Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2009 Issue

A Cautionary Tale


The fundamental issues are straightforward: the occasional disagreement about description and an ongoing concern that two step access to condition reports may imply to inexperienced bidders that the primary description is sufficient basis for bidding. Most IFPDA dealers disagree.

Swann handles condition reports on a request basis while some other auction houses include extensive condition information in their posted listings. Such requests to Swann are, without exception, honored but, as one dealer explained, "you have to know these reports are important. Nothing in the description tells you this. Years ago I had a problem with Swann on a lot. I had bid without requesting the condition report and was disappointed when the lot arrived. I was later able to reach a satisfactory conclusion and ever since have routinely requested condition reports. In my view such reports are a requirement, not an option."

Swann's descriptions, while including contact language do not include a warning that failure to request such reports may result in buyer disappointment. For both the casual and the yet to become expert buyer, bidding without knowledge of the condition may lead to more aggressive bidding than the print's condition warrants. This reality is fundamental to dealer concerns. The descriptions can be seen in two lights. Professionals know to look into condition and occasionally end up losing out to bidders who they suspect do not examine condition reports.

IFPDA dealers who consign to Swann, not surprisingly, do not see it the same way.

Because the IFPDA letter was released midway through a punishing year for dealers, auctions and buyers, and the fact it is a public letter, not posted on the association site but nevertheless available from dealers who chose to share it, the statements "in the case of Swann Galleries, our concerns frequently are simply disregarded;" "while experienced collectors and the trade may be able to identify questionable works, most collectors will not;" and "given Swann's longstanding pattern of apparent disregard for connoisseurship,..." together seem a bit self-serving. They seem to suggest their high standards require they point out Swann's are lower. Tarring Swann with a pail of dry negatives that reads like an under-the-radar PR release strengthens the association at the expense of Swann without forthrightly addressing the issues. The absence of specifics compromises their case.

Separately, other issues relating to authenticity have been raised sub-rosa but the association declines to comment and Swann's denies such issues have been raised. Again, specifics are lacking.

For the issues that are in view the remedy seems straightforward.

[1] On Swann's part, barriers to condition reports can be minimized while their importance to dealers and collectors emphasized.

[2] Statements of concern by this association, its members, other appropriate associations and their members could be, subject to review by Swann, attached to the lot descriptions as notes.

[3] Swann can reaffirm its warranty, its time limit and duration.

In the downturn economic pressures on both sides are exacerbating the disagreement. Books have pneumonia while prints have a cold. The print business will come roaring back. Let nothing be said in a moment of uncertainty that is out-of-place in the continuum. Both sides need each other.


The IFPDA, the International Fine Print Dealers Association.

The IFPDA Print Fair in New York City November 5-8.

Swann Galleries.

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