Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - JULY 2019

Risk and reward in the internet secondary market: buyer and seller beware

There are rewards in an internet-based secondary market – if buyers and sellers are willing to put up with the risks. The most famous Internet sales venue is, of course, eBay® and the several imitators it has spawned.

An example of the sort of "FrankenFenton" lamp that shows up occasionally on eBay. While the auction description for this "chandelier" doesn't actually say the lamp was made at Fenton, the title of the listing and its subsequent description imply that it was. The lack of year of production in this listing is a potential red flag – although no knowledgeable collector would need that clue. The only thing Fenton about this lamp is the upside-down Lily of the Valley handkerchief vase that forms the shade. While Fenton often used its more basic shapes for multiple purposes, it would not have used this particular vase shape in such an outlandish manner. It's just as well this one didn't sell.

Internet auctions can be variously described as a bargain hunter's paradise and a giant virtual flea market. The draw for such a market is, for a collector-buyer, to acquire something for a small fraction of its value and, for a dealer, to acquire it with plenty of room in it for a profitable resale. The opportunity for a buyer to "score" is enhanced, of course, with the number of amateur sellers on eBay who don't know what they have.

While this may work contrary to the interests of a clueless seller when the item is highly desirable to collectors, it can just as well work to that seller's advantage by attracting a number of bidders interested enough in the item to engage in a bidding war that drives the price up.

Risks to internet auction sellers are not insignificant and include nonpayment, resulting in the hassle of re-auctioning an item now no longer considered fresh to the market. One scam committed against sellers falsely claims an item arrived damaged or not-as-described. Because of the strong incentives in the eBay® system to avoid unfavorable public feedback, many sellers will simply refund the purchase price without asking to have the item returned, especially if it was alleged to be shipping-damaged.

The risks of internet auction, however, mostly accrue to the buyer. If the item is fragile and the seller doesn't know how to package it for safe shipping, the item is likely to arrive in pieces. Actually, as I recently discovered when sending a fragile porcelain item to a restorer to repair what had been a clean break, even if the item is conscientiously packaged double boxed, and marked "fragile" on all six sides, it may still arrive in pieces.

In a persistent personal fantasy, I imagine shipping companies staffing their warehouses with actual gorillas!

Another risk to the buyer is a seller's failure to deliver the merchandise at all. Several years ago, a previously reputable dealer inexplicably went to the dark side by offering a collection of desirable Lladró porcelains on eBay® that he apparently never had, then absconding with many thousands of dollars of buyers' money by insisting on PayPal® payments to allow him a quick getaway.

By far, however, the biggest and most pervasive danger to a buyer in internet auctions is erchandise misrepresentation, either unintentional or deliberate. Unintentional misrepresentation most often happens, again, with amateur sellers who don't know enough about what they're selling to make accurate attributions about it. With intentional misrepresentation, we enter into scam territory and hucksters who, because of their success in selling misrepresented merchandise, cynically subscribe to the old adage, "There's a sucker born every minute."

For example, some sellers on eBay sell doctored/married lamps that they may even describe as rare or limited-edition Fenton. The Fenton Art Glass Company, which ceased operation in 2011 after more than 100 years in business, made a lot of lamps over the years, and these have been popular with collectors and designers alike. Typically, the glass parts of the lamp are genuine but mismatched Fenton shapes that Fenton would never have used in that way in a lamp, married to metal part types Fenton also never used.

In an instance last year, a "winning" bidder paid $999 for a bogus lamp declared as a rare limited edition made by Fenton. If people don't mind buying this kind of "FrankenFenton" for what it is, that's one thing, but when the winning bids on these items are this high, one has to suspect buyers are being scammed by the misrepresentation in the auction description.

Internet auctions are quintessential caveat emptor (buyer beware) territory. The World Wide Web is also the World Wild Web. So be safe out there!

Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at