Descriptions in Auctions

“I want life in every word to the extent that it’s absurd.” B. Gibbard

We’ve all been around the block enough in the realm of online auctions to know what a description is. I mean, it is what it is. It tells the bidder what, in fact, they are bidding on. That’s the basic idea for an auction description, give the bidder a clue. But, I’ve always felt that descriptions should go beyond just telling a bidder what something is. It’s fairly clear from the picture that an item is a chair or a table or a piece of artwork. Our eyes can tell us that much without having to rely on any extra words.

I try to entice bidders by giving extra information about a piece. You’re all intelligent enough to know a chair from a sewing cabinet. I don’t try to presume to insult your intelligence by telling you what you already know, that item is a chair. Yes, it’s a chair, we can all see that. What is it about the chair that makes it special? What about it makes it something a buyer may want in their home? That’s why research and descriptions are so important to us.

Sometimes, we have very little to go on. The piece may not have any distinguishing markers to indicate where it originated or who the original maker was. Sometimes, we rely heavily on our old friend Google and his sometimes a bit slower on the uptake cousin, Bing. We try our best to become mini archeologists while we dig for facts about a piece. Sometimes, we can’t really pass tidbits off as facts because they come from places like Pinterest or Etsy or EBay. None of these sites are validated for accuracy, so we say that research indicates this piece is consistent with….. I sometimes feel like an anthropologist when I use the term “consistent with” or the term “research indicates.” But, at times, that’s all we’ve got to go on.

Occasionally, we’ll get anecdotal information from the consignor. Many times, when a person is downsizing or handling the liquidation of an estate, they have fond memories of varying pieces. They often love to tell us stories about remembering this piece when it was new. We feel that in order to help honor their memories, we should include these anecdotes in our descriptions. As I said in an earlier piece, we don’t feel that our responsibility is to just sell your stuff. We feel that we should be preserving those memories if just for a bit longer. Maybe the end buyer will pass the story on when people admire the piece in their home. Maybe they won’t, such is the nature of the beast.

Normally, I write the descriptions myself. It is my creative outlet. There’s that and this blog and that’s all I really have to channel my creative side, so I run with it. Sometimes, I need to stop myself because a description is running the length of “War and Peace” and I need to remind myself that there is no Pulitzer Prize category for auction descriptions. There are reasons we do this. We never wanted to do things by the cookie cutter method. We don’t want bland and boring. If you’re looking at a piece and you need some convincing that it is for you, you probably take to the descriptions to find out more about it. Maybe you want to know if the lighting made the fabric darker or lighter, I usually tell you in the descriptions. Maybe you see a piece and you think it may make a good project but you aren’t quite sure what to do with it, I try to give some suggestions via the description. I love Pinterest, but I can’t quite pull of what some of those talented people can. (I made chalk paint once, it clotted). I also lack the time to do every project on my list. So, I pass on what I’ve seen.

The most important reason, to us anyway, that we try to be comprehensive in descriptions is that we want to bring life to a piece. I want to breathe life in to every word I use to describe a piece because these pieces all represent someone’s life. They tell a story about the past owners. In as big a way as possible, we want to bring those stories and those little historical tidbits we’ve dug up to life for you. We will never write fiction as a description. That is deceptive and unethical. But, we will present facts and anecdotes. If a consignor tells us something about a piece we’ll include it. It gives the piece life. It shows that the piece was loved and valued by someone maybe long ago, maybe last week, but It was treasured. We once had a consignor tell us a darling story about a porcelain lined basin. Apparently, as a child, she had a pet duck. That basin had been used as the duck’s bathtub for quite a long time. It was a cute story. Did it add to the value of the piece? No. It wasn’t Daffy Duck or Donald Duck who bathed in that basin. But the story brought the piece to life. It wasn’t just a basin; it was a bathtub for a much loved family pet.

Good antique pieces outlive us. We’ve always felt that the stories behind the pieces should continue on long after the original owners or even the fifth owners are no longer with us. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been a fan of descriptive writing. Not so descriptive that it takes three chapters and 18 footnotes to tell the reader that that grass is green, mind you. I call that Tolkien syndrome. Just descriptive enough that you know the color of the grass and your mind can conjure up images of the field and perhaps a faint scent of fresh grass.

When we tell people what it is we do for a living, they immediately think that we spend all of our time moving furniture and other heavy objects around all day. Or that we do what the folks on Storage Wars do. I’ll say that some days, it sure feels like we’ve moved every piece of furniture on the Eastern Seaboard at least once. But, that’s just part of what we do. To do this and do it well, you have to be part carnival barker, part archeologist, part picker, part historian and part wordsmith. Those parts make up the whole. To do it badly, you just have to show up. We’ve never been the phone it in types so we have no idea how that works.

The quote I referenced above is what inspired this entry to begin with. I was listening to music not too long ago and I heard a song I had forgotten written by Ben Gibbard. The song was about a man writing and shooting movie script reminiscent of an old Clark Gable film. The song is called “Clark Gable” for those who are wondering, it’s by Postal Service. The line resonated with me. I want life in every word used in a description. Sometimes, it does go to the point of absurdity and I have to scale back a bit. Even though my old philosophy professor (I called him Pompus McStuffedshirt) used to tell us that sometimes a chair is just a chair, it really isn’t. When you just call it a chair, you’re selling yourself short.

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