Skillful Descriptions in the Selling of Collectibles

Engraving of White House that 'depicts' it at the time of Andrew Jackson and so is labelled as 1830
Cufflinks attributed to Dick Cheney, but misrepresented in design with skillful description to give the impression of legitimacy
Engraving of Presidents labelled as 1830, but shows Lincoln

Many of us in the collecting field are familiar with the descriptive words a seller uses sometimes to give the impression of an item’s importance beyond its reality. Usually it is done at an online auction site where a seller uses the art of descriptive language to give the impression of a higher value or rarity without actually saying so.

When questioned later, the seller can always point to his description and insist the buyer just have misread it.

Then, there are other times when a description may appear to be correct, but when read again suggests that the seller guessed at its origin or didn’t bother to fully understand the initial description. Here’s an example found at an online auction site recently:

1830 Engraving of the White House, Washington, D.C.

Original steel plate engraving – The President’s House, Washington

“The President’s House, Washington: This etching depicts the White House during the era of Andrew
Jackson’s presidency. It was engraved by Joseph Andrews after a drawing by H. Brown.”

Image size is 5 1/2″ X 8 1/2″ on a larger plate. It is in fine condition.

The description uses the word ‘depicts’ the White House during the era of Andrew Jackson, but the engraving itself may not have been made at that time. In fact, the date does not appear on the engraving because when I asked the seller if it did, he replied with a curt “No.” So, he guessed at it.

Item Specifics
Organization Type : Political – US

1830 Engraving Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jackson

“1830 Engraving of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jackson and Johnson by J. C. Buttre, engraved for Abbott’s Lives of the President’s. Engravcing (sic) of the Capitol at the center as well. Plate measures 9″ X 5 1/4”

But how can the engraving be listed as being from 1830 when it clearly shows Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson alongside Washington and Jackson? Lincoln and Johnson were in the White House in the 1860s making this engraving of that period, not 1830. Just a typo? Possibly. But if you are going through descriptions quickly, you might not notice in time that the description was wrong.

In another description for cufflinks attributed to Vice President Dick Cheney says:

“Vice President Dick Cheney VIP Gift Cuff Links.

On each elegant cuff link, a 14k gold-plated Vice Presidential Seal is depicted, in relief, on a stunning white background.

The Vice Presidential Seal is surrounded by 50 gold-plated stars and the edge of each cuff link has an intricate, gold-plated, “roped” edging that is unlike other cuff link. Owing to their beauty these executive (high-end) cuff links often are called “VIP” cuff links.

On the back of each cuff link is the engraved signature of Vice President Dick Cheney.”

Nowhere in this description does it say that they are official cufflinks, but gives the impression that they are. However, those in the presidential collectible field are aware that cufflinks from Dick Cheney are even harder to find than those of the president. This description then plays on that scarcity with skillful language. Also, the official vice presidential coat-of-arms does not include 50 blue stars in a circle surrounding the eagle. Since this is a seller that routinely sells items of a presidential nature, they are aware of that (in fact, email messages pointing out that design flaw went unanswered and the description remains unchanged). There is a lot of skillful language here that the seller can easily say does not misinterpret the item if read carefully.

These are just three examples of skillful language used in marketing historical items. The first was clearly a guess, the second may just be a typo, the third is just plain deceptive. Always read carefully!