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ethics of listing provenance


dfowler1685
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If one buys an expensive (?maybe over $30K) violin from a dealer, you expect the dealer to provide some information about the former owner (or do you?). For the most famous master instruments, the provenance may extend to the creator of the instrument. But at an auction, and on eBay in particular, you rarely see anything specific. For example "recently got this at Skinner -- lot 79," or "purchased from xyz" where xyz is a dealer or other source. Is this just because not disclosing provenance is part of the auction tradition?

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If one buys an expensive (?maybe over $30K) violin from a dealer, you expect the dealer to provide some information about the former owner (or do you?). For the most famous master instruments, the provenance may extend to the creator of the instrument. But at an auction, and on eBay in particular, you rarely see anything specific. For example "recently got this at Skinner -- lot 79," or "purchased from xyz" where xyz is a dealer or other source. Is this just because not disclosing provenance is part of the auction tradition?

Very interesting point. In preparing my book on cases, I have occasionally resorted to items offered for sale at the big action houses. I have been refused information about who the seller of the buyer was so the item, once glimpsed, is lost to history. Even in the situation where I have been the buyer, I have met a roadblock in trying to locate the seller. They won't even pass my contact details to the seller.

I think that's a bit excessive and feel your frustration.

Glenn

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If one buys an expensive (?maybe over $30K) violin from a dealer, you expect the dealer to provide some information about the former owner (or do you?). For the most famous master instruments, the provenance may extend to the creator of the instrument. But at an auction, and on eBay in particular, you rarely see anything specific. For example "recently got this at Skinner -- lot 79," or "purchased from xyz" where xyz is a dealer or other source. Is this just because not disclosing provenance is part of the auction tradition?

First off, although the history of a 30K instrument may be interesting, there is rarely significant "provenance" attached. These days, you can easily pay more than that for a new fiddle... There are exceptions, of course.

Provenance (significant history of ownership and/or use and recording) can be wonderful... if it's known... and sometimes not so wonderful (if the item was owned by a terrible character in history)... and sometimes simply not known.

I enjoy passing along information... as a practical matter. I don't think of it as anything to do with ethics. It's often simply good business... and enjoyable. For me, the real ethics question falls on to if the last owner wishes his/her name to be disclosed or not. Some do not.

Purchases at auction, or from a private source (supplier) are either public (auction) or they aren't (private). Auction houses do not disclose the sellers unless there is a specific reason to do so (an institution selling an important instrument, for example), in part because these sellers are seen as suppliers to the house and often because the seller does not wish their identity disclosed.

I personally don't see disclosure as an important question of ethics, unless information is withheld in order to deceive the buyer. Why would you expect that a dealer would disclose a private source? Do you see it as a matter of entitlement?

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For me, the real ethics question falls on to if the last owner wishes his/her name to be disclosed or not. Some do not.

I would second this. One of the advantages of selling through a dealer is that you as a seller can remain anonymous.

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I would second this. One of the advantages of selling through a dealer is that you as a seller can remain anonymous.

Perhaps I didn't make my point clearly. No one is asking that the dealer reveal the name of the seller. That wouldn't be right. I'm asking that my contact details be passed to the seller who can then choose either to contact me or not.

When I have made such requests in the past, the answer has not been ' sorry we are too busy' it has been dressed up in ethical terms as though the auctioneer has a 'duty' to maintain chinese walls between buyer and seller.

Glenn

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That wouldn't be right. I'm asking that my contact details be passed to the seller who can then choose either to contact me or not.

Just be aware that the seller may not want to know. When we have sold instruments, we do not want to know the name of the buyer.

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I've almost given up trying to trace & record ownership of instruments in my research (almost, but not quite). It's like pulling teeth to get any information, not only from dealers & auction houses, but even private owners seem to be unduly skittish about divulging information. I keep a record of any provenance I can get, but only mention owners of some note in print, etc. I also refer to an instrument by it's original owner, if known and/or there is an original sale certificate.

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Suppose you get a good deal, maybe $1,000 purchase price at Skinner on a "Pietro Cateni" violin. Would you be A)more likely, or B)less likely to make a profit if you mention this in an eBay listing? I understand that if a "former Philadelpia violinist" asks you to sell her collection and doesn't want her name mentioned, then you shouldn't mention her name or give away other clues.

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Suppose you get a good deal, maybe $1,000 purchase price at Skinner on a "Pietro Cateni" violin. Would you be A)more likely, or B)less likely to make a profit if you mention this in an eBay listing? I understand that if a "former Philadelpia violinist" asks you to sell her collection and doesn't want her name mentioned, then you shouldn't mention her name or give away other clues.

I try to put myself in the shoes of my buyers and assume that what appeals to me will appeal to my buyers. I would rather buy a violin from someone who inherited it or stumbled upon it in the trash, or found it at a yard sale. If I know that some hustler cherry picked a few things from Skinner, say lot 79 among others, and is simply relisting them on eBay to turn a quick buck or two, it would certainly encourage me to attend the next Skinner sale more than I would feel tempted to bid. Since I buy to resell at a profit, I usually avoid the established dealers and try to find stuff slipping through the cracks that I can have for short money. If I were buying a single fiddle or two, I would be more concerned about finding the right thing from a reputable dealer who will take it back if I don't like it, than I would be trying to find a really great deal.

The big auctions are a great source as a serious buyer can pick up a dozen good things to sell. To do that one piece at a time from individual estates would take a month or two of auctions.

Jesse

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