Have you ever had a hankering for a burger? A craving so strong, so compelling, that you’d favor efficiency over quality? Maybe cost factors into it—you don’t need a $45 foie-gras-stuffed truffle burger from The Boom Boom Room to sate your craving. You spot a McDonald’s drive through up ahead and you almost careen into the concrete road divider.
“I’ll have a Big Mac with a large fries and a small Coke.”
“$9.82, drive up to the next window.” The attendant hands you your meal through the window.
You rip into the bag and unwrap your Big Mac like a rogue dieter, fresh from a Weight Watcher’s meeting. The bun is a little sad looking, wrinkled and saggy, like maybe that nice attendant at the window sat on said bun. Still, it’s a burger. You bite into it and the flavors begin to fuse as you chew—a hint of mayo, the tang of pickles, perhaps a soupçon of mystery meat. Maybe some ketchup will help.
You grab a packet of Heinz and realize that this 25¢ packet is the only part of your meal that carries some cachet. This sad-sack-of-a-burger’s only commonality to that fois gras delight, that burger upon a hill, is its accouterment: Ketchup.
Now imagine that instead of wasting $9.82, you’ve just spent $3,768.45 (before taxes and a buyer’s premium) on what you believed to be an authentic work of art. And when you return to the scene of the crime for answers, you only have a sign to greet you—“Out of Business.”
On March 1, Auctionata, a German-based online auction site, hung its “Out of Business” sign after filing for insolvency. Amid rumors of illegal auction practices, serious downsizing, and failing to pay its employees, the company, which sought its Messianic investor, had no choice but to fold. Van der Vorst sold Value My Stuff to Auctionata in 2015 for an undisclosed sum; he repurchased his company earlier this year for £120,000, a price tag that we can only assume made him smile.
According to Van der Vorst’s online bio, he’s hoping to “demystify the fine art and antiques world and make it more accessible,” what we can only assume is Value My Stuff’s informal mission statement. Van der Vorst’s burgeoning business apparently appraises up to 300 items a day.
For those of us who aren’t willing to wait in line for hours at an Antiques Roadshow or make the trip to an auction house location, an appraisal delivered to your inbox in 2 business days, as per the site’s guarantee, seems pretty great. But you have to wonder—how precise, to the dollar amount, could a valuation be that’s delivered in under 48 hours?
If Van der Vorst’s business model is anything like Auctionata’s, there’s a reason that your valuation is so swiftly delivered to your inbox— because the company imposes a strict ten-minute time limit for its experts to appraise your item. At least, that’s what internal emails from Auctionata employees indicate.
On August 1, 2012, Auctionata’s Senior Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, Noel Chhut, sent an email to the site’s expert appraisers; in it, he describes “a new and unique feature” on the site— the opportunity for private sellers to sell “qualified” items through Auctionata. The items are “not processed by Auctionata in-house but remain in the seller’s possession until the sale is finalised (sic).”
So what makes these items “qualified?” In their Terms & Conditions, Auctionata specifies, “There are valuations which are done based upon several photos taken by the customer himself and valuations for which an expert from Auctionata will visit the customer on-site.”
Chhut explains in the email to expert appraisers that “for items under 3,500 EUR, please do not spend more than 10 minutes on your assessment.” Chhut asks that the ten-minute valuation include the following: an item description, date of origin, artist/manufacturer name, measurements/weight, an artist signature/monogram and of course, the item’s fair market value. If that sounds like a lot of information to gather in ten minutes or less, know that “Auctionata requires sellers to provide details and photos immediately to expedite your valuation.” So basically, the seller, not the “expert,” provides all of the information a prospective buyer sees before placing his or her bid—except for the valuation.
Noel Chhut declined to comment when approached via e-mail.
An art dealer who was approached by Auctionata (and wishes to remain anonymous) expressed his concerns in an email to Chhut: “I have been in business long enough to know that you really need to see and handle an item to judge if genuine, [a] reproduction, or heavily repaired.”
Bob* was requested to appraise only two items during his five years as an employee of Auctionata; “I was sent a couple of very poor photos from which it was only possible to gage very limited knowledge. I asked for much more information but none was forthcoming and therefore I put very, very low estimates forward. I do not know if the items sold. This happened on only two occasions.” Contrary to Auctionata’s Terms & Conditions, Bob was never asked to appraise an item in person. Shortly thereafter, Bob received a stream of emails from Auctionata, suggesting that he list several items from his personal art collection on the site, perhaps to lend credibility to the items being sold.
“You do not need to be Sherlock Holmes to understand the conflict of interest here. I did not put anything into their auctions and had little contact with Auctionata. I have been in business for a very long time and pride myself that I can smell a con coming a mile away.”
Auctionata’s inventory is a lot like that Big Mac. Sometimes, novelty creates false value— the thought of a quick, cheap burger is appealing in much the same way as a competitively priced Warhol lithograph— especially when an “expert” has appraised the item and guaranteed its authenticity.
The primary concern is obvious— the item, the images, even the details are provided by the individual listing the item on Auctionata. No matter the dollar amount an appraiser assigns to the item, his or her valuation lends credibility to the item's authenticity and implied worth. Unlike blindly bidding on a $1,250 Warhol lithograph that’s listed on Ebay, art collectors pay a buyer’s premium to ensure that what they’re buying has been properly sourced. It’s an implicit admission that as a novice, you have neither the expertise nor education in fine art to know the difference between a well-executed forgery and the authentic article. It’s also an insurance policy— in the very unlikely event that the item turns out to be forged, then at least you can bring it back to the gallery and demand a refund; the gallerist would be so mortified to find that he’d sold you a fraud that he’d gladly refund your money; and he’d do it fast in the interest of protecting his reputation. While you could sue Auctionata for selling you a forgery, you’d be out the cost of a lawyer and find yourself no better off—you can hardly garner damages from a company that’s declared bankruptcy.
The allure is understandable— bidding online is usually cheaper and certainly easier than going into a gallery in SoHo and trying to negotiate a Chagall serigraph down to a palatable price, especially when you’re looking to get the biggest bang for your buck. But there’s a reason that art dealers exist, and it’s not just for the novelty of having a “dealer.” Millennials are focused on the ease of online everything: It’s the instant gratification of acquiring something you want as soon as you realize that you want it. It makes sense that when we see something we like, we’d rather hit a button that says “bid” than make an appointment at a gallery to assess our object of desire. But wouldn’t you rather know exactly what you’re getting— the Big Mac or a foie gras truffle burger?
Auctionata may have been a con of sorts, but the issue still stands— no matter how erudite an art expert you are, attempting to appraise an item whose information is entirely self-reported by the seller is not ethical, especially when you’re tasked with appraising the item from “a couple of very poor photos” and in under ten minutes. With those odds, even a burger aficionado could fall prey to a Big Mac. That “expert” valuation that sites like Auctionata and Value My Stuff touts is a consolation prize. It’s smoke in mirrors. It’s that packet of Heinz ketchup that McDonald’s throws in the bag so that you forget you’re eating a Big Mac.
Van der Vort doesn’t seem to think this is a problem. And even though his site, Value My Stuff, isn’t directly facilitating sales, it aims to inform people as to what their item is worth. If the valuation is lower than the item’s actual worth, then that person is losing money when he sells. And if the valuation is higher? Well, that’s one pricey Big Mac.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of our source.