How to Buy Audubon Prints on eBay

How to Buy Audubon Prints on eBAY ®

© August 2006 by Terrance M. Wright - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Buying on eBAY is one viable option for acquiring original and facsimile Audubon art at less than gallery prices. In fact, one attraction of eBay is the potential for finding a ‘deal’, and this applies to fine art as well as anything else at the world’s largest auction site. With spiraling prices for original works, the chance to find affordable Audubon art continues to dwindle for many of us. Fortunately, there are still affordable options for acquiring Audubon Art, and eBay is one such avenue. However, I cannot emphasize enough, that there are many many pitfalls and traps to the uninformed eBayer pursuing Audubon Art. A low price is not a ‘deal’ if the underlying value in the art isn’t there. This article will touch on the positive highlights of buying online, as well as outline important issues to avoid a disappointing experience on eBay.

The Good

First, the good news. Online auctions for fine art bring a vast array of options in terms of collecting Audubon Art. With online auctions, you can visit many more sites than you could ever do in person. That brings buying opportunities to your doorstep from across the country. If you are fortunate enough to live in or near New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles or another large metropolitan area, you may have several galleries featuring Audubon works, in proximity, from which to visit and buy in person. Personally, seeing the works in person, having dedicated staff to show and discuss the works and negotiate price is my favorite way to buy. But, often this is not possible and buying online is increasingly a safe and viable alternative for acquiring Audubon prints.

Many many fine art auctions are featured on eBay and they are quite legitimate. There are two main types of fine art auctions on eBay and this article will discuss both of them. The first type is a ‘Live’ auction, and these are typically conducted by large formal auction houses which use eBay’s “Live Auction” facilities. A typical Live Auction contains many many lots (typically hundreds), of which only a few may be by or after Audubon (or Wilson, Catesby, Edwards, Albin, or other artist). The second type of auctions are private or one-off sales of individual works and these may be offered by private individuals or retail art galleries. This second type of auction typically lasts for three to ten days and only one item is sold to the highest online bidder. Both types of auctions may be the source of excellent buying opportunities. However, caution must be maintained in any buying situation.

Live Auctions may be the best, if most expensive, alternative to buying fine art on eBay. Most Live Auctions are conducted by knowledgeable and professional auction houses. They have established businesses, professional and knowledgeable staff and a reputation to protect. For these reasons, their art works will rarely, if ever, be misrepresented, at least not intentionally. That is a very good thing! Professional staff means the auction house can and will answer questions knowledgeably, and provide meaningful support such as condition reports (more on this later in the article.) These auctions are often the most expensive because of several factors. First, there is usually a BUYER’s PREMIUM ranging from 10 to 25%. Second, there is typically Live, on floor bidding, in addition to eBay internet bidding. These works may also be in better overall condition because of auction house policy of only selling goods in good to excellent condition.

Individual auctions may be also be quite legitimate. My favorites are those by known reputable art dealers who are selling a single work or a series of works. Many times art dealers will ‘break’ a book, selling individual plates from a bound work, resulting in dozens or even hundreds of individual auctions held over a period of weeks or months. The good news here is that the dealer is putting his/her reputation (indirectly their livelihood) on line with every sale. For this reason, these auctions are typically professionally supported as well, with accurate descriptions.

Individual auctions may also be conducted by private individuals. These range from private collectors, to heirs unloading an inheritance, to people cleaning out their attic, to individuals who sell or broker items of any nature, on eBay. These auctions may also be a source of bona fide art, and typically command the lowest prices. However, this type of auction also warrants the greatest degree of caution in pursuing. I highly recommend novice Audubon enthusiasts staty away from this type of auction until they are confident in their ability to ask the right type of questions and verify (without seeing!) what they are actually buying and determine the item’s true worth.

The Bad

The bad news with any eBay auction, is that you are buying something you can’t see, or examine in person. And, unfortunately, sight is usually the sense we rely upon most of all in judging art. Also, the condition of a print is a key determinant in it’s underlying value. From a picture, especially low resolution electronic pictures, such as those on eBay, it is extremely difficult to examine an artwork in any meaningful way. Small tears, smudges, pinholes, discoloration, brittle support (paper) cannot be judged well from a picture, and these may detract from a print’s aesthetics and/or value. Nor can one tell if the print is glued down, or compromised in some other way. Often, colors in electronic pictures are not true to life. As a result, what you ‘see’ may not be what you get! In fact, it is actually very difficult to photograph many print defects. So, even good photographs (those not meant to deceive) can appear to represent a print in better than actual condition.

Often, eBay is an outlet for legitimate, or authentic works, of lesser interest or value. Of Audubon’s 500 Octavo prints, the prices cover a very large range from about $10 to several thousands of dollars. The range for Havell prints is even larger. A dealer may keep the more important works for private or retail sales, while liquidating the lesser works on eBay. This phenomenon is quite common. Prints in poor condition also show up on eBay quite regularly. Nomatter the price, these are often of little value unless you are willing to make a large investment in restoration.

Knowledge is a key ingredient in any online transaction. Unfortunately, even if you (the buyer) are knowledgeable, often the seller may not be. Audubon works, especially, are extremely often misrepresented by uninformed sellers. Most of the time it is not intentional, but a matter of ignorance. One reason for this is that Audubon’s work has been so widely copied. MILLIONS of cheap offset prints of his work have been generated and these show up in great profusion on eBay. Often a seller will imagine and represent an ‘authentic’ print just because the print bears Audubon’s name, the name of the printer, and a date. Well, so does every other COPY, of Audubon’s work, even if it was made yesterday! In fact, print marginalia is often the least reliable method of verifying a print! Audubon’s works are in the public domain – there is no copyright protection for them. So, again, there are many many more copies than originals. Some copies are quite valuable, such as the limited edition prints, known as Amsterdams, Abbevilles, Leipzigs, Oppenhiemers, Princetons, but you still have to be able to identify these as distinct from the many other open edition prints/posters. If you are to have a good experience on eBay, you MUST arm yourself with knowledge aobut what you are buying (want to buy) and the right questions to ask the seller to make sure the auction representation is accurate. Caveat Emptor!

The Ugly

Besides the bad, there is the ‘ugly’. It is sadly true that there are also individuals who deliberately mislead on eBay. And, that includes Audubon Art. For example, I have seen misleading auctions on eBay for what seemed to be 1 st Edition Audubon Bird Octavo prints. They were advertised as ‘Genuine Audubon Prints’. By piecing together clues and contacting the seller, it became obvious that they were selling pages removed from a modern book of facsimiles. In private correspondence, the seller refused to admit that these were intentionally misleading, but also did not revise their auctions. Persons buying these prints were duped and ultimately disappointed with their purchase.

Likewise, I have seen uninformed or intentionally misleading listing for Havell prints, offered by private individuals for as much as $15,000!!! (Ask yourself, would you buy an unverified print you’ve never seen, from an anonymous stranger, over the internet, for $15,000?) Anyone buying on eBay should be aware that eBay cannot police all content and the best way to protect yourself is through knowledge of what you are buying.

How to Protect Yourself

 First and foremost, to have a good Audubon experience on eBay, the best advice I can give is to ‘know your art.’ If you are buying octavo prints, know the key factors for identifying them accurately. That is, know what SIZE they should be, know which EDITION is being sold (there were seven editions and the first is most valuable), know how to verify the HAND COLORING, know your SELLER and their REPUTATION.

Likewise, if you should be buying Havell Prints or facsimiles of Havell prints, know how to authenticate these prints by asking the right questions of the seller. There are many articles on this site which will help guide you through the process of print identification. From print sizes, to watermarks to plate marks, there are tools on this site to help.

Besides knowing what is being represented in any auction (what you are bidding on!), you should determine, as best you can, the CONDITION of the item. The best way to determine condition is to ask for a CONDITION REPORT. Any reputable gallery or auction house will be glad to oblige. The condition report should identify any material defects, including tears, creases, smudges and other marks, foxing, other discoloration, offsetting, soiling, fading, and any other defects. The condition report should also mention if the print is ‘laid down’ (i.e. glued), trimmed, or altered in any other way.

If any of this information is not provided, ask again, or avoid bidding! Often listings will state a condition as ‘good’, or ‘excellent’, but what does this subjective term actually mean? Hey, if I’m around when I’m 200 years old, any condition will be ‘excellent’! So, ask about any detractors!

One condition related item that bears mention is that it is often impossible to give an accurate or complete condition report for a framed work of art. This is because the matting and/or frame hides part of the art work. SERIOUS FLAWS may be hidden, so it is imperative to have a condition report for an item out of the frame. ALWAYS ask the seller to examine the print outside of the frame and provide a condition report on the FULL SHEET of art. I STRONGLY urge you to avoid any auction in which the seller is unwilling to remove an art work from its frame or provide a complete condition report.

If you are lucky enough to live near the seller, by all means, VIEW THE ITEM IN PERSON.

Know your seller. READ THEIR eBAY FEEDBACK. Read any Terms and Conditions of the listing. As tempting as it might be to skip the fine print, you may ultimately be unable to resolve post-sale concerns if you do not understand the terms of the sale. Often this contains provisions for a BUYER’s PREMIUM, NO REFUNDS FOR CONDITION CLAUSE, and other potentially costly items. Be sure to understand the REFUND POLICY of the seller. Under what conditions can a print be returned if you are unhappy with it? Be sure to read any and all listing information about SHIPPING. This can be another large cost. Many auction houses will NOT SHIP your auction win. You will need to contract a local shipper to act on your behalf (often very expensive). The best advise is to build your shipping and other costs into your maximum planned bid (and then stick to it.)

Payment options are another way to protect yourself. Credit cards and Paypal often provide ‘buyer protection’ for disputed purchases. Personal and bank checks don’t! Escrow services may be desireable if the purchase price is large enough to warrant this type of transaction. And, if you are buying anything of value, don’t skimp on insurance. As sad as it is to say, with the volume of parcels in our systems both private and public carriers can and do lose or damage just about anything imaginable and artwork is no exception. Pay for the insurance!

In conclusion, eBay buying of Audubon art can be rewarding if you are forearmed with knowledge of what you are buying, the condition of that work, and what it is worth. Ask questions well before the auction expires. Know your seller and their listing terms and conditions. Protect yourself with payment methods that provide buyer protection. And, always buy insurance for valuable items in transit.



® eBay is the registered trademark of eBay Inc.

JJ Audubon Gallery HOME