Removing Problem Sellers from eBay is not Easy
(If you'd like to learn how criminals commit art fraud on eBay, please read Make Big Money Selling Fake Art on eBay.)
Update posted August 23, 2004 and continues in effect as of March 2, 2008: Online auctions such as eBay continue to be among the most dangerous places for inexperienced bidders to shop for art. Beware of sellers offering signed art by famous artists like Picasso, Chagall, Dali, and Miro. Artbusiness.com offers a series of articles, called Art Picks from eBay, to help bidders buy art intelligently. Find the complete series in the Articles for Collectors section.
Update posted June 15, 2001: Itchmael (not this seller's true user ID) appears to have been removed from eBay. Removing him took a while, as you're about to find out. Perhaps, one day, the Itchmaels of the online auction world will be removed with far greater dispatch. The original article follows...
Call him Itchmael. Itchmael sells art on eBay which, by itself, has little news value. But Itchmael doesn't sell ordinary regular everyday art. He sells questionable art like forgeries and works of poor quality. He describes this art with words like rare, prized, museum quality, major, and famous. Since I began watching Itchmael late in August of 1999, he's conducted hundreds of auctions.
In September 1999, I wrote an article for Antique Week, America's widest read antiques and collectibles newspaper, about the perils of online auctions based primarily on the antics of Itchmael and sellers like him. In it, I warn people to be careful when bidding online, not to take item descriptions for granted, and to make sure they know what they're bidding on before they bid. I warn people that the online auction model makes it easy for sellers like Itchmael to operate. That job completed, I moved on to other things and pretty much forgot about the Itchmaels of the online auction world. But Itchmael was not out of my life for long.
In early March 2000, a collector from the midwest contacts me through ArtBusiness.com requesting an appraisal of a painting that he's recently paid over $20,000 for. In our initial phone conversation, he tells me that the painting is by an important artist and I concur with him that he bought it for a bargain price. I proceed to ask him a number of questions about the painting's history and, as the conversation progresses, become increasingly uneasy with his answers. When he finally tells me that he bought the painting on eBay, I can't help but ask him if he's ever heard of Itchmael. The answer is, unfortunately, yes. Itchmael sold him the painting.
Before describing what happened next, let me testify that I love eBay. I buy on eBay and I sell on eBay. I believe that the online auction model pioneered by eBay represents possibly the greatest advance ever in the history of buying and selling antiques, collectibles, and fine art. Having said that, let's continue with the saga of Itchmael.
After the collector finishes his story, I refer him to a nationally recognized expert on the artist who supposedly painted his painting. As I suspect, the art turns out to be a forgery. The collector is advised of this, he informs the seller, the seller at first resists returning the money, but eventually does. The refund does not come easily, however, and without going into detail, plays out over the next two weeks in a thoroughly unpleasant, if not painful, manner. The happy ending, though, is that the collector gets his money back.
While all this is going on, I continue to monitor Itchmael's activities on eBay. He's averaging about 30 works of art for sale on any given day. A number of these pieces are not by the artists that they're described as being by; most others are, at the very least, inferior examples misrepresented as being far more significant than they actually are. I decide I'd better contact eBay, inform them of Itchmael's activities, and this is where the story really gets interesting.
I feel that this situation is serious enough to bypass the normal channels for complaints, and call eBay's chief attorney, Jay Moneghan. I introduce myself, state my qualifications as a syndicated columnist, owner of an art business website, and someone who's knowledgeable about art. I then tell the Itchmael tale. Moneghan agrees that this warrants further attention and refers me to Rob Chestnut, eBay's attorney in charge of system abuses. I repeat everything to Chestnut and he says he'll have an expert at Butterfields, the California-based auction firm owned by eBay, check Itchmael out. I figure they'll investigate him, agree that they have a problem on their hands, and either reprimand or ban him from eBay in short order.
Several days later, I speak again with Chestnut. He tells me that a Butterfields painting expert examined Itchmael's offerings and didn't find any problems except perhaps with one piece. I reply that a nationally recognized art expert has already declared one of Itchmael's offerings to be a forgery-- an expert far more respected than the Butterfields expert. This makes little difference to Chestnut. He tells me that he's sufficiently investigated the situation and that he does not intend to pursue things further.
I then ask what he would do if Scot Levitt, the head of the Department of American Paintings at Butterfields, contacts him and tells him that a second Itchmael picture is a forgery. He says that would be different and he'd probably have to look into things further if that were the case. I call Levitt and ask him to look at another Itchmael painting. He does so and instantly agrees that it's a fake. At my request, he says he'll call Chestnut and report the findings.
A few days later, I speak with Chestnut. He tells me that he's spoken with Levitt, that two pieces now appear to be problematic, but that that's not enough to warrant eBay's taking disciplinary action-- he needs more. He tells me he doesn't have time to go after these types of people. He tells me that he prefers to get his information about spurious offerings on eBay from experts at Butterfields rather than from outside experts. He tells me that he has a huge amount of work to do and cannot spend inordinate amounts of time chasing after a single seller. Itchmael wins the first round.
But I'm just warming up. Over the next several weeks I send Chestnut a series of emails. I offer to work with eBay to help address situations where sellers misrepresent works of art. I offer to put together a group of experts in various fields to provide additional input and insights into abuses by sellers at eBay.
I also suggest changes to the eBay model-- changes that could be spun into great PR. One such change involves permanently archiving all sales results over a set dollar amount so that sellers who misrepresent their merchandise can be more easily tracked. Another involves having roving specialists make random checks of auction items in their areas of expertise. These specialists might have the power to question or to warn problem sellers or to place weighted feedback into their feedback profiles. A third suggestion involves revising buyer and seller guidelines to include techniques that buyers can use to evaluate seller offerings, and tips that sellers can use to make their descriptions more accurate. Chestnut goes back and forth with me a bit on these, but pretty soon he stops responding.
I'm getting nowhere fast. I'm so irritated that I'm making tons of phone calls, sending boatloads of emails, and complaining to everyone from fellow writers to editors to dealers to specialists in other fields about how difficult eBay is to work with. I'm spending hours and hours online monitoring the activities of Itchmael and sellers like him (he's not alone, fine art is not the only merchandise that sellers misrepresent, and eBay is not the only auction site with this problem). I'm making files of fake art complete with pictures, descriptions, and seller ID's. Athough almost everyone I speak with is supportive, hardly anyone in the right places is listening.
I continue to receive no response from eBay to any of my efforts until, one evening, a contact at Butterfields informs me that I've made enough waves for the president of the auction house, Patrick Meade, to agree to speak with me. At long last I've fought my way to the top and I'm going to get my case heard and something's going to be done about Itchmael and about improving the quality of eBay's online auction model and the world will be a better place and we'll all live happily ever after.
So I speak with Patrick Meade, and I tell him everything. He's most supportive, says he'll look into these matters, and that we'll speak again soon. We do just that about a week later, he once again agrees that something should be done, and that's the last I ever hear from him. At this point, I'm considering forfeiting the match to Itchmael.
I try once again at the beginning of May 2000-- a full two months after this whole episode began-- to contact Mr. Meade. Out of pure exasperation, I leave a message on his voicemail stating that Itchmael is back once again on eBay with whole new array of problem art. I'm still waiting for a call back.
So it went. Itchmael did me in. I'm back to minding my own business and in the process of healing when, early one morning, I get a phone call from Judith Dobrzynski, a writer for the New York Times. Yes-- I had complained to them too, back in the good old days when I thought I could make a difference, and I guess they had saved my name. Dobrzynski wants to know whether Itchmael is the same seller as the one in Sacramento who has supposedly placed a Diebenkorn painting up for sale on eBay, and sold it for over $135,000. I tell her no, we talk a bit, she interviews me, and ends up quoting me in an article about the controversy surrounding this sale. At last, I think, the New York Times-- the most powerful newspaper in the world-- has gotten a hold of the story and something huge is about to happen. My lowly mission has been resurrected from dust and is now in the hands of the power media, the big boys (and girls) who can really make a difference.
Over the next couple of weeks, Dobrzynski writes three more articles about problems with eBay, again quotes me in one of them, and informs me that people in positions of authority will be looking into the antics of Itchmael and others like him. I know this is it. Triumph! If nothing else, Itchmael will finally be banned from eBay forever.
But he's not banned. He continues to sell and, as of September 29, 2000, he has over 50 works of art for sale on eBay. I call Tom Hoepf, an editor at Antique Week newspaper, tell him about my Itchmael adventures, and submit the story. He accepts it for publication, but the editorial department pulls it at the last minute, possibly due to concerns over the negative impact it might have on the paper's future advertising revenues. I give up again-- I'm used to it by now-- and decide to the put the whole matter to rest-- again.
For nostalgia's sake, I continue to monitor Itchmael's eBay activities every now and then. Over the next number of months, though, he becomes increasingly bolder and puts more and more problem art up for sale on eBay. By February 2001, I can no longer contain myself-- again. I call Scot Levitt at Butterfields-- again-- and ask him to look at several of Itchmael's offerings. Levitt agrees that the works I show him are not properly represented, and he tells me that not only does he personally notify certain eBay sellers from time to time about possible problems with their listings, but that he'll contact the appropriate authorities at eBay and have Itchmael dealt with. As of today, April 23, 2001, Itchmael has 62 items up for sale on eBay.
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