“Killer Stuff and Tons of Money” – Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America
The second part of our interview series with Maureen Stanton focuses on the issue she brings to light in her book about counterfeit and reproduction antiques and diluting the marketplace:
“Killer Stuff and Tons of Money” seemed to put a fair amount of emphasis on the problem of counterfeiting and reproductions in the resale industry. After your experiences, do you think the future of antique collecting can be revived and improved through more professional certifications and documentation?”
It’s always best if documentation, or provenance, accompanies the antique. With pricey antiques, that’s where you’ll take the biggest loss if the object is fake, so it’s really necessary to secure the provenance. But at that level, you are dealing with reputable dealers generally, who should be willing to vouch for their objects, or take them back if they prove not to be authentic. And the low-end, say objects under $100, it’s not worth the effort to authenticate something, but then again the loss is far less. I think the challenge is with mid-range objects, where a buyer is paying enough that it’s a painful loss if the piece is not authentic, say hundreds of dollars, or a thousand or more. At this level, you have a very small percentage of dealers who might be intentionally selling something that is not “right,” and you have a small percentage of dealers who think the object is right, but it may not be. Curt Avery calls that “honest ignorance.”
It would be difficult to authenticate antiques the way comic book collectors do through CGC (Certified Guaranty Company), an outfit that authenticates, marks, rates, and seals collectible comic books for a fee. It wouldn’t be easy to do this with antiques because you have thousands of categories of objects, the shipping and transportation would be difficult, and the cost and effort is only worthwhile if the object will bring a large profit. Also, CGC permanently seals the comic books, and if that seal is broken, the guaranty is void. You can’t “seal” an antique—especially if people want to use and display their antiques. And while an antiques dealer can join a professional group, like the Antique Dealers Association, and thus take an ethics pledge or adhere to certain standards, even that may not account for “honest ignorance.”
However, I don’t think the problem is as prominent as it may appear in Killer Stuff. Curt Avery and I looked at a lot of objects, but in an effort to teach me, he tended to point out really great stuff and fake stuff. There was a vast population of objects about which he didn’t comment, but that doesn’t reflect in the book.
There is an issue with reproductions, but it’s not so much that dealers are trying to pass them off to buyers. The issue with “repros” is that buyers can get the “look” of antique for a fraction of the cost, and for some people, that’s good enough. So reproductions are out there in huge quantities of every type and category of antique. The complete novice might mistake a “repro” for an antique, but more often people don’t care and it’s cheaper.
The best strategy for any buyer or collector to avoid mistakes in antiquing is to conduct business with reputable dealers. There are many reputable dealers—I’d say most—that you can locate through word of mouth, through the quality of shows that you attend, and through the dealer’s return or guarantee policies.
Still, much of the antiques trade is an “unregulated market”—it’s not like shopping at Pottery Barn, where you can return something if you don’t like it or if it’s cracked or missing a part. Because of this, buyers have to do a little more homework, but that’s part of the fun of learning about antiques.
Also, use common sense when putting all the clues together. If something is purported to be a genuine Louis Vuitton case and it’s 1/10th the price –and it’s still for sale after knowledgeable dealers have passed through the show or antiques fair–then something is wrong. Be aware of policies at auctions—that’s where “buyer beware” is most important because auction house policies often state that the buyer is responsible for authenticating any object.