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P U B L I S H E R ' S   N O T E S

Thoughts on Cyberspace
May/June 2001

Computers have come to effect nearly every aspect of life as we know it. And inevitably, they have come to affect decoy collecting too.

A few years ago when eBay, the popular Internet auction site, hit the scene, collectors either flocked to it as an opportunity to sell their inventory to an otherwise unexposed audience, or fretted that its success would limit the number of people who come to decoy shows as the only avenue to buy and sell. Both responses were warranted.

Yes, decoys that might have passed through a decoy show over the years have turned up on eBay. But the operative words are "might have." Most of the decoys that are sold there would just as likely have sold through a local auction house or antique shop. In fact, a number of the items that sold have sold on eBay were listed by collectors who are aware of and attend decoy shows – they simply didn’t trust the prices offered by collectors.

Truthfully, most of the decoys sold on eBay are listed by decoy dealers themselves. They have discovered that it’s tough to sell low-end decoys at shows and have found another avenue to move them. Some dealers even buy decoys at shows with the intent on listing them on eBay. So it has actually increased the number of sales at many shows. Sounds pretty positive here.

Recently the computer has begun to provide an opportunity for collectors to bid on decoys at auction without even having to attend. icollector.com, a firm that specializes in integrating live auctions into cyberspace, hooked both Ted Harmon’s March sale and Guyette & Schmidt’s April sale onto eBay, allowing interested parties to follow the sale live and participate in its bidding. For those eBay enthusiasts who are used to bidding on the leftovers from decoy shows, this was a first opportunity for most to see quality decoys actually being offered for sale. And to those who were unaware that decoy shows and auctions exist, this could well be the enticement to coerce them to attend.

Gary Guyette contends that the relationship was very beneficial, while acknowledging that there were many problems. Over a week prior to the auction icollector.com had posted all the photos from the catalog on eBay’s website, actually allowing for presale bidding. They bought nearly 30 lots during the sale and underbid quite a few more. They were "a major factor in the bidding on the fish decoys," Gary said.

The problems were mostly organizational, consisting of billing and price key mistakes. And it proved a bit confusing for Jim Julia, the auctioneer, who wasn’t used to a bidder bidding against themselves – the computer operator bid for anyone online, sometimes offering two or more consecutive bids. Until icollector.com fine tunes the procedure, Guyette & Schmidt intends to sit it out at the next sale. But "they did a lot of work," Gary contends, and "we’ll use it in the future." This sounds like a positive development as well.

But with every positive there’s a negative. Just as the computer has allowed those with little decoy knowledge to purchase online, it presents a great opportunity to take advantage of those very customers. At decoy shows most dealers are a bit restrained from offering outright bogus material – there are simply too many knowledgeable people in the room. But out in cyberspace….well, there’s simply less protection from rogue dealers (re: thieves).

I don’t want to discredit credible dealers who honestly represent their inventory and guarantee it unconditionally. The majority of items fall under this category. But I’ve often seen descriptions that read "pintail with weight on bottom that reads Perdew, Henry, Illinois." We may never know if this was an honest description or whether the seller knew he had a pintail by contemporary carver Charlie Moore who specializes in reproductions of Perdews. And how many Mason Standard grade wood ducks have appeared in its listings? More than were ever made at the factory, that’s for sure.

Recently someone sent me a printout of a couple items listed for sale by a seller that goes by the name amersprit, who resides in Maryland. He offered separately two decoys by Ira Hudson, a feeding yellowlegs and a hooded merganser. The seller describes the pieces as "completely original" and "museum quality." Claiming they were purchased in the early 1960s from Hudson’s grandson. Both items carried a reserve, but, the seller claimed, "only a fraction of what Hudsons" are worth. The seller also insisted that "in any decent decoy auction" the yellowlegs would bring $6000 and the hooded merganser would bring $4000. Examples of each have actually brought over $40,000 at public sale. But the seller chose to allow the shorebird to sell for $1527 and the merganser was at $995 with a few hours to go. What’s up with this?

Now I’m not suggesting there was necessarily foul play. The seller gives a 30 day money back guarantee and recommends that the buyer "x-ray it or have an ‘expert’ of your choice examine it. It just reeks of suspicion that someone would knowingly sell an item, any item, for well below the street value. Would you buy a brand new Mercedes for $10,000? I’ve not been offered one yet.

A friend suggested I buy the decoys, have them examined, and return them if they’re not right – just as the seller recommends. If they’re not properly listed, there’s no financial loss, and if they’re right, I just got a steal. I could do that and so could many others. But let’s agree that most of the "suspicious" items land in the lap of a novice, who has no idea what he or she just bought. But they like it. And they buy more. Serves them right, many would say, for thinking they can steal decoys at a fraction of their value. But how are they to know?

No loss, right? Wrong. One day a new collector who was introduced to decoys through the Internet discovers the wide world of decoy shows. Enthusiastic and with a wallet of money to spend, they show up to add to the collection. They talk to a couple of dealers, decide to have their new collection appraised, and realize the ruse.

Unfortunately this is the way many new collectors are chased from the scene. Unless decoy collectors are willing to take an active role in policing the industry, at shows or though the Internet (eBay buyers can be e-mailed), deception will continue to eat into our profits.