It’s important to remember that many sellers in online auction venues are amateurs when it comes to grading condition or distinguishing reproductions, and asking pertinent questions raised by closely examining the photographs they provide will prove to be prudent. Even experienced sellers setting up a store in a well-known online mall or Web shop can make mistakes now and again.
Use the expertise you already have under your belt as a collector or dealer specializing in any given genre of antiques to following these prudent steps when bidding or shopping online:
1. Examine for Condition Issues - Look at the photograph(s) provided by online sellers for the same types of condition issues you would assess in person. If you’re buying an antique metal mesh purse, as an example, you would look for missing fringe, wear to enameling and plating on the frame, an original chain handle, and links that have come undone around the hinge. If you see anything suspicious, check the listing for more details.
2. Examine for Reproductions and Fakes - Examine the photograph(s) for telltale signs of reproductions and fakes. For instance, if you’re buying Roseville pottery look for poor detail on the décor and sloppy painting, marks that don’t seem right, and a matte finish in comparison to the slight sheen of genuine pieces. You may not be able to see every detail, but you can often round up enough clues to ask for more detailed photos.
3. Ask for More Details - If the listing doesn’t mention the condition issue or sign of being a repro you think you spy in a photograph, email the seller for more information. Ask about exactly what you think you see such as verdigris (green gunk) on jewelry, crazing on pottery and ceramics, chips or cracks in glass, stains on textiles, etc. Sometimes photos show things that aren’t even visible to the naked eye and they turn out not to be a real concern, but it’s best to be safe and get clarification if you’re unsure.
4. Request Additional Photos - If the listing doesn’t clearly show the area of a piece that will affirm your suspicions about condition issues or reproduction status, ask for more photographs. Be specific about what you want to see in the additional shots, such as a mark or signature, and communicate that to the seller. One thing to keep in mind is that photographing antiques and collectibles isn’t always the easiest proposition for amateur photographers. If you don’t feel comfortable with the result of additional photos, it might be best to move on to another item if you don’t want to risk purchasing something that might not be the real deal or damaged.
5. Verify Return Policies - Even if you think you’re spot on in assessing photographs, it’s wise to verify a seller’s return policies so you know what to expect. There was a time in online auction history (dating back to 1996 or so) that returns were harder to initiate. Now seller protection programs through larger venues and return policies help buyers shop without as many concerns, but take care to notify the seller that you will be returning an item before sending it back. Sellers who aren’t on the up and up will sometimes look for loopholes to avoid accepting returns. Independent sites operating outside the umbrella of an online mall or auction service are often run by professional antique dealers. Return policies will vary from site to site so never make assumptions about return policies and ask about restocking fees as well.
6. Know When to Move On - If a seller’s photos are blurry and they can’t provide better ones, they won’t answer specific questions about the piece in question, or their return policy isn’t to your liking, it might be time to move on. However, there are many people who get remarkable deals gambling on fuzzy photos online, especially in the auction arena. If you don’t mind returning items that don’t live up to expectations, this tactic might work for you. Just be sure to verify those return policies if you decide to roll the dice on a questionable listing.