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Behind the auction: Superior Galleries

December 21, 2001 — Prior to eBay and websites like it, the only source collectors could rely on for a regular supply of space memorabilia was Superior Galleries' biannual auctions. Drawing an international audience of consignors and bidders since 1993, the Beverly Hills firm's May and October sales provide literally thousands of lots, encompassing everything from autographs to flown hardware.

Given its central role in the hobby, Superior Galleries has not existed without its share of detractors. The inclusion of (alleged) forgeries in its catalogs, in addition to customer support problems reported by both consignors and bidders have left some collectors with questions about the firm's operation.

With the news of a major reorganization within Superior, including the promotion of former Senior Buyer and Appraiser Michael Orenstein to Vice President, collectSPACE recently gathered your queries and sat down with Orenstein to elicit his replies.

collectSPACE (cS): Let's start with the issue most of our readers cite as a concern: authentication.

Michael Orenstein (MO): We do the best we can. When a person says they (or their dad) worked on a program and salvaged an item, who are we to say they didn't. If it seems logical, we run it as described. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it is authentic; sometimes it isn't.

Are we perfect? No. Do we try? Yes. Show me some impartial organization that will authenticate this material and I will strongly recommend that everything we run be authenticated by them. Unfortunately such an impartial source doesn't exist.

The opinion of "self-proclaimed experts" is just that, an opinion, no matter their experience. This is no more valid than the opinion of anyone else to the world at large.

Any lot in our sales can be returned if a valid expert deems it not genuine. It is the "valid expert" that is the sticking point. We generally look for three individuals whose opinions we respect to independently (an important point) tell us an item is not genuine. Then we withdraw it from the sale.

cS: Why not employ knowledgeable full-time or temporary staff to assist with cataloguing to eliminate the inclusion of basic mistakes?

MO: Do you know any? I would love to get a list of "experts" in Southern California to put on call. Would they drop what they were doing to come in on a moment's notice? We open cartons and describe what we find inside.

I do call experts when I know of them to check out items after I have written a basic description. I make corrections based on their opinions. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to avoid mistakes except to make and learn by them.

cS: What about the resources that are readily available, such as "Astronaut Autopens" by Simon Vaughan and Roy Gutske (as advertised at the back of each Superior Galleries' catalog)?

MO: Yes, we sell and have Simon's autopen book and sell his overlays (we even pay him a royalty for each set sold). You may not believe this, but we check our autographs with the overlays too.

However, some do get by us. We do remove them from the sale once we are notified per the above criteria, but it gives all of our bidders something to point a finger at.

A more important problem has to do with counterfeit autographs. I have yet to come up with a definitive way to identify some of these. I can't accept the notion that any autograph that doesn't match a known example, is automatically a counterfeit. That just doesn't make sense to me.

cS: If you are aware of bidders' sensitivities towards fakes, why include phrases such as "possibly flown" in your lot descriptions?

MO: If a consignor says that he worked on a program and an astronaut gave an item to him that he says "he carried," who am I to question him? I can't say that it "is" flown, but i can say "possibly" flown.

The buyer should read what I am saying and not assume what I am not. I have no intent to deceive anyone. If a "purist" only wants flown items with documentation, he shouldn't bid on a "possibly flown" item.

cS: What about labeling second or third generation negatives as "original"?

MO: Were they commercially prepared? Did NASA issue them? Second and third generation transparencies are original. Where is the word "original" linked only to first generation transparencies?

The third generation transparencies are generally the only ones that NASA distributed. What is not "original" about them?

cS: Personally, I have always wondered about the transparencies' desirability, however that's just me. That does leads me to another question, though.

Why allow items outside of the realm of space memorabilia (i.e. science fiction, militaria, toys, etc.) to be consigned?

MO: What is space memorabilia? It seems to me that science fiction is/was just a precursor to space flight. I can see some validity in asking about militaria, but space toys are often what led inquiring minds to first learn about science and space.

Militaria is an oddball area but we got into it because the astronauts were aviators and some of them had military memorabilia from their careers. The army stuff just crossed our path and we thought it might be interesting to run it. It was not well received so it probably won't be run in volume again.

cS: Your answer reveals you may amend your normal offerings to meet the desires of a consignor. Would you say you place more focus on meeting the needs of the consignor or the bidder?

MO: We try to strike a balance between the needs of both. This is sometimes difficult as the needs of both are diametrically opposite. I think a definition of "needs" is in order here.

cS: Our readers raise a few specific examples which might help to define "needs." The next few questions will step through each case.

Why close the bidding on individual items so quickly?

MO: How long does it take for a bidder to make up his mind? One second, ten seconds? We run ten to twenty auctions per year and have done it for 35 years. Our auctioneers try to strike a balance between keeping the sale going and giving the bidders time to make up their mind.

A phone bidder is under a disadvantage in that he can't see the floor action. Unfortunately many bidders do not do their homework and mark what they are willing to pay into their catalogs. They want time to think if they want to go higher.

Since we generally do about 850 to 1,000 lots per session, this takes three to four hours. Anything that slows up the process is not good. A good auctioneer develops a rhythm that the bidders can follow. Any deviation from this throws both the auctioneer off stride and is annoying.

The only suggestion I can offer is for the bidder to do his homework and set up his bids ahead of time. Some people think fast, some slow. It is our job to accommodate everyone, and to keep the sale moving along.

cS: Do all lots have reserve prices, set by either the consignor or by Superior?

MO: Of all the lots we run, 98% do not have reserve prices. This works out to probably less than 10 to 15 lots in any sale being reserved.

The reserves are generally on unusual, high priced lots where I have no idea what they will realize and I do not want the owner to be hurt. Sometimes the reserves are excessive, but generally I try to refuse those since I want the lots to sell.

Sometimes I miscalculate and think a reserve is reasonable when it really is high. Hopefully, both I and the owner will learn by the experience. To me a reserve is a tool to be used only in a proper place. I will not take reserves on ordinary material since we conduct an open market place and are not trying to dictate to it.

cS: Does the highest proxy bid equate to the opening bid presented to the floor? If not, how is the opening bid determined? Is there a mathematical formula for determining the amount?

MO: The bidding process works as follows: the catalogs are mailed out and bids are mailed in. All are entered into the computer. The top two bids are selected for each lot.

Bidding opens to the floor bidders (those present at the sale) at one bid above the second highest mail bid. (For example, say you have two top mail bids of $100 and $75. The bidding would open at about 5% above the second high bid or $80. If the two top bids were $50 and $500, the bidding would still open at $52.50.)

I run the bid book at the sale and represent the high mail bidder. Nobody knows what the high bid is on each lot but me. I bid for him as if he were there on the floor. I act as his agent. If the floor bid exceeds the high mail bid, I stop bidding and the floor bidder wins the lot. If the bidding stops at $100 (in the hypothetical $50 / $500 situation above), the $500 bidder would get the lot for $105. There are no games and everything is rather straight forward.

Strange situations can happen such as two bidders who bid way more than a lot is worth or a lot that sells too low, but these are the exceptions. Most lots go for prices that are fairly predictable.

In most cases, I receive a number of bids at the same amount or all clustered in one area. The first bid received when there are identical bids has the lot opened at his top bid and, if the floor doesn't outbid him, wins the lot at his top bid. I had no choice in that situation since the two top bids were identical.

It is often confusing for both the bidder and the "under-bidder" when looking at the prices realized.

cS: Why are commission rates (both for consignor and bidder) so high?

MO: Define high? We don't charge for photography, insurance or for other things that other auction houses charge. A 15% buyers premium is what we and many other firms charge to buyers. This is a labor intensive business despite computers.

What do you think the catalogs and postage cost us each sale? What about the in-house photographers, layout artists and lotters. Beverly Hills is not a low rent district. Our overhead is no higher than in any other large city, but it is massive due to the number of people involved.

I would be glad to offer reduced commission rates for consignments of nothing but high value items. Unfortunately, most consignments are mainly low value items with a few better pieces. This is what collectors have and our expenses remain the same for the good and for the bad.

And don't tell me to just throw the lower end material into a box. How would you like your material treated in that manner?

cS: While we are on the topic, let's talk a little about customer support.

Some first time absentee bidders have expressed difficulty trying to participate (i.e. registration problems, pre-payment requirements, etc.). What is being done (if anything) to simplify the process?

MO: Simplify it - never. Our bureaucrats would be out of jobs —

All joking aside and since this question involves so many options, all i can say is the best solution would be to call us on our toll free line and our customer service manager, Maile Imig, will be glad to help solve the problem, as will we all. Things like credit and pre-payment can only be solved on a one-to-one basis, but please don't bid if you are a bad credit risk — our consignors won't be happy.

cS: Why not accept credit/debit cards as a valid form of payment?

MO: It is under consideration. The negative is that the charge can be cancelled by the buyer at any time without our agreement. This can lead to fraud.

We are acting as a broker for our consignors and feel that it is a risk that needs careful consideration. At our reasonable commission rates, we cannot afford to absorb such potential losses.

The positive is the ease and convenience for many of you to pay your bills promptly. We would like that too, so we are looking into it carefully.

cS: Why use low quality paper to print your catalogs?

MO: The low-quality paper is not because we are cheap. (Actually we are, but it enables us to keep our overhead as low as possible.)

The real reason is that the weight of coated paper is about double of that we use. We have tried it. It looks better, but bidders complained that, with 3,000 lots in the sale, the catalog was almost too heavy to hold in their lap. There is also the problem of the pages coming loose unless we bind the signatures and this is expensive. And the shipping and the ink smearing, etc.

Get the idea? The "cheaper" paper (which isn't really that much cheaper) is a better compromise for a sale of the size we run.

cS: Why are the catalog images so small such that, for example, autographs cannot be viewed clearly? Why aren't much larger images available on your website?

MO: The images in the catalog are well sized for each lot. Larger images mean thicker catalogs which mean a $50 charge for the catalog instead of $20. Would that be better? Sure. But how big is big enough? Everything in catalog production is a compromise and nothing is perfect.

I will agree about the website pictures, though. I recently looked at a site where when you clicked on a photo it kept getting larger and larger. Striking. We are looking to see if we can incorporate this feature when we redo our site with our new webmaster.

cS: As long as we are on the subject, some bidders have expressed difficulty using the website (i.e. necessity of moving back and forth between pages to view individual lots). What is being done (if anything) to simplify the process?

MO: All the difficulties using our website are under consideration. With our reorganization, correcting these problems is one of my highest priorities. We are not a large firm such as eBay and we have a limited number of hands to do the work. We are in the market for a new webmaster who, hopefully will address this problem shortly.

Believe me when I say that problems with the site hurt me as much as they hurt you. All of the usage, image and related problems will hopefully be addressed during 2001. Other problems such as accounting and shipping have a higher degree of priority as they affect more people. If you have problems with the site, feel free to email or call us.

cS: You elicit feedback but some readers report customer feedback as often being met with debate. Is customer feedback valuable to Superior?

MO: What is meant by debate? Should we respond to feedback by throwing it in the trash? Or should we answer it? Or should we answer it without comment?

If we feel that the feedback is correct we/I say so. If we/I feel it is wrong, we/I say so. Why is this wrong?

We consider feedback very valuable and I would like even more of it. Our customer service manager, Maile Imig or I respond promptly to every piece received (that we know about).

If what is being suggested is that we shouldn't comment on feedback, than I do not agree. Feedback is a two way street, isn't it?

cS: Given your busy schedule, I want to thank you Michael for taking the time to answer our questions. To wrap up, can you tell us how the recent management changes will affect the space memorabilia auctions?

MO: The recent management changes are definitely going to have a profound affect on the operation of the company.

For one thing, we will listen to you and solve all problems promptly. We are taking the approach that "when in doubt, you (the customer) are right."

Notice I said "when in doubt." All problems will be promptly and fairly resolved, however we reserve the right to disagree with you, in which case some of you might be less than satisfied. We will, however, try to see it your way. It's just that some people try to take advantage.

Your suggestions are appreciated and I will try to incorporate them wherever possible. Let me know what changes you want incorporated into the company and we will see what we can do.

I can tell you we will probably be holding the May sale at the Santa Monica Museum of Flying. This is a fabulous museum housing the Donald Douglas collection of vintage airplanes and some space memorabilia. We are also trying to put together a Q&A session with an astronaut (exactly who isn't known yet) for the Friday evening prior to the sale and we will hopefully put together a list of tours of Southern California space facilities such as Edwards AFB, Vandenburg AFB, JPL, and others.

We want to make attending our sale an event for you and the family. If anyone is interested, I can probably arrange discount tickets to Disneyland and Universal Studios as well. How about a special behind-the-scenes tour of 20th Century FOX Studios?

These are changes I want to see in our sales. What do you have in mind?

What do you have in mind? Discuss this interview now in collectSPACE: Messages

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