Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
An Editorial ....
I have confession to make. I cost one of our dealers a sale the other day. A customer wanted to buy a $40 Shirley Temple pitcher but wanted me to assure her that it was an authentic early piece. I could only tell her, "I think it is" but that wasn't strong enough and she didn't buy the piece. I DO think it was a good piece... I hope. I can't be sure. The current round of fakes, which you can find at every flea market, have splotchy white paint that looks more like a poor silhouette drawing than a printed halftone image of Shirley. But there were earlier counterfeits in the 50s and 60s and 70s. In the end, the uncertainty cost the dealer a sale.
Many of us seem to have a laissez faire attitude toward the problem of fake antiques. Even the name we give them - "repros" - seems designed to leave us neutral on the problem. We seem to think that if we don't personally deal in counterfeits and if we're smart enough not to get burned by them (usually) then the problem doesn't really concern us. let someone else deal with it. How wrong that attitude is. Fakes injure all of us, dealers and collectors alike. Most collecting fields in the antiques community consist of relatively limited numbers of people collecting relatively limited numbers of objects. Consider, then, the law of supply and demand. If supply exceeds demand, the price will be low. If demand exceeds supply, the price will be high.
The supply side is obvious. Counterfeits increase the supply of the item, driving down prices. The demand side is less obvious but of even greater importance. For the collecting field to grow, new people have to continuously enter it. If supplies are stable and more people begin collecting than stop collecting, prices rise.
But the existence of counterfeits frightens away new collectors. They're afraid to buy the Shirley Temple glass because it might be a fake. They're afraid to buy cast iron toys or pattern glass or Roseville vases because they might be fakes. They're afraid to begin collecting! The existence of counterfeits also scares existing collectors. Will prices stagnate or collapse? Some of them sell off their collections, increasing supply. The number of collectors shrinks, demand shrinks, supplies increase, prices fall.
Everyone is hurt - dealers with inventory, collectors with devalued items, novices afraid to enter the world of antiques.
There are three approaches that can be taken to protect the antiques community from these counterfeiters.
First is education. This requires that the antiques community publicize counterfeits as they are identified and it requires collectors to pay attention and learn their fields. But this is not adequate. It is all well and good to say that collectors should educate themselves on fakes and the most serious collectors do. But there are peripheral collectors who can't make the study of 19th c. pattern glass their life's avocation. Nonetheless, they like it and provide a substantial portion of the consumer demand for it. If they're scared off, the market collapses. We've had conversations with dealers who've said it isn't up to them to educate the customers - they should know what they're doing before they buy. Well, If we all had to know what we were doing before we bought things, there'd be a lot less buying going on!
Second is legal action. There are efforts underway to pass legislation that will require adequate marking of counterfeit antiques. We should vigorously support those efforts. But it's difficult to believe that there are not adequate laws on the books to address already. How can the fake Roseville be anything but massive consumer fraud!? It's not that there are no laws; it's that there is no one interested in enforcing them. The government is willing to prosecute people for selling fake Jordache jeans or pirated music tapes, even chasing down peddlars on street corners and at flea markets. Why doesn't it prosecute the peddlars of counterfeit roseville pottery? Can it be because when major corporations make a fuss about their lost sales the government listens, but when mere citizens get burned on a piece of fake roseville it's not important enough to prompt action?
In the 1970s, there was a flood of counterfeit political campaign buttons. That struck close to the politicians and their pocketbooks and produced prompt action. Congress passed legislation requiring that all copies of buttons be dated and marked with the name of the manufacturer, promptly ending flood (though the fake buttons are still around to cheat and confuse the public.) The same could have been done for all antiques and collectibles. Why wasn't it? We are hoping that a few Congressional wives and mothers take a real bath on their Roseville collections. Maybe that will spur Congress to act to protect the rest of us.
The third tactic (and ultimately the most effective one) is economic action against those who participate in the distribution of these counterfeits. We need a sense of righteous indignation in the antiques community. Of course we shouldn't sell the counterfeits in our own shops, but we should be doing much more. We should refuse to patronize dealers and auction houses that act as distributors for the counterfeiters. The reproduction houses produce the fake roseville for a couple dollars apiece and sell it as a clearly labeled fake to dealers and auction houses for about $8. Once that sale occurs, they've got their profit and can move on to the task of producing their next counterfeit. It is the dealer or auction that bought it that peels off the paper label and smears dirt on the item and tries to peddle it to naive buyer for $60 or $80 or more. Thus the secondary dealers and auctioneers are both supporting the producers and acting as pushers.
If you get stuck with a fake, try to return it to the source, and raise HELL until they take it back. If they won't, bite your wallet and take the loss. Call it a cheap lesson in dealing only with honest members of the antiques community.
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