December 2, 2023

The framed image of a young woman, suitcase in hand, walking solo down a road to nowhere, caught my eye. With its desolate landscape and sinister sky, I couldn’t quite tell if it was a painting or a photograph. It would turn out to be neither …

It was just one of a couple hundred items for sale in a Fairfield County multi-estate online auction, where you don’t see in person what you’re bidding on or who you’re bidding against. Sort of a localized eBay.

Though I originally checked out Modern Day Auctions via the website purely for story research, I liked this picture and decided to bid on it. In my first-ever winning purchase, I would experience an online auction’s best and worst aspects. And I could have had no idea the episode would lead to an international inquiry to determine the object’s legitimacy.

The artwork that intrigued our newbie online auction bidder. 

The artwork that intrigued our newbie online auction bidder. 

Michael Catarevas

In-person garage, tag and estate sales largely stopped taking place once the coronavirus hit a few years ago. After masks and social distancing were introduced, they started picking up again. In the meantime, online auctions took the place of in-person sales and exploded in popularity, as sellers increasingly looked to clear out clutter, and buyers hunted for bargains on sometimes-premium housewares and decor to spruce up their spaces.

With the pandemic mostly receded and the rhythms of life now mainly back to normal, in-person events are back. But online auctions are as strong as ever, and will likely continue to thrive, as many homeowners or those wanting to sell things prefer not to have people in their houses.

It is likely that, anywhere you live in Connecticut, there are online auctions. Artwork, furniture, electronics, books, beds, sports equipment, rugs, outdoor grills and much more are commonly available. Items are showcased with multiple high-quality photos, along with details such as condition and age.

Googling “Connecticut online auctions” brings up a wide range of such businesses in every area of the state. A recent scan of online auctions from Bridgeport-based Clearing House Estate Sales revealed sales in New Haven, Hamden, Trumbull, Newtown, Westport, Granby, Branford, Ridgefield, Bridgeport, Bloomfield, East Haven, Redding, Avon and Durham. And that just scratches the virtual surface.

Kelly Daniel owns Norwalk-based Modern Day Auctions. She says her business saw an uptick after COVID-19, but that many seller clients prefer online over in-person sales anyway. “It’s less intrusive for them,” she explains. Still, in-person sales hold appeal for some buyers. “Going to estate sales is an activity for many people. They like to touch things and feel things.”

The biggest plus for buyers when it comes to online auctions is often being able to buy things at crazy-low prices. While in-person estate sales have specific, but negotiable, price tags on every item, auctions start everything at zero and let bidders decide the final price.

Daniel and her staff usually have an idea of what something will sell for, but not always. “It’s kind of random; for the most part we know where things are trending, but once in a while we’ll get a pop on something,” where it sells for much more than they anticipate, she says. “Maybe someone needed it at that time. And it always takes two people to bid it up.”

The online auction is far different than an in-person event, where an auctioneer calls out prices and bidders must decide in seconds how high they will go. With online auctions there is a countdown clock on the last day of what are usually multi-day auctions. All the real action takes place in the last hour, when bidders get serious. If someone puts in a last-second bid, the clock restarts to five minutes. Another last-second bid means another restart, and so on.

In advance of a sale, home sellers keep whatever possessions they want, then hire people like Daniel to sell the rest. A Realtor in New Canaan, she has a network of contacts who give her leads for the auctions. 

While in-person estate sales have specific, but negotiable, price tags on every item, auctions start everything at zero and let bidders decide the final price.

Another bonus for online auction-goers is the ability to research an item. You can often find a value for things like electronics and furniture based on age, condition and brand. 

But the bargains usually only go so far, especially for very valuable items. Christie Spooner is a managing partner with Black Rock Galleries, an upscale estate liquidator headquartered in Bridgeport that holds online auctions all over Connecticut as well as in a few other states. 

“We’ve been doing this long enough and have handled enough estates to know where the price range is pretty much going to be for each item,” she says. “We employ nine appraisers, some of them with 40 years experience in the field, so there’s really nothing that gets by us.”

And even if something did, she knows bidders would figure it out, because when auctions take place for estates with very valuable things, regular folks must vie with expert buyers and professionals. “We’re in front of a half a million vetted registered bidders on our site,” Spooner says. “They run the gamut from high-end collectors and high-end dealers to your average person who just wants a pretty painting for their dining room.”

Luckily for the majority of people hoping to win the bidding for furnishings at good prices, the very upscale auctions are not the majority. Common things like furniture, housewares and such are easy for all to gauge the value.

Art is trickier, especially if it is an original work, or something signed by the artist. Daniel and other online auction houses ask owners about what they are selling, and also reach out to art appraisers if need be. Anything worth a huge amount of money is sold at a separate art auction with a reserve (minimum) bid posted.

“We went into a mansion once that Sotheby’s and Christie’s had already been through, and there was a Rodin sculpture sitting in the foyer that they didn’t even really look at,” says Spooner. “We sold it on our site for half a million dollars.”

I fell in love with the picture of the mysterious woman walking down the road, plus I had some open wall space. The listing called it “Earl Johnson Print of Traveling Woman.” It started at $1 and stayed there through most of the last day.

Trying to find any information I could, I googled “artist Earl Johnson.” Nothing. Then I zeroed in on the signature. It was clearly not Earl Johnson. I read it as Erik Johansson, and googled that name. Bingo!

It was even more impressive to behold in person. But something was a bit off — I did not see a number on it in the lower left-hand corner.

Johansson is a Swedish photo-surrealist who has had several books of his works published. The 39-year-old takes pictures of different things, then combines them digitally to create a final image. He sells a great many small, unsigned prints but only 10 signed and numbered prints of each one. The one I wanted, titled Don’t Look Back, originally cost $2,300. Plus it was professionally framed.

I was excited. My hope was that no one else researched and discovered what I did. Fifteen minutes before the end I started bidding, just a dollar at a time since I didn’t want to make it obvious I was willing to go much higher. It went to $10, then $20. Someone bid $26 and I bid $28. Five minutes later it was over. I had it!

A few days later I picked it up at the Modern Day Auctions warehouse in Norwalk. It was even more impressive to behold in person. But something was a bit off — I did not see a number on it in the lower left-hand corner.

The signature was in pencil and looked fine. But where was the number? I thought it might either be on the back or maybe hidden under the matting. I certainly wasn’t going to take the frame off to find out. I thought, why not email Johansson, if possible, and ask? So I did, with no expectation of hearing back.

Two days later I received his reply.

“I’m very sorry to say but this is not an original release of my work,” he wrote. “That is also not my signature. I’ve never seen that someone has tried to do this with my work before. Is it highly detailed? If it’s quite low details then it’s probably simply stolen from my website and then printed. I’m sorry to disappoint you.” He attached a photo of his true signature on another print. It was much different than the one on mine.

On the left, artist Erik Johansson points to his authentic signature on one of his artworks, which is clearly different than the one on the right, from the print that writer Michael Catarevas “scored” for a seemingly rock-bottom sum in a Connecticut online auction.

On the left, artist Erik Johansson points to his authentic signature on one of his artworks, which is clearly different than the one on the right, from the print that writer Michael Catarevas “scored” for a seemingly rock-bottom sum in a Connecticut online auction.

Michael Catarevas

So much for my big art score. I felt relief at not having paid way more for it, since I’d been prepared to bid around $1,000. I felt bad for Johansson, who had his work forged and sold. I answered his email by sending high-resolution images of what I had, showing that it was a very fine print, and told him I would look into it.

Daniel was chagrined to learn of the developments. Her auction house had no idea what it was selling in this instance. “Clearly it was a mistake,” she admits. “We asked the client, an older woman from Darien, if she knew anything about the piece, and she said no. She said her father gave it to her and it’s just been on the wall. It was one of our new cataloguers who didn’t see it for what it was.”

I asked Daniel if she would have provided a refund had I paid $1,000 or more. “Absolutely, absolutely,” she says. “You’d have had to bring it in to show me, but absolutely. Our reputation is everything.”

Johansson agreed it was a high-quality print of his work. “I’m happy you didn’t have to pay more for it,” he wrote. “I still hope that you enjoy hanging it on your wall. I’m sorry about the false signing but congrats [on] the price.”

He later followed up with one last note, which likely explained how the faux print came to be.

“I rarely send out high-res files of my work, but it does happen from time to time for magazines or books, for example, when my work is published,” he wrote. “It may be that one of those files was printed. People also copy my ideas from time to time, but I feel incredibly grateful to be able to do this for a living so I’m not in any way complaining.”

I never had any intention of selling it, anyway. But it’s a cautionary tale that everything is not always what it seems in the world of online auctions.

Online bidding tips: How to score what you want without breaking the bank

Online auctions differ greatly from in-person auctions. Unlike the latter, at which you must bid almost instantly, the virtual versions take place over several days, allowing people to view photos of items, do research and make bids. Here are some strategies to maximize your success bidding in online auctions.

  • Only bid when the auction is almost over. 
  • As tempting as it is to bid days early and be in the lead, there is no reason to make your play until the very end. Like eBay auctions, serious bidders don’t come in until the last few minutes or so. But unlike eBay, local online auction bidders don’t have to put their highest and best bid in before the time runs out, because a last-second bid restarts the clock for five more minutes. On eBay, once the time runs out, it’s over. So decide what you want, then wait until the item nears the end of the auction before bidding. If you put in a high bid for something but no one else is close, you will only have to pay a little more than the second-highest bid.Research expensive items before bidding. 
  • With days in advance of each item being sold, there is time to search online for what you want in order to gauge how much it might be worth, whether it’s cheaper on eBay, what it cost originally, etc.
  •  Examine photos closely.
  • Look very carefully at the images presented of older items, such as furniture. You can often zoom in to see every angle of it. The description usually explains the condition, flaws and more. But eye it closely yourself as well.
  • Contact the auction house with questions. 
  • Companies are often customer-service oriented. They will answer questions to avoid having an issue after the fact. For very expensive items, such as vehicles, they sometimes allow you to see it in person before the auction.
  • Check for manufacture dates.
  • This especially holds for electronics and appliances. It’s usually on the back or on the inside, and often is one of the images provided in the listing (if not, ask for the date). A television three years old will clearly fetch far higher bids than one five times older.
  • Mind the buyer’s premium and tax. 
  • The buyer’s premium is 18 percent, and sales tax is 6.35 percent. That can add up when winning expensive items.

Designer handbags and vintage toys can sell like hotcakes at online auctions, but antique dark-brown furniture and china tend to be tough sells.

Designer handbags and vintage toys can sell like hotcakes at online auctions, but antique dark-brown furniture and china tend to be tough sells.


Hot (and not) auction items: The good, the bad and the unsold

Beauty is in the eye of the bidder at online auctions. Many objects are consistently competed for, but there is one thing that almost always gets little or no action.“Brown furniture … that’s a tough one,” admits Christie Spooner, with Black Rock Galleries. “Nobody’s decorating with brown furniture anymore. Unless there’s something really exceptional or rare, it’s nothing special.”

There are other mostly ignored items in auctions as well. Collections of coins, stamps, books, sports cards and the like are sometimes up for bid, but unless there’s something of extraordinary value, they tend not to be fought over. “A Babe Ruth autograph or someone else very famous goes for a lot of money, but nobody much cares about most of the other ones,” says Spooner. “There are very few baseball or sports cards that are worth a lot.”

And anytime there is an abundance of something available in the marketplace, there won’t be bidding wars. 

“The kinds of things that are tough sells are items in surplus at the moment and hitting the market in droves,” says Sam Grossman, general manager of Clearing House Estate Sales. “Stuff that baby boomers are trying to get rid of, like dark brown furniture, china, those kinds of things. I don’t think anybody’s expecting an exceptional amount of money unless it’s a really rare pattern of china or a really nice set of Waterford crystal glasses.”

There’s also the specter of having to pick up what you win, as auction houses rarely provide trucks and lifting help. So anything that’s very heavy or won’t fit into a car, or both, often gets limited play. “Hiring labor to move heavy things is so exorbitant that you have to add it into your cost basis for purchasing an item,” says Grossman. “Often the cost of transporting something can outweigh the value of it when it comes to pianos or bedroom sets or large pieces of furniture.”

The news is much cheerier regarding what’s popular. “Generally fine jewelry, high-end designer goods, like a Chanel or Hermes handbag, don’t lose their value very much and are always bid up,” says Spooner. “Other categories people don’t always think about but that do pretty well are vintage toys from the 1970s and ’80s, and some old Nike sneakers, stuff like that. Those things have popped up as being highly collectible.

“Modern furniture and modern art always do well. And outdoor furniture is very popular because it’s really expensive in the store. So a good set at a moderate price sells really well.”

There are many of the same types of items at most auctions that can be had for bargain prices because typically not in hgh demand. Things like dishes, anything from a kitchen, flatware, tables, tools, framed pictures, and on and on. So get registered and enter prices and enjoy the competition. It’s a kick to win!


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