A Cautionary Tale
The International Fine Print Dealers Association
By Bruce McKinney
The IFPDA, the International Fine Print Dealers Association, a New York based international association of print dealers, issued a letter requesting its 165 members be vigilant about inconsistencies between descriptions and copies of prints offered at Swann Galleries, the leading auction house in the prints field. According to members, and un-rebutted by the association, this is the first such letter the association has issued in its 20 year history. Coming at a time when the economy is in disrepair and business in the trade, based on conversations with about ten members, "difficult," the letter may reflect concern about Swann's business practices or be an effort to weaken Swann's position as the principal re-marketer of prints. To understand the issues involved I have spoken with as many members as time would allow.
To the layman, and I am one, an original print is described as one in which the artist designs, proofs and prints or has a master printer print an image thereafter approving and signing it. Each image is an original. The numbers vary from artist to artist. Some may have chosen to issue 10 examples, others a hundred, and such print runs rarely exceed 300. IFPDA members sell these prints which have been created over the past 500 years. They sell prints and they may also sell other things. Many members are members of several organizations.
By all accounts the business has been changing.
This was once a field dominated by dealers that, like the rare book trade, has had to make room for an ever more robust auction presence. In the book business there are 160 auction venues across North America, Europe and Australia. Sotheby's and Christies dominate the high end but there are many successful firms with niches and categories in fields they rule. In the print business, by comparison, Swann alone accounts for perhaps fifty percent by volume of all prints sold at auction. Its position is unique.
Here is the IFPDA letter:
From: IFPDA Board of Directors
Sent: Thursday, July 16, 2009 11:25 AM
Subject: IFPDA Board Alert on Swann's
As you know, beginning with its charter and over years of dedication, the IFPDA has distinguished itself as an organization dedicated to the highest standards of quality, ethics, and connoisseurship among print dealers. Accordingly, it is also vitally concerned with the integrity of the print market in general. Therefore, through its Market Advisory Committee, the Association makes every effort to stem the flow of problematic works into the marketplace.
Over the years, this initiative has often involved communications with specialists at auction houses regarding the identification and withdrawal of problematic works from their sales. Most have welcomed and have been responsive to our input.
A Cautionary Tale
Swann dominates the print auction market
In the case of Swann Galleries, our concerns frequently are simply disregarded. Over the years, we have brought serious matters to their attention such as: i) descriptions of Old Master works which seemingly understate condition flaws as a matter of practice, or ii) misleading use of citations from catalogues raisonné in descriptions of works by Modern masters, or iii) identification of a large number of Modern works bearing dubious annotations and signatures as well as some fakes. With contemporary works, we have raised serious issues with condition as well as questionable signatures and annotations.
While experienced collectors and the trade may be able to identify questionable works, most collectors will not. Among the potential consequences of an injurious purchase is a decision to abandon print purchases altogether, believing that the market is filled with hidden problems. Given Swann's longstanding pattern of apparent disregard for connoisseurship, we now feel it necessary to enlist the assistance of you, our members, in our effort to encourage this auction house to be a reputable place to purchase prints. We therefore ask you to be vigilant when you review sales catalogs from Swann and to let us know if you see anything that might be problematic. This will enable us to be far more comprehensive as we continue to monitor this difficult situation.
If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact the Office.
The Board of Directors
International Fine Print Dealers Association
I then approached the association for comment and asked for specifics. The response was "no comment." In the meantime I had begun to contact members and found a revealing divide in the opinions of members. The views expressed ranged from strong support for Swann to "I'm not going to comment."
I also asked Swann for a statement in response. Nicholas Lowry, President of Swann offered this:
"Swann's operates at the highest level of responsibility and connoisseurship. When we receive a complaint from a client about items purchased which were inadvertently misrepresented in a catalogue, or about condition issues not being properly pointed out, we act to rectify the situation as best we can. This is the basis of both our success and our reputation.
For several years now the IFPDA Market Advisory Committee has been reviewing our catalogues and pointing out items (often without even seeing them in person) which they deem to be fake, misrepresented or otherwise questionable. Needless to say we take these concerns incredibly seriously and carefully review each and every one of their issues.
In cases where we proceed to offer a "questioned" item at auction, we do so having exercised our professional judgment. We are not prepared to withdraw each and every piece that may be questioned, simply on the say-so of an IFPDA member. Again, we are not infallible, but to claim that we routinely disregard concerns raised by IFPDA members, or that we act in disregard of connoisseurship, is shocking and surprising. It is also simply not the case.
Not only is Swann a reputable place to buy prints but it is ludicrous to suggest that our expansive and successful business efforts have a negative effect on the marketplace as a whole. We are saddened and perturbed that a few outspoken members of the IFPDA Board disagree with the way we have conducted our business over the past years. And while we welcome all criticism, it must be very carefully understood that Swann continues to stand behind every item we sell."
A Cautionary Tale
The fundamental issues are straightforward: the occasional disagreement about description and an ongoing concern that two step access to condition reports may imply to inexperienced bidders that the primary description is sufficient basis for bidding. Most IFPDA dealers disagree.
Swann handles condition reports on a request basis while some other auction houses include extensive condition information in their posted listings. Such requests to Swann are, without exception, honored but, as one dealer explained, "you have to know these reports are important. Nothing in the description tells you this. Years ago I had a problem with Swann on a lot. I had bid without requesting the condition report and was disappointed when the lot arrived. I was later able to reach a satisfactory conclusion and ever since have routinely requested condition reports. In my view such reports are a requirement, not an option."
Swann's descriptions, while including contact language do not include a warning that failure to request such reports may result in buyer disappointment. For both the casual and the yet to become expert buyer, bidding without knowledge of the condition may lead to more aggressive bidding than the print's condition warrants. This reality is fundamental to dealer concerns. The descriptions can be seen in two lights. Professionals know to look into condition and occasionally end up losing out to bidders who they suspect do not examine condition reports.
IFPDA dealers who consign to Swann, not surprisingly, do not see it the same way.
Because the IFPDA letter was released midway through a punishing year for dealers, auctions and buyers, and the fact it is a public letter, not posted on the association site but nevertheless available from dealers who chose to share it, the statements "in the case of Swann Galleries, our concerns frequently are simply disregarded;" "while experienced collectors and the trade may be able to identify questionable works, most collectors will not;" and "given Swann's longstanding pattern of apparent disregard for connoisseurship,..." together seem a bit self-serving. They seem to suggest their high standards require they point out Swann's are lower. Tarring Swann with a pail of dry negatives that reads like an under-the-radar PR release strengthens the association at the expense of Swann without forthrightly addressing the issues. The absence of specifics compromises their case.
Separately, other issues relating to authenticity have been raised sub-rosa but the association declines to comment and Swann's denies such issues have been raised. Again, specifics are lacking.
For the issues that are in view the remedy seems straightforward.
 On Swann's part, barriers to condition reports can be minimized while their importance to dealers and collectors emphasized.
 Statements of concern by this association, its members, other appropriate associations and their members could be, subject to review by Swann, attached to the lot descriptions as notes.
 Swann can reaffirm its warranty, its time limit and duration.
In the downturn economic pressures on both sides are exacerbating the disagreement. Books have pneumonia while prints have a cold. The print business will come roaring back. Let nothing be said in a moment of uncertainty that is out-of-place in the continuum. Both sides need each other.
The IFPDA, the International Fine Print Dealers Association.
The IFPDA Print Fair in New York City November 5-8.