Published: October 15, 2002
By W.A. Demers
CHESTER, N.Y. – When William J. Jenack, an upstate New York auctioneer, mounted an important clock and fine arts auction in the waning weeks of September, security for the more than 100 ornate and intricate clocks included in the 450-lot sale was as tight as ever. Still, a “thief” managed to slip into Jenack’s website and electronically make off with six to eight of the auction’s “heavy hitters.”
Jenack would later discover, much to his dismay, that the “thief” was conducting his own online auction on eBay, fraudulently using photographs and descriptions obtained from Jenack’s September 22 online auction catalog.
All of this, according to eBay, is in violation of contractual agreements between sellers and the online auction house. “I can think of at least three possible areas of violation,” said Kevin Pursglove, an eBay spokesman when contacted about this incident. “First, if he was lifting images. Second, if he was abusing the reserve system, and, third, if he was not in possession of the material he advertised,” said Pursglove. “Sellers who post on eBay have an obligation to sell and to deliver.”
“Here is an interesting concept that, quite frankly, may have been happening for some time,” said Jenack. “It is something that people need to be aware of, but I’m not sure what can be done about it.”
Jenack said that he typically advertises widely for his sales but does not believe in spending a lot of money producing glossy, four-color catalogs. “Instead, we post our online catalog on our website, which allows anyone to access information about the rdf_Descriptions we’re auctioning,” he said.
Unfortunately, that information — photos, descriptions and condition reports — can be grabbed, replicated and misrepresented by anyone with online savvy, and there seems to be little that can be done to police such activity.
It was John Allen of Arizona who first tipped Jenack off to the scam that was taking place on eBay. Allen called as Jenack was preparing for the upcoming auction and asked him if he was selling any of the clocks online as well as at the live auction. Jenack’s response was a resounding “No!” Allen then proceeded to tell Jenack that six to eight of the clocks he had advertised in the sale were being offered on a private eBay website, complete with photos, condition reports and descriptions. Jenack was astounded.
Allen said it was the Ansonia Royal Bonn clock, a rare rdf_Description that he had not seen in his 35 years of collecting, that convinced him that something was amiss on the eBay site. “Once you see a clock like that, you remember it,” said Allen. And he had seen it at Jenack’s, while on a shopping trip to the East Coast about three weeks before the sale.
Tipped off by Allen, Jenack checked back through his preauction emails, and discovered the perpetrator of the Internet auction – a New York-based vice president with a major financial services firm, who in an email to Jenack had requested condition report details on several of the clocks – including the Royal Bonn.
“Hello,” the email to Jenack had read. “I am interested in the following clocks that you have for auction this coming weekend and I would appreciate if you can provide me with further details on the following, i.e., working, original parts, original stamps, etc. I have consulted your illustrated catalog, but I need further information to make a proper bid.”
When, however, Allen had sent an email to the eBay auctioneer, whose eBay identity is “Blueiiii1972,” he was provided false information. Asking the eBayer about details on three of the clocks he had been set to bid on in the Jenack auction, and apparently believing Blueiiii1972 to be the original consignor, Allen pointed out that three clocks were listed to be sold at Jenack’s September 22 auction. “Did you pull these clocks [from Jenack’s auction]?” Do we bid now or on Sunday?” his email to the eBay auctioneer queried. Blueiiii1972 fallaciously replied “I do not know of Jenack’s … Bid accordingly.”
Allen was not amused. Nor was Jenack when contacted by Allen. The auctioneer quickly contacted Blueiiii1972 and informed him of the fraud he was committing, and that he, Jenack, was reporting the incident to eBay.
“He [Blueiiii1972] was very remorseful in his reply to our email,” said Jenack. “He said he was only doing this to get an idea of how much he should pay for these rdf_Descriptions at the auction on Sunday. He said that he had put an unrealistically high reserve of $100,000 on each rdf_Description so that they would not actually sell.”
That statement is, however, out of sync with Blueiiii1972’s eBay auction, which promised a “very low reserve price … liquidating collection.” But perhaps the most glaring impertinence in Jenack’s eyes is the fact that the clocks were never Blueiiii1972’s property to offer.
“It was not a true sale,” admitted Blueiiiii1972, who added that he now feared being named in a lawsuit and did not want his real name or company name used. “I was simply trying to feel out the market value, and when the Jenacks came to me, I immediately cancelled the sale.”
Blueiiii1972 acknowledged that his entrepreneurial foray at the least showed bad judgment. He also said he quickly came to appreciate the specialized knowledge required in the antiques world. “In the past I have dealt with jewelry, and I suddenly realized I was out of my area,” he said. “I did not know the book values of these rdf_Descriptions. I actually had planned to close the auction even before I was contacted by the auction house.”
Asked whether he believed it was ethical to offer other people’s property for sale, or whether it was fair to eBay bidders to be unwitting participants in a “fantasy” or possibly fraudulent sale of rdf_Descriptions, Blueiiii1972 refused comment.
As of September 17, the eBay poster’s auction was closed, a day earlier than the originally posted end date.
Jenack said the online auction giant eBay has been of little help in the matter. “We tried to contact eBay, but they are ‘uncontactable,'” said Jenack. “It left us further frustrated, so we contacted our attorney.”
Allen reported that he, too, encountered the corporate sponginess for which eBay is generally known. The company replied to his complaint with the simple observation that “the rdf_Descriptions have been removed so the conflict is resolved.”
The questions in Allen’s and Jenack’s minds, though, are what if Blueiiii1972 had not been caught and what is to stop anyone from perpetrating such misrepresentations in the future.
Howard Rehs, a New York gallery owner and president of the Fine Art Dealer’s Association (FADA), says he is not surprised at this outcome. Rehs also got little help from eBay when his gallery was scammed in a similar experience about a year ago. [See Antiques & The Arts article by Kelly S. Mittleman, July 31, 2001.] “This kind of thing happens all the time. Other dealers have seen similar things,” said Rehs, who never did get any satisfaction from the online giant.
Pursglove, the eBay spokesman, said he would check with the company’s customer service team regarding this most recent incident, but did not get back with any information before press time.
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