Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2009 Issue

A Cautionary Tale


Swann dominates the print auction market

In the case of Swann Galleries, our concerns frequently are simply disregarded. Over the years, we have brought serious matters to their attention such as: i) descriptions of Old Master works which seemingly understate condition flaws as a matter of practice, or ii) misleading use of citations from catalogues raisonné in descriptions of works by Modern masters, or iii) identification of a large number of Modern works bearing dubious annotations and signatures as well as some fakes. With contemporary works, we have raised serious issues with condition as well as questionable signatures and annotations.

While experienced collectors and the trade may be able to identify questionable works, most collectors will not. Among the potential consequences of an injurious purchase is a decision to abandon print purchases altogether, believing that the market is filled with hidden problems. Given Swann's longstanding pattern of apparent disregard for connoisseurship, we now feel it necessary to enlist the assistance of you, our members, in our effort to encourage this auction house to be a reputable place to purchase prints. We therefore ask you to be vigilant when you review sales catalogs from Swann and to let us know if you see anything that might be problematic. This will enable us to be far more comprehensive as we continue to monitor this difficult situation.

If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact the Office.

The Board of Directors
International Fine Print Dealers Association

I then approached the association for comment and asked for specifics. The response was "no comment." In the meantime I had begun to contact members and found a revealing divide in the opinions of members. The views expressed ranged from strong support for Swann to "I'm not going to comment."

I also asked Swann for a statement in response. Nicholas Lowry, President of Swann offered this:

"Swann's operates at the highest level of responsibility and connoisseurship. When we receive a complaint from a client about items purchased which were inadvertently misrepresented in a catalogue, or about condition issues not being properly pointed out, we act to rectify the situation as best we can. This is the basis of both our success and our reputation.

For several years now the IFPDA Market Advisory Committee has been reviewing our catalogues and pointing out items (often without even seeing them in person) which they deem to be fake, misrepresented or otherwise questionable. Needless to say we take these concerns incredibly seriously and carefully review each and every one of their issues.

In cases where we proceed to offer a "questioned" item at auction, we do so having exercised our professional judgment. We are not prepared to withdraw each and every piece that may be questioned, simply on the say-so of an IFPDA member. Again, we are not infallible, but to claim that we routinely disregard concerns raised by IFPDA members, or that we act in disregard of connoisseurship, is shocking and surprising. It is also simply not the case.

Not only is Swann a reputable place to buy prints but it is ludicrous to suggest that our expansive and successful business efforts have a negative effect on the marketplace as a whole. We are saddened and perturbed that a few outspoken members of the IFPDA Board disagree with the way we have conducted our business over the past years. And while we welcome all criticism, it must be very carefully understood that Swann continues to stand behind every item we sell."

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