I have two pet peeves about the auction houses that I feel I have to vent:
1.) The auction houses have really fallen to new lows when it comes to their reliance on their "Buyer Beware" clauses. Can't any of you exercise some control over taking those idiotic "Josie Earps" in your auctions? You should be ashamed of yourselves. They debase the auctions. These are clearly NOT Mrs. Earp and they are not at all rare. (The ones you see on Ebay typically are even late reprints.) There are hundreds of them on the market and they aren't worth the paper that they're printed on, in my humble opinion. They're the "beenie babies" of the photo market. They are perhaps one of the least rare images of the turn of the century. The unfortunate buyers will eventually be stuck with these next to worthless images that they get suckered into buying for thousands because they have the blessing of an auction house. When I've posed this question to each of you at the auction houses, I get ridiculous answers like: "They still sell" and "All the auction houses are taking them". Maybe this will help to staunch the flow of more wasted funds.
And condition reports have also degenerated. I saw prints this last month (including a Man Ray that I actually owned at one point and sold in its unrestored condition for about $200, if memory serves me right) represented as vintage that were not; prints that had major damage repaired; a print that actually had a four inch tear across it that was apparently known to be there by the house when it was photographed (with the tear pasted down and not in evidence on the catalog illustration, of course). The non-vintage and repaired Man Ray sold for nearly $15,000 and the torn print sold for well over $4,000. Pretty expensive lessons, considering the non-return policies in place at these houses. The auction houses have definitely become, even more than in the past, a Buyer-Beware marketplace.
I'm genuinely sorry if I've offended any of you who have bought one of these pigs in a poke, but I'm offended when auction houses and dealers do not take responsibility at all for what they sell. Second-rate material misrepresented as rare or vintage is a mark on us all. Seriously damaged goods are also a problem. It's one thing to make honest mistakes concerning these types of things, but too often I have recently heard the auction houses' mantra: "Buyer Beware." The auction houses state it very clearly in their catalogues: the buyer takes all responsibility. All the more reason that you must have a knowledgeable person preview for you instead of the house.
2.) I also have seen this on ebay recently as some dealers refuse to take returns on items, even if their condition reports and descriptions don't hold up. While it's the buyer's responsibility to buy responsibly and not just take a "flyer" on an item that they don't really expect to buy, a dealer should stand behind at least their descriptions. Daguerreian Society members seem to have a higher level of responsibility than most of the average "antique" dealers out there. Join the Society if you buy hard images and patronize the dealers listed in their directory or at least the dealers who stand behind their products. I've never had a problem yet buying from (or returning to) any Dag Soc member. (Knock on Wood.)
3.) Auction houses, even in NYC, still, despite laws to the contrary, often do not CLEARLY indicate whether or not an item has PASSED or not. Sotheby's London is the worst offender, but even NYC has their offenders. "Clearly" does not mean mumbling "sold" or "unsold" so that one cannot tell the difference. The word should be a clearly enunciated: "PASS". Of course, Denise Bethel at the Sotheby's NYC Southworth and Hawes sale didn't have this problem because everything but one poor lot of faded prints did indeed sell out, and at the auction itself, not later.