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Auctioneers — whether selling live and/or online — routinely take pictures of the property offered.

As well, in hopes of limiting liability, many auctioneers are using more pictures, and less accompanying descriptive text.

In this way, a buyer is less able to claim his purchase was, “not as described.” Essentially, this means bidders must rely on photos more and more to make informed decisions.

Sellers too rely on the photos to portray an accurate description of what is being offered in order to maximize their position. Presumably, if a bidder doesn’t feel the pictures are accurate, or don’t provide sufficient information to bid, they won’t.

Here we have a poster, described on an auction site as a “March 8, 1971 Muhammad Ali — Joe Frazier 1st fight large poster in good condition.” Tim is an interested buyer, looking to hang this poster in his media room.

In fact, Tim has been researching these posters for some time. Most all of these March 8, 1971 posters are about 13″ x 19″.

However, only a few were made for the outside of Madison Square Garden in New York, which were nearly 6′ tall, and mounted on a slightly darker brownish background to increase their durability and stability.

As Tim looks at this particular poster, he sees remnants of a brownish background around the edge, and thinks possibly this is one of the 6′ tall posters, rather than one of the many 13″ x 19″ versions.

Yet, the description only notes, “large” as the size. Tim thinks some people consider the 13″ x 19″ posters are large, while he would consider that size to be the “smaller” size, and the 6′ version large.

To complicate Tim’s situation, this poster is being offered in an auction in New York — and Tim is in California.

Despite there being preview opportunities afforded by the auctioneer (Thursday 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. prior to the start of the online auction) it isn’t particularly practical for Tim to fly to New York for a firsthand inspection.

Tim considers contacting the auctioneer hosting the auction, but wants to get the best deal he can on the poster.

He thinks possibly if he asks the exact size — and this is indeed one of the rare 6′ versions, the site may be updated, and then other bidders would be alerted.

Generally, despite if the auction is online and/or live, there are all too common problems with pictures on auction websites:

  • Color — colors are not reproduced exactly in any photograph.
  • Detail — the eye can see levels of detail well beyond what a picture can express.
  • Focus — photos display a focus on one fixed plane while the eye shifts focus rapidly, seeing objects in real life with various focal points.
  • Size — Even if an exact size is noted in the description, a picture can override that description in the mind of a viewer.
  • Scale — a 6′ tall poster can look just like a 13″ x 19″ poster, for example.
  • Sound — how does that cabinet door sound when opened? Do those speakers have any static? Does that motor run completely smooth?
  • Smell — does the wood on that antique chest smell musty? How about traces of smoke, water, paint, mold, glue …?
  • Incomplete (Weaknesses) — a damaged corner, bad side or other material defect is not disclosed by leaving out or otherwise not picturing that particular feature.
  • Incomplete (Strengths) — a rare mark, intricate carving, serial numbers or just the “wow” factor of the item viewed live can be left out or hard to capture in a picture.
  • Photoshop — A term commonly used as a verb as well as a noun. Software is routinely used to alter photographs.

Looking again at this boxing poster, both sides to this issue are apparent:

For Tim:

    1. He is uncertain the true size and scale of the poster.
    2. It isn’t apparent if or how the poster smells and/or if there are other latent issues.
    3. The edges and back of the poster can’t be viewed.
    4. It isn’t clear the colors are the same in the picture as they are in real life.

For the seller:

    1. This picture doesn’t materially differentiate between the 13″ x 19″ poster and the 6′ version.
    2. The “wow” factor of particularly the 6′ version is lost in this picture.
    3. The back and/or edges may well have material issues, although they are not pictured.
    4. By hoping to guard against liability, the true nature, size, shape and provenance of this poster is lacking. Is such protection worth the likely reduction in net return?

For one aspect of these auction-picture issues, a live auction is distinctly different than an online-only auction.

  • In a live auction, the bidders are actually looking at the item they are bidding on — when they are bidding — and not just a picture.
  • An online-only auction forces the bidder — even if they have previewed the item — to bid “by picture.”

Before eBay.com and online-only auctions, pictures were used as merely the “tease” to get people to attend a live auction; pictures were not used as a material part of the contract between seller and buyer, upon “Sold!”

Now, pictures are used in many cases as the only means bidders have to ascertain condition, quality, size, shape, color … and their bidding interest. The picture becomes part of the mutual assent of the contract between seller and buyer.

As such, pictures advertising a live auction are materially different than pictures used for an online-only auction.

The more auctioneers, sellers and buyers rely on pictures, and especially if those pictures become a substitute for actual inspection … the more interesting this subject may become.

Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, CAI, AARE has been an auctioneer and certified appraiser for over 30 years. His company’s auctions are located at: Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, Keller Williams Auctions and Goodwill Columbus Car Auction. His Facebook page is: www.facebook.com/mbauctioneer. He is adjunct faculty at Columbus State Community College and is Executive Director of The Ohio Auction School.