|The Auctioneer Test: We had bought numerous items from this auctioneer before; we believed he was honest, and told people so all the time when they begged to differ...
I asked him, "What about the Cromwell. What do you know? Is it a repro or what?"
"I don't know. I haven't taken it out, or looked at it closely. But there was a guy just here who looked at it, and thought it was genuine. He left a bid!"
Hmmm. A vote of confidence by someone "who knew" something. Perhaps he was a letter expert, or an archivist, or an autograph expert. The saliva was flowing.
Or maybe he was a shill...?
Suspicion: Ok. The auctioneer had been straight up with me before; I took his disinterest as genuine.
So I might actually discover a rare item because the auctioneer had been distracted elsewhere and was passing up a good thing!
But why wouldn't an auctioneer have asked the consignor if it was genuine, or not, on such a unique and possibly valuable item? Is it likely he didn't?
OK. So he was conning me - an unsettling realization when someone you previously trusted shows you another side.
Was he just hungry for a bid from me and so trying to entice me into believing that what he knew was a fake was genuine?
The Item: The letter was in a very old and battered 19th century frame adorned with Mason's symbols. Just like from an old estate. Good!
But the letter was just floating in the middle - no matting and totally too small for the size of the frame. How would any owner of a genuine letter he thought important enough to frame, mount it for the ages in such an outlandishly oversize frame that wasted tons of wall space! And no matting to set off the prize!!
Had someone just hurriedly decide to mate a letter and a "really old frame" to give it age and estate appeal?
Flipping it over showed a 19th century Mason's cardboard backing. Obviously 100 plus years old. Good! But then it would have been proudly displayed to the front, not as backing. Bad! But why would someone just slap in a cardboard as backing when really old backing is usually cedar shakes, with cardboard - plain cardboard - appearing after the turn of the century.
And the Mason's print which had once been the front, was now put at the back... Not done so long ago.
The nails aroused suspicion. They were brand spanking shiny new! And solidly in there. Nails on old frames are usually rusty and square, often wobbly, and always undisturbed. Nothing fit and the recent gouge marks near the nails on the backing were worrisome. Obviously not put in there during Cromwell's time by a great, great, grandfather...
It was all coming together. Someone had put the haphazard backing on very recently, with new nails, on an outlandishly oversize - albeit antique - frame.
This had all the earmarks of a last minute "put-up job."
Do you really need to see the letter?
A final test.
The Auctioneer Again: I asked the crucial question. "Did this item come in with the estate or from a dealer?"
There was a slight hesitancy; with the word "dealer" I was cutting to the chase and he knew it. I was a previous high bidder on such memorabilia items at his auction. He side-stepped once more by answering a question I did not ask, "From an individual!"
Case closed. Not an estate find at all! Obviously a dealer; and a crooked dealer at that!
A Shady Deal: Valuable items show up from time to time, by accident, at estate sales. That's why people go.
But why would an honest dealer take an item he thought genuine, and therefore valuable, to an out of the way auction where people would never realize its true worth, instead of to a downtown Toronto auction where the most eager buyers with the most money and highest interest level would be found?
Because these buyers know too much; the dealer wanted a less perceptive group of bidders. Like say at a country auction...
There was now no use in even asking to have the nails pulled so we could actually feel and see the letter up close.
The circumstantial evidence was absolute; this was a complete fake being put in the auction by a con man. And the auctioneer was colluding by helping out a friend with misleading information to potential buyers.
Conclusion: Rare items come with estates. They surface there because they may have been languishing in someone's drawer for decades or longer. Families just did not want to part with them. They come to the end of the line when someone says "Get rid of the desk," or the medals. Or the "Cromwell letter. I'm sick of looking at the dirty old thing!"
Fake items come from individuals who plant "rare items," which they know are bogus, at off the beaten path auctions - just the place people expect to find "rare" items and are likely to be far more accepting and far less critical than is good for them.
Here was a case where a dealer - our term for a wheeler dealer money maker - or an individual - the auctioneer's attempt to give a dealer more cachet for honesty than he obviously deserved - had planted a fake Cromwell letter in an incompetently tarted up package to attract the gullible and milk the suckers - I mean the auctioneer's clients - in the crowd.
When we went to enquire further about the consignor and the left bid there was huge merriment. "We're not going to tell you how much he left." The auctioneer's helpers were no help; they were clearly hyping the item and not in the least interested in helping us clarify its provenance.
The Shill Bid: The "Plant" is often accompanied by the "Shill Bid." This is a bid - either left with the auctioneer before the sale, or signalled from the floor during the auction, which is done by an associate of the "Planter." His job is to bid up an interested party so he/she has to pay more for an item. The trick is for the shill to drop out before the legitimate bidder quits.
In the case of the Cromwell letter, the "left bid" may - if the auctioneer is extremely creepy - have been left by the original consignor to boost the sale price. If the auctioneer is one of the few with scruples, the plant has an associate or friend put in a high reserve or bid from the floor to get the price up. If bad timing leaves the shill with the winning bid it's not a problem; no money changes hands between friends. The two will try again at another auction. Or, more likely, at the same auction with different items...
The Auctioneer Once More: This experience soured us with one more auctioneer who we will not trust in future. All of them are out there to make money any way they can. Auction buyers better beware.
c Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996 & 2000