By W.A. Demers
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – David Rudd, an upstate New York dealer in American decorative arts furniture and accessories, will tell you that his website www.daltons.com is pretty popular.
“We get a lot of hits,” said Rudd, “probably on the order of 800 to 1,000 hits per day.” It is a testament, he said, to having a virtual showroom that is well designed, easy to navigate and full of fine examples of American Twentieth Century decorative arts – from Gustav Stickley, L&JG Stickley, Roycroft and other Arts and Crafts Mission oak furniture to Rookwood pottery.
Unfortunately, not all of the visitors have been surfing the site to shop for mid-Twentieth Century antiques. At least one unscrupulous visitor was appropriating images and descriptions of American art pottery, then putting the pieces up for bogus auctions on eBay. If this sounds familiar, it is only one of the latest examples of such fraudulent eBay auctions. [See “Another Cautionary Auction Tale Surfaces From The World Of eBay,” Antiques and The Arts Weekly, October 10, 2002.]. “It’s very annoying,” exclaimed Rudd. “Apart from the audacity, is the time it takes to undo it.”
Rudd was made aware of the rip-offs by a customer who noticed that the photos and descriptions at Dalton’s website and the eBay auction page were dead ringers – except for the fractured English. For example, a Wheatley vase is displayed in four photographs on the Dalton’s website and described as “a sizable piece measuring 101/4 inches tall by 9 inches in diameter. Nicely carved with high relief leaves alternating with buds running nearly the full height of the piece.” In the background of one of the pictures of the base one can clearly see a distinctive Dirk van Erp-style lamp.
On eBay, a seller who identified himself as “Palingsuk,” from Indonesia, had posted the exact same photos – complete with the lamp in the background – and described the piece as a “Very Nice Green Wheatly Vase, this is a size able piece. . .”
Two other vases – a Grueby vase by Gertrude Priest and a Rookwood vase decorated with cascading flora by Lenore Asbury in 1930 – were also hijacked from Dalton’s website by the eBay seller.
After Rudd notified eBay, the auctions on those three rdf_Descriptions were cancelled, but just a day later the same Wheatley vase was again being “offered” in an eBay auction by “Dodolanjiyembut,” no doubt the same Indonesian seller operating with a new name.
To add further insult, another of Rudd’s vases – this one a piece of Pewabic – was being auctioned on the same day by “Dodolanraniat,” who of course would only accept Western Union or bank wire transfer as payment. Such payment arrangements are standard fare among scam artists.
Michael Lehr, a private collector in Rockaway, N.J., has risen to “power seller” status on eBay since he began doing business over the online bazaar in 1997. Even he admits to have been stung.
“I was personally ripped off $1,220 a couple of weeks ago on a Rookwood vase,” said Lehr.
Lehr acknowledged that, for eBay, policing fraud is tantamount to keeping away mayflies on a warm spring day, but he faults the company for not doing a better job warning its buyer community. He has sent eBay lists of users associated with fraud that he has compiled, including one that had www.iraq.com listed as one of the seller’s favorite links. “As far as I can see, this person or persons have raised thousands of dollars from this fraud,” said Lehr. “I can only be hopeful the money isn’t going towards terrorism against the United States.”
Typically, the Indonesian sellers use bad English, do not employ electronic payment systems like PayPal or any of the usual methods of payment, but require money transfers or cashiers check. The fraudulent seller of the American art pottery, for example, directed prospective buyers to “Bank Deposite Express or Wire transfer, Westren Union. For shipping cost please contact me or email me. Serius Bid only . . . please don’t bid it if you not pay. Thank You.”
“How hard could it be for eBay to warn buyers?” asked Lehr. “They could stop the problem or in the least cut down on the risks to their users by sending an email when any new seller comes online. They pretty much control all emails and know who is contacting who. It should not be hard for them to monitor and warn users who are specifically at risk.” Lehr said he has experienced instances in which one of these fraudulent sellers was identified, had his ID removed by eBay a couple of days later, but eBay never contacted Lehr to let him know of its actions.
“Daily I am getting emails from people who have either wired money or are about to,” said Lehr. “This should not be hard to put a stop to.”
More diabolical, Lehr added, is the fact that even those who do not win the bidding can be open to victimization. “These people are contacting underbidders or anyone who expresses interest looking to sell their nonexistent pieces,” he said. Lehr added that while he knows eBay has the technology to provide safe harbor warning to members of its buyer community, the advantage is clearly given to the seller.
In the meantime, Rudd, who said that a distinctive feature of his Dalton’s website were prices posted for each of the rdf_Descriptions, has decided for the time being that he will discontinue including the prices. “That’s unfortunate, because we’re one of the few Arts and Crafts houses that do that,” he said.
EBay was contacted to comment for this article and did not respond by press time.