated, removed, sold, or exchanged, where it is found in an archaeological context, or under circumstances otherwise demonstrating that the material has significance to the cultural or natural history of the state, or to the cultural history of an identifiable Alaska native group. While fossilized ivory may be removed and sold with permission of the federal or state agency with management authority, or with the permission   or the private landowner, an item made from fossilized ivory may not be falsely marketed as a Native handicraft, either by Alaska natives or non-Natives, regardless of its origin.”

Now, that being said, you must also understand that the average customs official and law enforcement officer is not an expert and has only minimal training with ivory, and so they generally will not know the difference between fossilized, contemporary or antique ivory, regardless of what they say, which is trouble for the possessor of the ivory item. Ivory identification is a highly specialized area of knowledge. The best thing you can do is to make sure it is well documented as being a legally obtained fossilized specimen – the main point, provenance, provenance, provenance. Your documentation is your trump card to legitimacy with the US and State Governments. If you are not sure, then ask a true expert for assistance.

I truly hope this set of blogs is helping you to understand and untangle the mess surrounding ivory ownership, and it’s trade.

Greg C. Brown, MS, ISA, CAGA.                                                                                                                                                                                    President, Greg C. Brown & Associates, Inc. Appraisal Services.                                                                                                                           Minnesota Sub-Chapter Chairman, The Explorers Club.

Can you own, buy and sell elephant ivory in the US?

Can you own, buy and sell elephant ivory in the United States?

I preface all of what I say from here on within this blog on ivory with this statement, I am not the legal authorities, so to make sure you know the most current laws on these issues, you must contact the United States Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) for the up to date information at 1-800-344-9453 and/or visit their website at: http://www.fws.gov and the proper department within your State Government. Laws on ivory are confusing and hard to answer. The short answer  to the question, can you own, buy and sell elephant ivory is “yes and no”, it depends on a number of variables and even the state you are in. So, to be as clear as possible I will quote directly from a USFWS fact sheet found at: http://www.fws.gov/international/DIC/species/afe/pdf/Ivory_Fact_Sheet.pdf.

According to the USFWS, there is currently a moratorium under CITIES, and thus by default by the USFWS and the (U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), on all raw African and Asian Elephant Ivory. It is illegal to import and export raw elephant ivory in the U.S., except for properly permitted African elephant hunting trophies. As the Asian elephant is a highly endangered species, in the words of the USFWS, “all commercial trade in Asian elephants and their parts and products is prohibited.” Further more, the USFWS states,

“In general, export of raw African and Asian elephant ivory from the United States is prohibited. Import of raw African elephant ivory, with the exception of sport-hunted trophies, has been banned since the 1989 moratorium. African elephant ivory can be legally owned or bought and sold within the United States providing it meets ESA requirements and State laws. Worked African elephant ivory acquired before its 1978 ESA listing or antique ivory (over 100 years old) may be imported or exported for noncommercial purposes or, in limited situations, for commercial purposes with a certification from the Service. To date, no commercial import of nonantique African elephant ivory has been permitted under the AECA.

“African elephant ivory within the United States that was imported prior to the 1989 ban, imported as sport hunted trophies, or obtained as the result of Federal law enforcement action is considered legal.

“Asian elephant ivory that was purchased prior to its 1976 ESA listing may be sold to others residing in your State, if allowed by your State’s natural resource management agency. However, the sale or commercial transfer of Asian elephant ivory across state lines is regulated and must meet specific requirements of the ESA.”

The key point here is that you must have the proper provenance and documentation for your pieces if you are going to practice any kind of trade in or transport of them. Basically provenance is the documented history of a piece from its origin to your current ownership. Without it, you may not be able to prove age, country of origin, date of importation, etc, which can make you legal susceptible to your piece being confiscated. You can not rely on family stories for this proof, as that is not provenance. Provenance is critical to the appraisal process and achieving the highest appraised values. The lesson, keep all of your family notes, previous appraisal reports, receipts, photographs, etc. with the items, no matter how rough or poorly preserved.

Tomorrow we will address fossilized ivory.

Greg C. Brown, MS, ISA, CAGA.                                                                                                                                                                                    President, Greg C. Brown & Associates, Inc. Appraisal Services.                                                                                                                           Minnesota Sub-Chapter Chairman, The Explorers Club.

Appraisals and the basics of CITES and it’s oversight of Ivory.

Some coaching on CITES and what it’s purposes is.

CITES is a legally binding, voluntary accord, between 176 Party Nations, for the conservation of approximately 30,000 species of wildlife (fauna) and wild plants (flora), in order to ensure their survival. It covers the legal and illegal trade in both living pants and animals, as well as their “products”, which include such things as ivory for carving, pelts for worship and clothing, spleens and bones for medicine and “ego” boosting. Unfortunately, many of these Party countries who are to enforce these rules on the importation, exportation and exploitation of fauna and flora, are also the worst offenders.

If you have never truly considered the incredible number of elephants, rhinos, leopards, tigers, birds of prey, etc. being poached, just look at a few of the images here, burning ivory, and I think you will truly be affected by the real size of the problem and the truth of the impending extinction of these animals, due to a proper lack of enforcement and to their “allowed” illegal trade.

The image immediately below is exactly why severe enforcement of poaching must be increased and large caches of confiscated poached ivory must not be sold, but burned! Something I find very hard to say, but believe is right. This issue is directly addressed in this New York Times article dated August 25, 2009, where this image is from, found at: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/25/amid-legal-ivory-trade-illegal-sales-grow/

Image

The image below shows what a number of countries do, in this case Kenya, with their confiscated poached ivory caches to protest the killing of their precious wildlife heritage for ivory, rhino horns and hides. I hate to see it burned, as I think it is a slap in the face of each animal’s life and beauty that was poached. However, for the better good of each species, this is the only and best practice, because if there are no new ivory pieces to carve, then demand for them will eventually dry up. This image is from the Animal Connection blog, found at: http://animalconnectionblog.blogspot.com/2011/05/africa-to-torch-seized-ivory-in-show-of.html

Image

Greg C. Brown, MS, ISA, CAGA.                                                                                                                                                                                    President, Greg C. Brown & Associates, Inc. Appraisal Services.                                                                                                                           Minnesota Sub-Chapter Chairman, The Explorers Club.