by Robert B. Weide
Hey... what can you say about an auction house whose chairman (Alfred Taubman) was sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay millions in fines for a price fixing scandal? You'd think maybe said auction house would learn some humility? That they'd exercise caution? That they'd figure out how to conduct themselves honestly and professionally? Yeah... you'd figure.
I'm certainly not saying, nor would I ever imply, that some of the people in the employ of said auction house are weasels or that their behavior is scandalous... or even just plain unforgivably sloppy! I would never say that. What you might say is up to you, after you read what happened to me.
I'm not a big movie memorabilia collector. I'm comfortable financially, but not filthy rich. And my wife and I live in a 2,000 square foot home with limited wall and floor space. Most of the movie memorabilia I bought when I was single (posters, lobby cards, etc.) now resides in the attic. But when I got wind that Sotheby's.com was auctioning off Harpo Marx's harp, personally owned by the silent comedian and played in several Marx Brothers movies, I got the old itch.
I produced the film The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell. The Marxes were my reason for living throughout high school and most of college. They made me decide to become a film-maker. They were my first loves and will always hold a special place in my heart. As the potential winning bidder on Harpo's harp, I could watch his harp solos from the movies on my DVD player and cock my head to see the very same harp proudly displayed in my living room. How could I resist?
When I announced to my wife that I was going to make a bid on the harp, I was almost apologetic about it. (Sotheby's was declaring the value between $30 - 35,000.) I figured I had been making good money producing and directing the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. I had recently received some ''found money'' in the form of a payment for a film script I had written six years ago. We didn't have kids; there were no little shoes or big college tuitions to pay for. The harp would be a lovely item to display in our home...
It winds up I was preaching to the choir. My wife cut me off before I even started my litany of justifications. ''Who else deserves this harp more than you?'' she asked. (What a gal!)
Sotheby's on-line auctions are held on eBay. That was good. Unintimidating. I was a respected eBay bidder with nothing but positive feedback. I was also a qualified member of Square Trade, signifying that I was an honest buyer and seller and would agree to third-party mediation in the unlikely event of a dispute.
The auction opened on June 18 and would close on June 28, 2002. The listed seller of the harp was an outfit called Entertainment Rarities. The President of ''ER,'' Darren Julien, would later explain that ER was an affiliate of Sotheby's, whose job it was to consign rock and roll and movie memorabilia to sell through Sotheby's. When I asked him why Sotheby's doesn't just consign and sell such material through their own name, he told me it was ostensibly to create some distance in the wake of Sotheby's scandal a couple of years back.
When I initially logged onto the Sotheby's/ Entertainment Rarities (hereafter ''S/ER'') webpage for the harp auction, the first thing that struck me was what great condition the harp was still in, judging from the color photo they posted of the sale item. It seemed extremely well preserved. (The harp is a Lyon & Healy, Gold Style 23. Lyon & Healy is known as the ''Steinway'' of harp makers, and is the harp of choice for most serious harp players who can afford one.)
Next to the recent color picture of the harp was a black and white photo of Harpo hugging the very same harp in the late 1930's. On the soundboard (the top part of the harp's body, where the strings connect at the bottom), there was a very distinctive floral design in gold leaf. It exactly matched the design in the vintage photos of Harpo with his harp. I started to get goosebumps.
The current photo of the harp looked so good, in fact, I started to wonder if the harp had been refinished and, if so, how that might affect the future antique value and historical integrity of the instrument. I e-mailed ER on June 20 and inquired specifically, ''Can you describe any faults with the harp -- cosmetic or otherwise? Has it ever been refinished?'' Their response assured me that, ''there are no major damages or faults. The harp has never been refinished...'' So much for my overly cautious nature. (Hey, when spending five figures on something you can't drive, you want to be careful!)
I did find one thing troubling in their lot description. The auction headline referred to the sale item as, ''Harpo Marx Gold Harp Used In Many Films.'' The description stated, ''The films where this harp was played by Harpo Marx include: Monkey Business (1931), Horsefeathers (1932), Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), A Day at the Races (1937), Room Service (1938).''
Well, as any good Marx Brothers fanatic knows, there were no harp solos at all in ''Duck Soup'' or ''Room Service.'' Although ''A Day at the Races'' includes a harp solo of sorts, Harpo plays a gag harp in the film, made from a set of strings he ripped out of a piano. It was disconcerting that S/ER would be so sloppy with their description. (How assured would you be bidding on a Babe Ruth autograph if the description claimed that he signed it during his tenure with the New York Mets?)
Although the mistake seemed a bit dubious to me, I wrote it off as a mere academic error. Even if Harpo played this harp in three films instead of six, so what?
I did think it wise to advise ER of their mistake, however, as these are exactly the kinds of facts that help establish an accurate appraisal of such cinema memorabilia. On June 20, I e-mailed ER and told them of the mistaken film titles. Their reply stated: ''This was a mistake made by one of our employees who put together the description for the auction. ... We have over 750 items currently in the Sotheby's auction and at that volume the occasional mistake arises unfortunately. Because the item has already received bids, I am unable to revise the description until after the auction has ended."
This response was puzzling, as any good eBayer knows that sellers can always add corrections and revisions during the bidding period. (Such revisions appear as addenda on the lot description.) In fact, an honest seller is obligated to report such corrections if they become aware of misinformation during the bidding period. But ER never posted a corrected revision of the relevant Marx Brothers movies. At the time, I was still willing to write this off as a simple matter of confusion and never considered that their response was indicative of a more troubling problem.
I even gave them the benefit of the doubt when they showed they did know how to make additions to the lot description by subsequently adding two addenda during the bidding period. In fact, one of their additions stated that the sale also included ''the original harpist's stool as seen in the ... photo accompanying the description.'' Sure enough, in the black and white photo of Harpo hugging his harp, there sits a wooden harp stool. So that was also part of the sale. Cool.
Finally, on the afternoon of June 28, I placed the winning bid on the harp. The final sale price was $32,900. There was no sticker shock... no buyer's remorse. This was an investment that would appreciate. (What else was I going to do -- watch my savings disappear even further into the sinking stock market?) My wife actually cried tears of joy when I called her from the ''Curb'' set to tell her that I won the harp. We were thrilled. I even e-mailed Darren Julien at ER to tell him how pleased we were with the purchase and to discuss shipping arrangements.
Later that night, I looked at the official website for the harp manufacturers, Lyon & Healy (hereafter ''L&H''). When I studied their webpage describing the Gold 23 harp, something troubling caught my eye. The page contained a photo of a brand new L&H Gold 23 that looked strikingly familiar. It now dawned on me that it was the same picture used on the ER website to illustrate the sale harp. This meant that the photo I had been admiring on the ER webpage was not of the actual sale item after all, but was taken right out of the L&H catalogue. The ER auction webpage posted no disclaimer to that effect.
The first pangs of nausea now started to set in. How could ER post a photo of a new harp, taken from a catalogue, and pass it off as the 72 year old harp they were selling? (I had recently sold my '96 BMW on eBay. How convenient it would have been, rather than to photograph my own car in detail, to just scan pictures of a new model right out of the BMW catalogue! I would have been kicked off of eBay faster than you could say ''Richard Diebenkorn.'')
The next day I spoke with a man named Dickie Fleisher, who had owned the harp for the past decade, and had consigned the item to Sotheby's for auction. (He had e-mailed me the previous day, inviting me to contact him.)
More good news: He proceeded to tell me, rather nonchalantly, that the harp's soundboard ''may have been replaced'' and he wasn't certain whether the replacement board was even a Lyon & Healy. He did know that the design decal on the harp was not the original L&H decal. (These are highly distinctive design decals, patented by L&H and used only on their harps. The use of each decal has to be authorized by L&H).
This information further made my heart sink. The decal is an important part of the harp's aesthetic; so now the harp would not even look like the one Harpo played. Plus, a part of the harp itself (the soundboard) probably wasn't the original and may not even be an L&H. (How would you like to buy a Steinway piano, and then find out that the piano lid is not a Steinway but a knock-off of unknown origin?)
During this same conversation, I informed Fleisher of my discovery that the S/ER webpage had a photo of a Gold 23 with the L&H decal, taken right from the L&H catalogue. He said he already knew this. I asked him why ER used this photo. He said he didn't know, as he had supplied them with photos of the actual harp.
Despite the fact that part of the harp had been replaced with an unauthorized part and the aesthetic of the harp had changed materially since Harpo's ownership, at least one thing was certain: The auction website had posted a letter from Lyon & Healy verifying that Harpo had, in fact, purchased this harp in 1930. So I never had to question whether Harpo owned it. However, something else was gnawing at me: ER and Fleisher had played so loose with the facts, how could I be certain that this same harp was ever played by Harpo in any of the films? Sure, Harpo may have kept this harp in his home, but who could say whether it was brought to the studios on the day he filmed his harp solos? Who could say that the studios didn't supply him with an L&H Gold 23 rental? After all, Harpo purchased this harp in 1930, but can be seen playing an identical harp in ''The Cocoanuts,'' filmed in 1929.
Seeing as neither the seller nor the consignor seemed capable of doing the proper research, I figured it was up to me to do the necessary homework. I spoke to three Harpo experts whom I hoped could shed some light on the question of the films. The first was Gregg Miner, a harp player and Harpo enthusiast/collector who was an expert on Harpo's music career. The second was Dale Barco, a former Lyon & Healy employee who still repaired harps, who knew Harpo and worked on his later harps. The third person I spoke to was Bill Marx, Harpo's son. None of these very helpful gentlemen, with all their collective knowledge, could absolutely confirm that Harpo played his own personal harp in any of his movies.
What's more, in an e-mail from Bill Marx dated July 6, he had this to say about Entertainment Rarities: ''When I heard about the auction, I e-mailed (ER) and told them of a few non-truths in advertising they were claiming. I suggested that they add addendums to the sale to protect themselves from any possible law suit ... I contacted them before the sale and they had the opportunity to contact me which they never did.''
I received another unsolicited e-mail from a Marx fan who said she also e-mailed ER with some corrections, but they never responded to her. She chose not to bid because of ''the shoddiness of the description and the fact that Sotheby's is even allowed on eBay what with their recent criminal past still perfuming the air.''
Gregg Miner also informed me that one of the black and white photos on ER's website, presumably showing Harpo playing the sale harp, actually showed Harpo playing a different model harp; a Lyon & Healy ''Natural 17'' from the movie ''Love Happy'' (1949). Bill Marx had already informed me that Harpo had retired the Gold 23 in the mid-40's, and started playing 17's, a smaller harp.
I met with ER's Darren Julien on July 2 , hoping that he would have some reassuring explanation for all of these mistakes. He was friendly enough. In fact, before I even alerted him to the possible dispute, he handed me several laminated photos of my ''purchase.'' Included were the color harp photo and another one detailing the same pristine harp. After a minute or so, I asked him if these were photos of the actual sale harp. He looked a little flustered before saying that he didn't know. (Then why was he showing them to me?) He had also handed me the 1949 photo of Harpo playing the Natural 17 harp, and another photo I knew to be from the 1927 Broadway production of ''The Cocoanuts,'' three years before Harpo purchased the sale harp. When I asked for an explanation, he said these were the photos supplied by Dickie Fleisher and they were presumed to be of the sale harp. (Again, Fleisher said he provided photos of the sale harp, but they were never used.)
Julien said one reason they presumed Fleshier to be reliable was ''because of his friendship with Bill Marx.'' I told him that I knew Fleisher and Bill Marx weren't friends. ''Well, I mean they've corresponded at least,'' was Julien's reply. Nice try, but Bill Marx had already told me he had never even heard of Dickie Fleisher's name prior to this sale.
I then asked Julien why the S/ER website failed to correct the mistaken films during the bidding period. He said he was too overloaded by the number of lots in this auction and he didn't have the adequate manpower to address every problem. He also said that the mistakes were only made known to him after the bidding started. I told him that they could still be corrected during the bidding period. He said he wasn't very computer savvy and didn't know how to do that. (He did not say why the corrections weren't delegated to the same person who added the two other addenda.)
I informed Julien that we'd have to work out a reasonable solution to these problems, but that I would want to view the harp personally during my trip to New York on the week of July 22.
Meanwhile, I sent a New York harp expert (another former Lyon & Healy employee) to view the harp on July 11. He reported back to me with more bad news: Not only was the current decal a non-Lyon & Healy, but he confirmed that the replacement soundboard was definitely not an L&H. Furthermore, he discovered the neck of the harp had also been replaced with a non-L&H neck. (Nobody wanting to retain the integrity or monetary value of the harp would use non L&H replacement parts). He guessed the work was probably done 20-30 years ago. It also meant that approx. 1/3 of this harp was not the original, but, in fact, a copy. He felt this information, if disclosed, would definitely impact the appraisal value of the harp.
I also learned that the harp stool which ER claimed was the one seen in the photo with Harpo was a standard L&H stool. As the stools don't have serial numbers, there was no way to confirm that Harpo ever owned this particular one. Considering how sloppy S/ER had been in their lot description, it was an easy guess that their claim that Harpo owned this stool was mere conjecture.
In fact, Dickie Fleisher had told me that when he bought the harp from a woman in Minnesota in 1991, the seller had no idea that Harpo ever owned this harp. Consequently, there was a huge hole in the harp's recorded history and she would have had no idea whether Harpo ever owned the stool.
At this point, what had earlier been such a delightful event was now ruining my appetite and interfering with my sleep. I considered that the one mistake I knew of during the bidding period (i.e., the film titles) now seemed more than ''academic.'' It was false information that artificially enhanced the "value" of the harp, like much of the other false and misleading info ER promulgated. To me, their refusal to correct the mistake was behavior indicative of someone who wanted the highest price for their sale item, let the facts be damned.
On July 16, I had a conversation with Steven Fritzmann, sales manager at L&H in Chicago, who told me their records confirmed that the repair work was not done by an authorized L&H person with genuine L&H parts. He also said that the cost of replacing the neck and soundboard with L&H parts would be around $11,000. Replacing the decal alone would cost about $3,000. The harp would also have to be shipped to Chicago -- the only location authorized to do the work.
As all this information came down the pike, I continued communicating with Darren Julien at ER, who offered no explanation for their actions, but told me that they would let me back out of the sale, and they would simply sell the harp to the next highest bidder. I told him this was not an acceptable solution. In three separate letters, I asked him to answer four very basic, straightforward questions:
1) Why was a decision made to post a photo of a new harp from the L&H catalogue, rather than photos of the actual sale item provided by the consignor?
2) What solid evidence did they have that Harpo played this harp in any movie at all?
3) How did they determine that the harp stool included in the sale was ever owned by Harpo?
4) Why did they fail to make corrections in their lot description during the bidding period when several people informed them of relevant inaccuracies?
Like an automaton, Julien just wrote back that he understood I was unhappy and that he would let me back out of the sale. To this day, he has made no attempt to adequately answer these very simple questions.
I made a good faith settlement offer to pay $25,000 (their reserve price) for the harp. That offer was refused. I asked Square Trade (eBay's voluntary mediation arm) to mediate this dispute. Julien refused to participate. I filed a fraud report with eBay. Julien responded to that one by saying they were conferring with their own legal counsel and did not feel fraud was committed. (But again, refused to address the specific issues in question.) ER's CEO finally wrote to me saying that my offering $25,000 for the harp was ''tantamount to extortion.''
So now the lawyers are into it. E.R.'s position is that I never paid for the harp so I haven't been damaged and that my only recourse is to back out of the sale. But what does this say about the care that goes into S/ER's lot descriptions and appraisals for their other auctions? What have you bought from them lately? What are you planning to buy? How much do you really know about the item? How do they arrive at their appraisal figures? Who do they have to answer to, if not their bidders and buyers?
Enter Darren Julien's name into a search engine and you'll find on-line articles referring to him setting the appraisal values for all kinds of movie collectibles. But have a conversation with Julien and you discover he's just a guy who moved here recently from Indiana who ''never expected to be in show business.'' (Who knew that selling Madonna's dresses on-line meant you were in show business?) He boasts of a recent ''Seinfeld'' auction through Sotheby's.com that netted thousands of dollars for a single episode script; not autographed, not even necessarily used on the set. Just a xeroxed script that you can buy at any number of shops on Hollywood Blvd. for $20.
While at his home/office, he showed me an item that is going up in their next big auction: The famous ''Puffy Shirt'' from the Seinfeld episode of the same name. Great item, but if you bid on it, ask a few questions: Is this the same shirt that Jerry himself wore in the episode? Was it worn by one of the actors playing a homeless person in the final scene? Might it have been worn by a non-speaking extra? Was it ever worn by any actor on that episode or might it be part of the back-up wardrobe that was never actually used on the show? Could it have even been produced by the wardrobe person after the episode was filmed, specifically to auction? All of these questions affect the value of the item, and if you don't get answers and certification for those answers, you could be paying inflated prices at the whim of dilettantes who are admittedly too ''overwhelmed'' by a large auction to do the proper research and set an appropriate appraisal figure.
Entertainment Rarities has indicated they may re-list Harpo's harp in a future auction. (More recently, their lawyer has stated that this is very unlikely.) In a letter to me dated July 6, Darren Julien states, ''Legally our obligation is to inform any potential bidders of the information available to us about each lot to the best of our ability and if we fail to do so, we must allow the sale to be dismissed.'' A cynical translation of this may be: ''If you catch us doing something wrong and raise a fuss, we'll sell it to the next guy.''
By Julien's definition of S/ER's ''(legal) obligation,'' I assume that if they re-list the harp, they will this time:
1) Include a photo of the actual sale item.
2) Disclose that the harp's soundboard and neck were replaced subsequent to Harpo's ownership.
3) State that the repair work was not done by Lyon & Healy personnel or using Lyon & Healy parts.
4) Mention that the non-L&H soundboard decal differs materially in appearance from the L&H decal the harp bore when Harpo owned it.
5) Admit that it is only conjecture that Harpo ever played this harp in any motion picture at all (or else provide solid evidence that he did).
6) State that there is no verification that Harpo ever owned the stool offered in the sale.
If they disclose all this information in the next auction, then they'll have lived up to their legal obligation and anyone can bid with confidence and know what they're getting. The only question is what they'll list as an accurate appraisal and where they'll set their reserve price.
I've reached my own conclusion here which has subsequently been backed-up by several collectors I know: Sotheby's simply does not treat movie memorabilia with the same care and respect they would a piece of fine art or a Victorian era antique, even when they're asking upwards of $30,000.
One friend of mine, a respected film historian and collector, has a different theory. He can cite many other instances where Sotheby's and other auctioneers have dropped the ball on properly authenticating the movie memorabilia they sell. ''If they're that sloppy when they sell items that we know so much about,'' he queries, ''what makes you think they're any more reliable when they're selling antiques and art objects?''
Hmmm. Good point.
Perhaps wrongly, I just assumed that if the reckless standards exercised in my case were applied by Sotheby's across the board, they'd be out of business in an Upper-East-Side minute (or else Taubman might be surrounded by familiar faces in his prison cell).
So, now that we know they don't do their homework, that means you'll have to do it for them. Be sure to ask the right questions and demand straightforward answers, lest you be the winning bidder and a big-time loser all at once.
Meanwhile, don't forget what those wacky Latins used to say, in anticipation of Sotheby's and Entertainment Rarities' on-line auctions: