Dating Objects, The First Step
In Guaranteeing Merchandise
Most sellers of antiques and collectibles do not assign a date of manufacture to the objects they sell. First, few see it as a value added factor. Second, most are unwilling to do the research, even though it often involves locating copyright information already on the object. Third, a select few realize that failure to date an object is protection against being charged with fraud.
If a purchaser pays $1,000 for object “x,” described as “vase, pottery, handled, squat shape, blossom pattern, light green ground, partially glazed interior, marked Roseville,” only to discover later that it is a modern reproduction costing less than ten dollars new, he has no legal recourse against the seller. The seller did not misrepresent the piece. He precisely described the object he sold.
There are no fixed prices in the antiques and collectibles trade. An object is worth what someone willingly pays for it. Further, value is contingent on place and moment. Value is ever changing, not constant.
If the seller had dated the object “circa 1920” and the buyer proved it was made in 1997, the sale is fraudulent. The seller misrepresented the object. The buyer has legal recourse if the seller refuses to refund the purchase price.
I am a strong advocate of the principle that sellers have the responsibility to guarantee the authenticity of the objects they sell. The burden of authentication should not fall upon buyers as it does under the principle of caveat emptor. I have no tolerance for any seller who hides behind the sin of omission, i.e., omitting the manufacturing date when describing the object being sold on the sales receipt.
When a seller indicates the date he believes an object was made during the course of the sale process, he demonstrates the depth of his knowledge, provides an unspoken guarantee that he stands behind what he sells, and exhibits a level of professionalism sadly missing throughout much of the trade.
must the date be? I offer the following table for consideration.
In my view it represents a minimum tolerance.
In other words, an object made between 1920 and the present should be dated within a ten year time span, e.g., 1920-30 or 1925-1935. Objects made in the eighteenth century or early nineteenth century, should be dated within a twenty-five year time span.
Dating an object as “eighteenth century” or “Victorian” is meaningless. There were six major design style changes in the eighteenth century and more than a dozen between 1837 and 1901, the reign of Queen Victoria. Terms such as first-half, second-half, middle-of, etc., are too broad to have precise meaning. Failure to date accurately indicates a seller’s ignorance or laziness or both.
There is no requirement when dating objects that everything must fall within a specific quarter century or decade. 1840 to 1860 is just as valid a date period as 1825 to 1850. Actually, the latter example is five years over what I consider minimum standards. I find first, second, third, and fourth quarter nineteenth century dating highly inaccurate.
Dating should be design style, not chronologically centered. Again, I have no tolerance for sellers who fail to educate themselves in the history of American design. Design styles do not shift along neat chronological lines. Further, design styles overlap, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The period when a single design style dominated ended in the 1780s/90s when Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Neo-Classicism, and Duncan Phyfe-Style arrived on the American scene at approximately the same moment.
How much error is allowed before fraud is committed? If the seller is off by five or ten years, there is no fraud. When the error is more than twenty-five years, a good case for fraud can be made.
I have lost track of the number of times I have seen the Folgers Coffee advertising jigsaw puzzle, issued in 1981, offered for sale with tags containing dates ranging from the early 1950s through the 1960s. Unfortunately neither the puzzle nor its container is marked with a copyright date. I learned the correct date during a telephone conversation with the Proctor and Gamble archivist.
Part of the difficulty rests with the fact that some sellers see a relationship between age and value, i.e., the older an object is the more it should be worth. When the Folgers Coffee advertising puzzle is correctly dated, it usually is priced between $8 and $12. When it is incorrectly dated, the value begins at $20 and can go as high as $40.
Age stopped being a major value factor in the antiques and collectibles trade over a decade ago. As the 21st century nears, condition, scarcity, and desirability are the main value factors. The principal value of age in today’s market is as an authenticating tool.
This entire issue would be mute if sellers provided a money back, no questions asked guarantee for every object they sold, thus making customer satisfaction an important element of the buy-sell antiques and collectibles equation. Whenever I suggest this approach to sellers, I am immediately bombarded with questions such as how much time is responsible for a buyer to request a refund. When the refund request involves authenticity, there is no time limit. Sometimes it takes years for a buyer to discover that a purchased piece is not what he and seller thought it to be. The buyer should not be penalized.
The failure of buyers to insist that sellers date objects they offer for sale is probably the main reason that they do not. The situation would change overnight if buyers refused to purchase any object offered for auction or sale that was not dated. It will not because of the over confidence on the part of many buyers that they know what they are buying. Further, many buyers are too embarrassed to admit that there was a mistake. They get angry at themselves instead of the seller. Problems are best corrected at the time of sale not discovery of the fraud.
The vast majority of antiques and collectibles sales occur with the seller providing the buyer with a sales receipt. When a receipt is issued, the description of an object rarely consists of more than three or four words. Rarely does the seller provide a complete physical and condition description of the piece. Completeness, size, and date are conspicuous by their absence. Again, sellers see no need because buyers do not demand it.
If the antiques and collectibles field wishes to earn the same professional respect found in other mercantile enterprises, it has to clean up its act. Providing a manufacturing date for objects for sale as a means of offering an implicit trustworthy guarantee that an object is what it is purported to be is an important first step. My concern is how many individuals in the trade are willing to take it.