Published: April 27, 2021
We were recently introduced to the YouTube videos that Asian art expert, advisor and dealer Peter Combs does for major sales of Asian art, in which he offers commentary on some of the sales’ top lots. Combs has become part watchdog, part champion for maintaining high standards of authenticity in a field where fakes and forgeries can be easy to pass off. We reached out to him to speak about his process and what keeps the channel alive.
How long have you been doing the YouTube videos?
I’ve been doing them for four to five years; I probably have between 300 and 350 of them. We do one a week, sometimes two or three a week if there’s a lot going on. I bought software that will record some sales while they are live. Since many auctions take a long time to sell, we’ll usually edit it down to the highlights, showing the start and close of those lots. We can take a four-hour sale and edit it down to a 40-minute-long video. Once a sale has happened, I do an entirely new video and often add things I didn’t mention in the Preview Video.
What inspired them?
My children. About five years ago, I was talking to someone about Asian art history and one of my younger sons said, ‘why don’t you do YouTube videos?’ I started looking around, watched some YouTube videos on how to make a YouTube video, then bought the software, camera and microphone. They’re fun to do.
How long do they take to make?
In the beginning, I wrote a script but it felt unnatural. I know what the things are well enough that I react to the picture. It takes about 15 minutes to select the photos to talk about, then 30-35 minutes to record, and another 25 minutes to edit. Start to finish it’s about an hour.
Do you receive compensation for the review videos?
Not a dime. YouTube is monetized. If you don’t monetize your videos – in other words, allow ads – people will have a hard time finding the videos. YouTube gets ad revenue from them. I get about 20 percent of the ad revenue for the videos but it isn’t as much as you might think. We get between $200 to $300 a month for them.
How do you pick which sales to feature?
I look at the stuff. I know about the major sales well ahead of time. We have a service on our www.bidamount.com website called “Preview Assistant” where, for $12, someone can send me a link to an auction that I’ll look at and tell them if something is a fake or if it’s a great thing. We go onto smaller sales on Bidsquare and LiveAuctioneers that we don’t normally review and we cull out stuff to review. I’ve fallen into this niche about debunking things. We also have a database of about 350 auction houses that sell Asian works of art. That rates auction houses. People who find something online can check how we’ve rated the house. The fraud rate in the Asian art market is massive.
It sounds like you could get into some hot water exposing fakes.
It almost got me sued when I did a video on an auction house that was running fakes. They sent me a cease-and-desist order, which I posted and said if I was wrong, I would post a full retraction video. I didn’t hear back.
Even knowledgeable experts can make mistakes. If you spot something that’s a fake in an auction at a reputable house, do you tell them what you think?
Yes. I’ve let auction houses know if I think they’ve made a mistake, and tell them nicely why; most of the time they appreciate it. Quite a few auction houses get in touch often for help and send me images before running ads for help, with the descriptions and dating. I’m happy to do it, and no, I don’t charge for the help.
Do houses solicit your reviews?
No. They know I do them, and they don’t generally have to tell me. There are some sales I always cover.
If there’s not a lot of compensation for them, why do you do them?
It’s a wonderful category. It strikes a chord with people who are not from that culture but there’s nothing that discourages people more than getting ripped off. I don’t want people to feel that way. There are too many shenanigans with fakes. It’s good for the field to have honest representation, so I’m championing it a little bit.
Who is your audience for these videos?
Sixty percent of the audience is Western. We have a lot of viewers in Hong Kong; they can’t get accurate information. About 25 percent are Chinese who are thinking of buying and they ask our opinion. We give advice. I’ll say, ‘if you really love it, spend ‘such-and-such an amount and you’ll be safe.’ I won’t tell them what to pay. We had a lot of inquiries about the Freeman’s sale [Reviewed Antiques and The Arts Weekly, April 30 issue] and I told everyone they would need to pay over the estimates for things.
Have the videos changed since you started doing them?
They’ve gotten a little longer and are more spontaneous. I’ve learned from doing them to give a bit more detail.
Do you get business from the videos?
I don’t get much business from the videos. I don’t do them to get business but because I like and want to do them. I also refer people to objects. Last year I got a call from a guy who bought some very fine vases at a yard sale, I told him to call one of the auction houses in New York; he sold them for $44,000. I could have bought them from him for $500 and sold them myself but it isn’t the right thing to do.
Sounds like it keeps you pretty busy.
We still deal, and advise. In addition to the videos, we have links to databases of auction house catalogs and museum collections. We have a forum for between 2,000 and 3,000 members, and a weekly newsletter of things we see on eBay and Catawiki overseas that has between 5,000 and 8,000 subscribers. At the beginning of April, we launched a selling site for Asian dealers – we have about 80 dealers so far – with things that we vet fully. It’s already getting 1,000 visitors a day. Once we have enough traffic, we’ll start to do auctions.
-Madelia Hickman Ring
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