By way of introduction, I'm Bill Panagopulos, founder and president of Alexander Autographs, Inc., an autograph auction house in Stamford, Ct. (www.alexautographs.com
) established almost twenty years ago when I took my passion for collecting Civil War autographs and decided to grow it into an auction house devoted to the sale of all types of historic letters, documents, manuscripts and relics. Since those early days of paper bid sheets, one telephone line and no auction software in a one-room, third floor walk-up, we've grown Alexander into a multi-million dollar auction and direct sale dealer of autographs and militaria, with over 40,000 pieces sold to thousands of collectors and institutions worldwide.
Over the past few years, my friend Steve Cyrkin has asked me to write about the ins and outs of the auction world. I've always graciously turned him down, citing time constraints, but I now think that with Autograph's readership at a huge level, I owe it to up-and-coming collectors to impart some of my experience in the trade to others to help guide them in buying and selling autographs at auction. I hope my jottings might prove of some value—or at least stimulate discussion.
Those who know me know that I speak frankly...perhaps rashly...at times. I'll try to temper my opinions, but I promise that I will state the facts as I know them having the experience of having personally held and participated in hundreds of auctions around the world. You'll like some of what you hear...other things, not so much. Comment as you please, that's why we're here!
Most of your first experiences will be in BUYING at auction. This first installment will simply lay down the essential basics of finding reputable auction houses and previewing a sale.
So...let's start with "How can I find a reputable auction house?"
Do your homework. Auction houses are everywhere—find them at bidding sites like artfact.com (which hosts our sales) and icollector.com, or in trade journals and antique-related newspapers and magazines. There are only a few auction houses that specialize in autographs alone, but that does not mean that they are all competent. Nor does it mean that the Lincoln document offered at the farm implement auction in Skokie is a fake. It's always important that you KNOW YOUR MATERIAL! If you need an opinion from an expert, ask a dealer or collector friend with the know-how. I must offer opinions on items for sale by competitors five times a day! Another great place to check an auction's credentials is this site—ask questions about an auctioneer's qualifications and track record.
Common sense also applies: Christie's and Sotheby's wouldn't be in business for over 150 years if they always sold fake Picassos, would they? But again, even with those auction houses (as with my own), some items slip through the cracks. So it's equally important to ask pointed questions: Are they members of any important trade organizations? Do those organizations have "teeth" in case you have a complaint? Do they guarantee their material? For how long? Will you get a credit or a refund? Do they accept credit cards? (You can more easily get a refund when sold a fake if you use a credit card).
As far as guarantees go, bear in mind that many auctions sell "as is, where is"—that means, once you buy it, you own it, whether a forgery or not. Others skirt the issue by claiming that since they use third-party authenticators, they waive all responsibility for any dispute as to authenticity. Most auction houses devoted to autographs guarantee their material for life, unconditionally, to the buyer. Read terms of sale VERY carefully, because once you place a bid, you've generally accepted the terms of sale and really have no recourse.
Previewing a sale is a right that is rapidly disappearing in these days of Internet-only auctions. Some of you may not even know what a "preview" is—it's your ability to personally view and inspect the material you want to bid on before it is offered for sale (we say, "before it comes to the block"). At Alexander Autographs, our sales are true live sales, with preview available for a week before the actual sale dates. Most auction houses don't offer that right, though occasionally I must think that they may ship some lots to some buyers to examine overnight. You can always ask for the same accommodation, or at the very least a fax or high resolution scan of whatever you might wish to bid upon. Bear in mind that some houses charge for that service!
Preview is especially important for discovering defects not described in the catalog or on the website: the signature could be printed, a photo could have a crease, there might be unmentioned repairs or "silking" to a letter, and so on. All of which will cause you headache and heartache when your "treasure" arrives in the mail. Previewing is also important in the case of large lots of material. I've made many thousands of dollars buying such lots because they were poorly described by an auction cataloger, and when I viewed them I discovered hidden treasures. It's like buying a Cracker Jack and finding a diamond ring inside! It really is one of the best parts of buying at auction, and gives you an advantage over those who haven't personally viewed the lot.
One note: Some auctions (but very few) withdraw their guarantee of authenticity once you've previewed, so again: READ TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF SALE VERY CAREFULLY!
Positive comments are welcome on the abovemaybe even a negative one or two...