Asking a few simple questions can dramatically reduce your chances of being caught in antiques scams: Internet Scambusters #312
A few weeks ago, we did an issue of Scambusters called "The 7 Most Common Antiques Scams and How to Avoid Them."
Today in this second issue on antiques scams, we suggest 10 questions that can help you identify whether that collectible item you've had your eyes on is actually an antique scam.
By testing the seller's expertise and challenging your own judgment, you may save yourself from paying a fortune for something that's essentially worthless.
Time to get going...
Antiques Scams 2: The 10 Key Questions to Help Cut Your Risk
In our earlier issue on antiques scams, we discussed the seven main types of rip-offs that snare collectors and investors. This time we look at what you can do to minimize the risk of being conned.
We've drawn up a list of 10 key questions you can ask -- five for the seller and five for yourself -- that will highlight the risks you are taking when you buy an antique or collectible item.
We'll start with...
Questions to Ask the Seller
Question 1: What more can you tell me about this item?
Sounds kind of obvious doesn't it? But a genuine seller, especially a dealer, will know far more about an item than what you might expect to read in an ad.
You can usually tell when a person is lying or bluffing -- they tend to become flustered, making vague comments, and avoiding eye contact with you.
If the seller gives a genuine reason why he or she doesn't know much about the item, get them to explain how they acquired it, encouraging them to go into detail. Make notes and build new questions from the statements the seller makes. Many scammers won't be able to stand the heat for long without making a mistake.
Question 2: Can you prove the value and authenticity of this item?
A reasonable price for an antique or collectible is the amount others have recently paid for similar items. You can do some research on this yourself but the seller also must be able to justify the asking price by referring to recent sales reports.
Authenticity might be down to merely the "expert" opinion of the seller. If you're lucky there might be some documentation such as a photo or a letter, known in the business as "provenance," that seems to confirm the history of the item.
Be wary of this if the provenance is a Certificate of Authenticity, which might be a worthless forgery.
Question 3: What kind of guarantees can you give me? Can I return the item for a refund?
These two related questions are particularly important when you buy an item sight-unseen. What you're looking for here is an undertaking that you can get your money back if the item is not in the condition advertised or turns out not to be genuine.
It's quite normal and acceptable for a seller to impose a time limit and charge a restocking fee (if they're a dealer) for accepting a return but it's important to know these terms upfront.
You're entitled to ask the auctioneer and/or the seller to vouch for the item's authenticity and you will have legal redress against them if they turn out to be wrong.
If you can't get a written guarantee, that should be reflected in the price.
Question 4: Tell me about yourself. And (if it's a dealer), how long have you been in business?
You want to feel reasonably comfortable about the seller's credentials. Even if it's an individual, you can get a sense of their trustworthiness from the way they talk about themselves and if they're in any way evasive. Don't be afraid to ask for references, especially if there's a lot of money at stake.
With a dealer, you gain some reassurance if they've been in the business for a reasonable period of time because that suggests not only that they have a reputation to protect but also that they know the antiques or collectibles market well. Ask also if they belong to any kind of professional trade organization.
Question 5: Do you mind if I get a second opinion before making my decision?
If the item is expensive and its authenticity is critical to an exceptionally high valuation, you may not want to make a costly decision without getting a back-up opinion. This might cover not only the authenticity of the item but also any condition issues that might detract from its value.
A secondary question would be: Can you take the item off-sale and put it away for me while I check a few things out?
A reputable and competent dealer should have no problem at all with such requests -- even if you're just testing him and you don't actually go through with the second opinion. If the dealer objects, take that as a strong danger signal.
Now for the...
Questions to Ask Yourself
Question 6: Do I know enough about this category to be confident about my purchases?
If you collect a particular type of antique, you should have acquired some expertise -- at least enough to know what to look for and to raise any doubts about its authenticity. But if you're a beginner or the item is outside your area of expertise, it pays to do some research before setting out on the buying trail.
Unless and until you know your stuff -- or have access to an expert -- start slowly. Don't buy expensive items.
You can use the Internet of course. But if you take your collecting seriously, you should buy one of the major antiques price guides, subscribe to magazines and auction results lists.
A note of warning too: Some items are illegal to sell, mainly ancient archaeological artifacts or carvings using contemporary (poached) ivory. That doesn't stop people from trying to sell them, but, if you buy, you also have broken the law.
Question 7: Does the item appear genuine? Are there any telltale signs that suggest a scam?
A quick bit of research (plus a re-read of our first issue) will alert you to some of the most common antiques scams.
For instance, we hear from experts that antique storage furniture, like desks and dressers, are always made of several different varieties of wood, cheaper stuff being used for the out-of-sight elements like backs and drawers. The same quality wood all-around is the sign of a scam.
Does the condition appear to be too good for the supposed age? Or is some aspect of the artifact just not right -- for example, old autographs done with felt tip pens, or signatures on baseballs (which are actually quite awkward to do) that look like they've been transferred from a flat surface.
Question 8: Is the price too good to be true?
As regular readers know, this is an old Scambusters favorite -- but this time with an important qualification, which we mention in the next paragraph. The key point is that whether it's an investment in an antiques business or an item on sale at your local collectibles mall, alarm bells should ring if the price is mouthwateringly attractive.
The exception would be when you spot something, usually in a garage or estate sale, which is underpriced because the seller hasn't identified its true value. This is fair game. If you have a hunch and the price is right, you may want to proceed -- but subject to the issue we raise in Question 10 below.
Question 9: What will I do if I get scammed?
Thinking of the end-game in the unfortunate instance that you've been scammed will help you make a judgment about whether or not it's worth going ahead with a particular purchase.
For instance, are you prepared to take legal action against the seller (and how realistic is this possibility)?
Will you be seriously out of pocket if you've been conned? Could you be accused of receiving stolen property? Asking yourself these kinds of questions will flush out your unspoken concerns and inform your decision-making.
Question 10: Do I like the item?
We started with an obvious question and we finish with one. But it makes an important point. Despite even your best vetting procedure, you might subsequently discover the item you bought is a fake.
Provided you're not talking about thousands of dollars difference in value between the genuine article and what you bought, maybe you can enjoy it anyway.
This is especially the case with ornaments and jewelry. When you are considering a purchase, it's best not to buy purely because of supposed value. If it turns out to be a fake AND it's ugly -- something you don't like -- you'll be doubly disappointed.
How many times have you seen someone on Antiques Roadshow learn that what they thought was valuable is really a dud. But they say: "Well, I like it anyway." That's how you want to be!
Remember this simple rule: The more expensive the item, the more you are putting your own money at risk and the more cautious you should be. And if you're in any doubt at all -- either about the item or the answers you've been given to your questions -- don't buy!
That's a wrap for this issue. Wishing you a great week!