Graham's True Stories
Number 16, the Ring
Antiques dealers and auction houses are never the best of friends. Each, to a degree, saps the others' business. An auction house will point out that it gets a fair price and seeks only a percentage profit, whilst the antiques dealer looks for the biggest-possible mark up.
On the other hand, an antiques dealer points out that he is putting his own money up front and spends most of his business life hunting down his stock. Auction houses, he will point out, risk no capital, have little expertise, and win whether they sell the goods or not.
A couple of years back this came to a head with the first-ever prosecution of an auction "ring".
A "ring" works like this: Five dealers, all of whom are interested in an item, decided not to bid against each other but elect one to buy the item for, say, $100. Later that day in a pub or café, the five meet again and the item is auctioned anew with each member of the ring bidding until it is sold for, perhaps, $600.
The $600 is counted out on the table and the man who originally bought and paid for the item takes his $100 outlay from the pot and pockets it. Now the five share out the remaining $500.
Net result is that one man has bought an item for the market price and then got a $100 rebate and those who failed to buy got a $100 bonus for nothing.
Everyone wins except, of course, for the original vendor and the auction house. This ringing, and systems like it, is not legal in the UK. But the difficulty of proving a ring meant not a single prosecution until a couple of years back when a group of dealers who had operated a ring for many years were caught and convicted.
Seems that they had used the same corner table in the same cafe for every private auction and eventually at one "sale" a video camera behind a tea urn recorded all for the court to view shortly afterwards.
The ring still operates, of course, but now there is not one cafe but a dozen, plus a couple of clubs and five pubs. One of the ring said to me:
"Just how many cameras can the police have?"