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  • Beware of Fraudulent Estate Sales

    Q: I went to an estate sale at the home of a prominent local citizen where I bought a Chiparus bronze, a couple of Miro bronzes, and several oriental carpets, all for about $15,000. The estate had a large amount of art including many pictures, lots of oriental rugs, and about thirty bronzes by Remington, Erte, Miro, and Chiparus. I started researching the bronze by Chiparus and found out that he's a very famous artist. Can you tell me what it's worth? I have a feeling I made a fantastic buy.

    A: The good news is that you paid reasonable retail prices for everything you bought and weren't overcharged. The not-so-good news is that your buys were nowhere near bargains. The bad news is that the sculptures are recasts of originals (reproductions) and are brand new, the rugs are all brand new copies of old designs, and the punchline? None of these pieces belonged to the so-called "estate" where they were sold.

    You're right about Chiparus being a famous French sculptor who was active during the early part of this century, but since your sculpture is a reproduction-- a recast and not an original-- it has only decorative value and minimal resale value. Recasts like this and your Miro bronzes-- also recasts-- are common, cheap to produce, subject to high mark-ups by dealers, usually made by commercial contract foundries in countries like Mexico and China, and are usually sold at "tourist trap" types of art galleries and collectibles stores. The same goes for your rugs. They're low-end, brand new, common, cheap to produce, heavily marked up by dealers, primarily decorative, and not worth much on the resale market.

    A crime has been committed here and you're the victim. You thought you were buying old original art and rugs from a private party's estate, but you weren't. These items did not come from a prominent individual's personal collection, but were instead trucked in from outside sources by the company conducting the sale. The sale was advertised like an estate sale when, in fact, it was a way for unscrupulous dealers to sell new merchandise out of someone's home instead of out of a store.

    Steve Proffitt, attorney, auction expert, and "Auction Time" columnist for AntiqueWeek calls this practice "house-packing" and it's against the law. When items in an estate sale are advertised as being part of that estate, but really aren't, that constitutes fraud, false advertising, and misrepresentation on the part of the sellers. Buyers are tricked into believing that they're buying a certain type of merchandise when the items they're really buying are totally different.

    The main reason why disreputable sellers occasionally engage in house-packing and conduct fake estate sales is they know that people normally attend these events to hunt for bargains. Unsuspecting sale goers believe that they're buying along with the dealers and are buying at dealer prices. For instance, you would probably never go into a gallery and pay the exact same prices that you paid for what you bought at this estate sale because you believe that galleries sell at retail and estates sell at wholesale. But that's essentially what you did-- you paid retail gallery prices at a bogus "private" sale.

    By applying a little basic logic to situations like this, you can determine the nature of any collection that's being offered at an estate sale, and avoid getting taken. In this case, for example, a sculpture collection consisting of Remington, Miro, Erte, and Chiparus bronzes is not very believable. Bronze collectors usually collect pieces by specific artists or with specific subject matters. Subject matters and artists as divergent as abstract Miros, Art Deco Chiparus's and Ertes, and American West Remingtons are rarely found in the same collection. Furthermore, walls packed with art, multiple sculptures in every room, and oriental rugs covering every floor are also rarely found in a single estate. Other tip-offs to house-packing are multiple duplicate pieces of furniture or household goods, such as six dining room tables, dozens of lamps, or 20 sets of salt and pepper shakers.

    Anytime you're in an estate and the property that's up for sale doesn't look like what you'd find in an ordinary average house, be suspicious. Ask sellers a few simple questions in order to separate out the real sales from the bogus ones. Whenever a sale is billed as unique or special in some way, ask for the name of the collector. Also ask for printed information about the history of the collection like newspaper or magazine articles. Ask directly whether all items in the estate belonged to the people who owned the house. When you have any doubts about what sellers tell you or you can't get straight answers to your questions about items at a sale, do your shopping elsewhere.

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