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Catawiki’s Whisky Auction: Why You Should Be Careful

I’m not sure what to think of the weekly whisky auction on Catawiki. Is it a good thing? I don’t necessarily think so. Is it a bad thing then? Not per se, if you’re careful. But what is it exactly and why do I have a problem with it?

For those unfamiliar with Catawiki, it is an online auction website offering much more than just whisky. But since whisky is what I’m interested in (and you too, otherwise you wouldn’t read this blog) I’ll just focus on that particular part. Where it differs from traditional whisky auctions, is that sellers aren’t required to send their bottles to Catawiki. A single picture is enough to enter a lot into auction.

The company started out focusing on the Dutch market (its country of origin is The Netherlands), but Catawiki has since gone international. Their first whisky auction in December 2013 featured just 30 lots. The latest auction included over 200. They are in fact the fastest growing technology company in Europe, topping the Deloitte Technology Fast 500. Obviously they provide a service people want. Full disclosure: I actually bought something from their auction, twice. I now no longer have an account, and here’s why.

Implied level of quality control
Catawiki presents itself as a proper auction house. They charge a sellers fee of 12,5 percent (excluding VAT/sales tax) and a buyers fee of 9 percent. You expect something in return for that. Like for example a guarantee that everything has been done to minimize the possibility of fake whisky turning up in an auction. And on the surface it looks like they do this, because they employ auctioneers, people who are (presented at least) to be experts in their field (check this mirror image for a job description).

There are two auctioneers assigned to the whisky auction on Catawiki. One of ’em is an unfamiliar face to me, but the other is a well-known and respected expert. It instills a sense of trust in the consumer when they see an expert is responsible for the auction. Presenting an auctioneer also implies you’re aspiring to a certain standard of quality control, for instance when it comes to fakes. But since a Catawiki-auctioneer never actually gets to hold the item up for auction, I doubt there is a high level of quality control at Catawiki.

(Honest?) mistakes
It can be very difficult to spot a fake. Even if you’re an expert and are able to examine a whisky bottle with your own eyes. Let alone if all you have is a picture, which (as I mentioned before) is the case at Catawiki. That, apparently, is a risk they are willing to take. Some lots are presented with a picture which has clearly been ripped from some shop’s website (example 1, 2, 3). I find it shocking that lots like these are accepted.

The Catawiki-auctioneer is responsible for checking the information provided by the seller. But I’ve seen instances where a batch #32 of an Aberlour a’bunadh was offered as a 32 year old whisky. Or where a Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso (a NAS whisky) was offered as a 16 year old. Or a Yamazaki 12 that was described by the seller as a discontinued whisky, when at the time it was still widely available. In the end it sold for 200 euro, way above market value. All of these (honest?) mistakes by the seller were corrected, but only after concerned consumers alerted the auctioneers.

With description errors like these and sometimes faulty pictures, I don’t get the feeling that the lots are evaluated thoroughly. But several times I’ve come across statements from Catawiki (in Dutch) that they do indeed check for authenticity. So that made me wonder what their process is. How do they check for authenticity, when all they have is pictures and a description supplied by the seller? In my correspondence with them, I didn’t get an answer to that question.

Catawiki declines lots
While I couldn’t get them to explain their process, instead I was told by one of the whisky-auctioneers that sellers are responsible for their pictures as well as the information. “We instruct them that they can only use their own pictures. And we also point out that better pictures often lead to higher bids. With brands with a higher risk of fakes, like Macallan, and really all expensive bottles, we are extra careful. The fact that I can’t name examples of fakes being auctioned on Catawiki shows that we know our job.” I was told they do sometimes decline lots. But when I asked how often this happens, I didn’t get an answer.

Catawiki has a safeguard that should be mentioned, and was discussed in my correspondence with them. The buyer’s money is held for two weeks by Catawiki. Should a problem arise during this period, like not receiving the lot you won or receiving a damaged item, the money will be held by Catawiki until a solution is found. This is a solution for problems caused by bad pictures or faulty descriptions, but not for fakes. When an average consumer receives his winning lot, he can’t spot a fake, even if he can judge it with his own eyes.

Really everything becomes clear when you read Catawiki’s terms and conditions. They can’t verify the quality of the products up for auction, they literally say so:

Catawiki is unable in any way to verify the quality, security, legitimacy, or accuracy of the offered Items or the authority of sellers to offer the Items for sale, or the authority and possibilities of buyers to purchase Items. Catawiki does not accept any liability for any loss or damage suffered as a result of participating in an Auction, either as a seller or as a buyer.

On the trustworthy scale Catawiki lies somewhere between eBay (a known hotbed for whisky fakers) and a traditional online whisky auction like WhiskyAuction.com.  There’s no way the people at Catawiki can judge the authenticity of a whisky bottle from a set of pictures. The main advantage Catawiki has over eBay is that they have that safeguard in where they don’t pay the seller until the buyer is satisfied. But this is a service that is also provided by the Marketplace on Whiskybase. They charge only 8 percent to the seller, and there’s no fee for the buyer.

Use common sense
When using Catawiki, you have to use common sense. That is the main reason for me wanting to write this blog. You can buy nice bottles of whisky on Catawiki, sometimes for decent prices. But if you’re not an expert (and chances are you aren’t) then you should be careful, and not simply believe that just because Catawiki uses auctioneers, all bottles up for auction are authentic. Be careful. When something seems to good to be true, it usually is.

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