Bid­der beware

’Twas beau­ti­ful, as all great swin­dles are

Finweek English Edition - - Creating wealth - BY ADRI­AAN KRUGER adri­

GE­ORGE SUS­PECTS THAT the auc­tion­eer and his gang of friends have cheated him. He wishes he could do some­thing about it, and that his mates would stop laugh­ing ev­ery time they see the Per­sian rugs and the paint­ings he bought.

What’s of con­cern, is that it would ap­pear that un­eth­i­cal be­hav­iour – and dis­hon­esty – are ac­cepted as the norm in SA. A few weeks ago, Ge­orge re­ceived a flyer in the post ad­ver­tis­ing an auc­tion of paint­ings and furniture by Sta­tus Auctioneers. Ap­par­ently based in Jo­han­nes­burg, the auc­tion­eer and his as­sis­tants travel by truck from town to town, trans­port­ing their wares and the pop­u­lar Per­sian rugs. In the full­ness of time, Ge­orge and his wife at­tended the auc­tion, which started off on a friendly note with cof­fee and a chat. There were of course other bid­ders present. And, they bought a few paint­ings and rugs for their new house.

There were eight bid­ders in the au­di­ence. Un­be­known to the two cou­ples bid­ding quite in­no­cently on the items up for auc­tion, the other four art lovers were not re­ally buy­ing the stuff to take home and cher­ish. Bid­ding against the other four play­ers made their wal­lets lighter and the auc­tion­eer mer­rier.

A few days later, the auc­tion­eer’s truck was parked in front of the li­brary. Look­ing in quickly to say hello, Ge­orge found the same peo­ple bid­ding as at the pre­vi­ous auc­tion, with the ad­di­tion of one other cou­ple. Also in­ter­est­ing, was that some of the paint­ings bought by the friendly cof­fee drinkers were up for sale again.

Now the thing with paint­ings is that they are not all alike. Un­less you’re an ex­pert, you can­not re­ally tell if the Per­sian rug sold yes­ter­day, is the same as the one on auc­tion to­day to the same bloke. How­ever, your pow­ers of vis­ual dis­cern­ment would have to be so faint as to ren­der you vir­tu­ally blind, if you found your­self un­able to recog­nise the same paint­ing by Mag­gie Laub­ser or Adri­aan Boshoff that you saw be­ing sold only three days be­fore. Ge­orge asked the “buyer” of a large Cassey van der Leeck, why the paint­ing he bought at the pre­vi­ous auc­tion was up for sale again (among oth­ers), and why he was bid­ding on it only 72 hours later. The poor soul could not a n swe r . In fact, he started hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing.

The auc­tion­eer, how­ever, had no such prob­lems. He fol­lowed the script of in­dig­nant in­no­cence to the let­ter, threat­en­ing poor Ge­orge with le­gal ac­tion, for ev­ery­thing – from dis­rupt­ing his busi­ness to tres­pass­ing.

Three days later, there ap­peared an ad­ver­tise­ment in the lo­cal news­pa­per invit­ing peo­ple to an auc­tion of ex­otic furniture, paint­ings and Per­sian car­pets. This ad looked the same as those stuck in the post boxes, but placed by an­other auc­tion­eer. Or not?

A quick visit to the city hall re­vealed the same truck, the same auc­tion­eer and the same paint­ings. Yes, even the same ea­ger bid­ders.

This time, the door is manned by an as­sis­tant, whose job it is to point out that the right of ad­mis­sion is re­served (as had been stated in the leaflet). In­trepid souls, bold enough to en­ter, are quickly re­minded by the auc­tion­eer that he has a nasty lawyer.

We all know that auctioneers may have a friend in the au­di­ence to place a bid from time to time, to help prices along. We ac­cept, and ac­tu­ally ex­pect, this with­out de­bat­ing whether it’s eth­i­cal or not.

But when does some­thing like this cross the line from be­ing un­eth­i­cal to be­ing fraud­u­lent and thus a crim­i­nal of­fence pun­ish­able by a few months be­hind bars? A case of buy­ers beware, or the ba­sis for a visit to the lo­cal branch of the SAPS?

In this case, the goods up for sale did not be­long to some un­for­tu­nate soul who had made a few bad de­ci­sions and found the sher­iff at the door, but to the auctioneers them­selves. The fact that there were more jock­eys in the au­di­ence, to push up the prices, than real buy­ers – smacks of chi­canery at best – and of planned crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity at worst. It was not an event where ethics and high pro­fes­sional stan­dards could be ex­pected to pre­vail.

Over the last few years, “for­mal” busi­ness has em­barked on strate­gies to counter crim­i­nal acts at all lev­els. For in­stance, JSE rules and reg­u­la­tions with re­gard to share deal­ings are much stricter than a decade ago, as are steps taken by banks and fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions when open­ing and us­ing bank ac­counts. Even Gov­ern­ment de­part­ments seem to en­force reg­u­la­tions bet­ter.

Un­for­tu­nately, there are still some holes in the spirit of com­pli­ance to the law of zero tol­er­ance. We see this in busi­ness, we see it on the road, and we see it in at­tacks on peo­ple who have the courage to up­hold this law.

At least the new paint­ings are beau­ti­ful, even though they cost a few thou­sand rand more than they would have, had the young man with the breath­ing prob­lems been gain­fully em­ployed. ¤

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