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Why you shouldn’t sell historic art on eBay

jason slotkin Jul 29, 2013

If you had visited eBay last week looking for beanie babies or a used car you could also have stumbled on a much more historic — and supposedly valuable — item. Two sellers tried to sell the actual Schindler’s list for millions of dollars.

In a New York Post interview, one of the sellers, Eric Gazin, expressed his optimism that the item would surpass its $3 million minimum bid. In spite of Gazin’s confidence, eBay bidders rebuked the auction, without a single buyer making a bid on the list. (In addition to the price tag, Gazin required buyers to travel to Israel to collect the document.)

“Art is like real estate. History is like real estate,” says Alan Bamberger, a private art appraiser who’s written about rarities on Ebay. “How much can I buy a similar house in that neighborhood?”

Rarities, like most investments, are fraught playing fields, and Bamberger says the opacity of an online auction doesn’t help a sellers’ case. Bamberger says rarities – especially ones of note – on any auction site are “buyer beware.”

Unlike traditional auction houses or galleries, eBay puts the onus of verifying authenticity on the buyers. It also makes no demand of the provenance – or history of ownership — behind an item.

“Anything that makes it easier to sell antiquities is bad,” says archaeologist Charles Stanish, who wrote an 2009 article expressing concerns that online auctions would foment looting of precious artifacts from ancient sites. Instead, Stanish now claims, it’s spurred an uptick in the sales of forged items.

“You take away that gatekeeping function of museums and auction houses, of course it opens it up to abuse,” says Stanish.

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