Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2010 Issue

New York State Considers (Weakened) Auction Regulations

Richardbrodsky

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky submitted New York's auction reform bill.


By Michael Stillman


A significant piece of legislation designed to regulate auctions is working its way through the New York State legislature. While what happens in one out of 50 states in one out of a couple of hundred countries in the world may not sound that important, New York is the auction capital of the United States if not the world. Changes in New York do matter.

The bill, sponsored by Westchester County (just north of New York City) Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who has been sponsoring consumer-oriented legislation for two decades, is designed to make the auction process more transparent to bidders. While some parts of this bill may be a bit burdensome for auction houses, other parts should be beneficial to bidders. Though we don't know whether the auction houses agree with the provisions, one key area appears to have been sufficiently watered down to perhaps make it palatable to them.

Assemblyman Brodsky's bill, "An act to amend the general business law, in relation to auction requirements," was passed by the New York State Assembly on a vote of 142-1. It seems unlikely, considering the margin, that the New York State Senate would defeat it, the greater risk being it gets bottled up and dies in committee. This has happened before.

In a prior version, the most controversial section of this legislation was one designed to throw light on hidden reserves, and what some call "sham," "phantom," or "chandelier" bidding. This is a process where an auction house starts the bidding at a number below an unannounced reserve price (the reserve being the minimum price at which the auction house will sell the item). If a bidder makes an offer below the reserve, the auction house may then make a higher bid. It's referred to as a "sham" bid as the bidder (the house) has no intention of actually buying the object. The purpose is to drive the bids up to the reserve price or higher. If the bidder thinks he or she is bidding against another real buyer, or just gets caught up in the frenzy, he may place a higher bid than he would if he realized the competing bids were "shams."

The current bill provides several provisions to limit or throw light on this practice, but it does not prohibit it, and a strong transparency provision from the earlier version has been eliminated. Brodsky's legislation requires that auction houses disclose whether an item is subject to a reserve price, though the reserve price need not be disclosed. Once the reserve price has been met, an auctioneer may no longer bid on behalf of a consignor, nor may auctioneer or consignor bid on their own behalf without revealing their status. In other words, no undisclosed "sham" bids once the reserve has been reached. Meanwhile, the reserve price may not be any higher than the minimum estimated price (if there is one).

The piece that was removed from an earlier proposal was a requirement that so-called "sham" bids be identified by the auctioneer as being "for the consignor." This would have prevented undisclosed "sham" bids below the reserve as well as above it. Other bidders would know the price was being pushed up by the auction house, not another true bidder. Under the revised legislation, bids made by the auctioneer below the reserve would not be so identified. Buyers would know that this was a possibility by the announcement that items were subject to a reserve (provided they understood the implications), but would have no way of knowing, on any individual item, whether the bidding was real or "sham" since the "for the consignor" requirement was stripped from the bill.

When the original bill was filed several years ago, it included the following "justification" to require disclosure of all "sham" bidding: "Acceptance of a sham bid by an auctioneer on behalf of an auction house is essentially a deceptive practice. There is no justifiable reason to permit the taking of fake bids without disclosure of this practice to the public. The theatrical benefits created by this practice are far outweighed by the public's right to be informed of the acceptance of such bids during the auction process. This theatrical game playing is akin to pulling the wool over the consumer's eyes. Identification of the acceptance of such bids with the phrase 'for the consignor' would put an end to the chicanery being perpetrated by the auction houses." This wording is no longer mentioned in the current bill. By implication, the current bill continues to allow a certain amount of "chicanery."

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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