Fake News and the Antiques and Collectibles Business

Fake news has been an integral part of the antiques and collectibles business for centuries.  While apologists dismiss it as “everyone makes mistakes” or a best guess gone wrong, most fake news is deliberate and meant to be deceptive.  There are two concerns.  First, fake news is believable. Second, once fake news works its way into the trade, it is hard to eradicate.

This column focuses on fake news, which differs from an error of omission.  The latter occurs when an individual fails to share, a polite way of stating withholds, information about an object that impacts another person’s ability to judge the merit and value of the object.  The sin of omission is as endemic in the antiques and collectibles trade as fake news – a point worth remembering.

The February 2017, Alexander Heritage Auctions’ (Chesapeake City, Maryland) sale of Adolph Hitler’s war time telephone for $243,000.00 is an excellent example of fake news, albeit apologists will argue the auction house did not do adequate authentication before offering the telephone for sale.  According to newspaper accounts, Brig. Sir Ralph Rayner, acquired the three-pound, red telephone while touring the Reich Chancellery Fuhrerbunker in Berlin in May 1945 as a guest of a Russian soldier.  The acquisition story filled with gruesome details of conditions inside the bunker is a classic.  Raynor took the phone back to his home in Devonshire, England.  Raynor’s son Ranulf inherited the phone in 1977.

[Author’s Note:  Ranulf’s two sons Ralph and Giles were upset their father sold the phone without consulting them.  Too bad!   In this case, as in all private collections, possession is 100 percent of the law.  No parent, so long as they are in their right mind, needs their child’s or children’s permission to sell anything.  Hats off to Ranulf.  Hopefully, he will spend the money on himself rather than give any of it on to his greedy kids.]

On Feb. 18, 2017, Adolf Hitler’s phone sold for $243,000 at Alexander Historical Auctions in Chesapeake City, Md.

Prior to the sale, experts began questioning the authenticity of the phone.  Skeptic that I am, I thought the story had a questionable ring to it when I read the story about the auction and saw pictures of the telephone. First, the red paint and its wear did not appear “quite right.”  The auctioneer claimed the phone was scorched and covered by soot from a fire inside the bunker. My hats off to the person that came up with this story.  Second, the story was too good to be true, a clear sign that something is amiss in the antiques and collectibles world.

Initially, Alexander Heritage Auctions estimated the phone to be worth around a half a million dollars. Authentication concerns traveled quickly along established communication lines within the collecting community.  As a result, the auction sell-through price was half the estimate.  The good news for Ranulf Rayner is (1) there are always a few dreamers who choose not to believe the experts and (2) he has the money and the successful bidder the problem.  Of course, the auctioneer failed to publicize any of the authentication concerns associated with the telephone prior to auction.

Authentication is not an exact science.  It has a qualitative side.  When conducting authentication seminars, I teach Lindquist’s Rule, named after David Lindquist of Whitehall at the Villa Antiques in Chapel Hill – “How many times do you have to be hit over the head with a two by four before accepting the fact is that an object is not what it is purported to be.”  Experts have raised more than half a dozen concerns about the Hitler telephone.  I accept the conclusion.  The buyer did not.  No news story has appeared regarding the buyer returning the phone to the auction house and asking for the return of the purchase cost.

When applied to objects, a fake is an object deliberately meant to deceive.  The faker and often initial seller knows it is a fake.  The same applies to fake news.  Fake news is news that a provider knows is false.  The attempt to deceive is intentional.

There are eight primary fake news antiques and collectibles categories – deliberately altered, item’s completeness, condition, dating, identification, provenance, scarcity, and value.  Fake news often involves a combination of two or more of these elements.

Variations are a curse in the antiques and collectibles field.  Fake variations are common throughout.  Color is the usual culprit.  I recently dealt with an individual who purchased what he thought was a scarce color variation of a Lalique vase only to find the color was created through irradiation thus destroying rather than enhancing the value of the vase.  Enhancement, that is to say, changing the appearance of a period object to increase its value, is a little understood but common practice and almost never reported or discussed publicly.

In 2017, completeness is difficult to define.  The object alone may not be enough.  Accessories, instructions, package, packing, instructions, and promotional literature may be required to make an object complete. Consider an action figure that has five independent accessories. A seller who has the action figure with three accessories and is aware of the two missing parts is likely to advertise the figure as complete.

Hiding behind “I did not know excuse” is not excusable. There are ample Internet and printed reference sources available to do research. Sellers are ethically responsible for the statements they make. Liar, liar, pants on fire. A lie is a lie is a lie.

Condition becomes a lie when a seller deliberately withholds information of which he/she is aware relating to damage, repair, restoration, or conversation.  Unscrupulous sellers instruct restorers to “make it look new; and, by the way, impossible to detect what you do.”  Since most repair and restoration goes undocumented, the burden rests on the seller to be forthright and honest.  While the initial seller may be honest, the lack of paperwork and the failure of subsequent sellers to pass along the information often results in information becoming lost.

Assigning a higher condition grade to an object than it deserves is fake news.  Although grading is subjective, the tendency among auctioneers, collectors, dealers, or other sellers is to push the condition grade one to two levels higher.  Greed is a common weakness in the trade.

False dating is rampant.  Beware of any date spreads larger than 25 years.  Century and half century dates are meaningless.  A great deal happens during a 100 and/or 50-year period.  There are times when I think some sellers own a date dart board.  When a date is unknown, the seller tosses a dart and uses the date on which it lands.  This process is about as accurate as an educated guess by an uneducated seller.

False identification of objects is more frequent than realized.  More identification is done by guessing than research.  Resembles, appears like, and similar to are not the same as as is.  The antiques and collectibles industry contains a myriad of fruit, not just apples.  Sellers hide behind “type,” a word that needs to be interpreted as definitely not from the period or name preceding the word “type.”

A good story is essential to the successful sale of an object.  When stories do not exist, sellers often create them.   “I believe,” “I’ve been told,” “I think” are buzzwords of the deceptive process.  The antiques and collectibles field is filled with skilled fictional story tellers, many highly creative in conjuring up believability.  I have considered sponsoring a contest featuring a picture of an object, print, or photograph and awarding a prize to the best story created about its provenance.

No one knows how scarce anything is in the trade.  Scarcity is a judgment call.  I laugh every time I read or hear an assertion that an object is “one of three known” or the seller “has never seen one before.” Historically, scarcity meant only a relatively few number of objects survived.  In 2017, it can mean tens of thousands have survived and the primary reason none appear in the market is that there is no longer any demand.

There are no fixed values for objects in the secondary market.  Selling phrases such as “I hear one sold at auction for….” or “I saw one advertised at…” should set off alarm bells and be greeted with the utmost skepticism.  More often than not, the numbers being cited are for similar, but not the same objects.

Why is fake antiques and collectibles news accepted?  The answer is twofold.  First, buyers want to believe. Assuming expertise on the part of the seller, they blindly accept any information provided. Second, buyers love what they hear.  The information is fully plausible and adds to the mystique of the object.

Two steps are necessary to combat fake news.  First, question every statement or face until you have checked and double checked that it is correct.   Second, every time a seller makes a question general assertion, respond with this question: “Prove it?”  Prove It?  PROVE IT!   “Because I said so” or “I am the expert” is not proof.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com.  Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.
You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.

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