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Amnesty For The Auctioneers

Posted on: May 6th, 2008

CONFESSION time: A few weeks ago, I broke bread with an auctioneer.

Throughout lunch, the words of US essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson kept ringing in my ears: “The louder he talked of his honour, the faster I counted the spoons.”

Such is my naked distrust of the whole industry.

Confession number two: I liked the man.

Edward Carey, the new president of the Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute (IAVI), has a fight on his hands cleaning up the estate agents’ body, the wretches in the IAVI. He will need to administer amnesia to the entire nation.

Edward seemed a soft soul, probably selected as an antidote to the abrasive IAVI boss Alan Cooke. Carey has a reforming zeal. My guess is that the ultra-defensive culture of the “Institute” will drive him bonkers, but it will be fascinating to see how he fares against the embedded might of the members. And he will need to put manners on Cooke. No easy task.

Cooke has been in office throughout the property boom, a golden period when his members drip fed the public with an orgy of misleading guide prices, all published in the newspapers. So in the good times, IAVI members were publicly undervaluing property prices. And getting away with it. Such activity tended to fill the auction rooms. Buyers were suckered into the sales. Enter the bad times. Little has changed. They are still misleading the public, but in the opposite direction.

Last week, Cooke took to the airwaves as even more serious complaints surfaced about his flock. Auctioneers, many of them IAVI members, are still sending misleading prices to be published in the newspapers. And once again, they have got away with it. They have been informing the nation that sale prices achieved behind closed doors were higher than they actually were. Such activity tended to prop up the sagging market. Perhaps we should not be surprised. Auctioneers are not everybody’s first choice for tiger-shooting companions.

The Irish Times, victims of this little wheeze, had rumbled the auctioneers and circulated an email asking them to stop “exaggerating” sale levels for publication. The Sunday Business Post carried Cooke’s response. It encapsulated the super-smug IAVI culture. After the ritual condemnations, he unwittingly exposed the modus operandi of the Institute: “We are not here to mislead the market, but we need complaints from the public in order to investigate.”

What a defence. No complaints from the public, no investigation. Roll on Pontius Pilate. Imagine the gardai refusing to act without a complaint. There would be no gardai on the beat, no patrols, no investigations, corpses could be left on the side of the street because no-one had made a formal complaint.

Edward Carey’s first task should be to put an end to this cant. Let him insist that the IAVI investigates all controversies, that it does not hang around for a member of the public to complain before it initiates action. No member of the public complained about the extraordinary antics of IAVI member Colm McEvoy, the man who secretly paid over €1.7m compensation to an old lady, after selling her land to a company with which he was connected. The IAVI sat on its hands. But following a public outcry, it seems a complainant will now be found.

My guess is that the new president, Edward Carey, will quietly put a bomb under the backsides of the old IAVI, insisting that it seizes the initiative in cases like this one. He faces an uphill battle.

On Thursday, I nearly choked when I heard poor Alan Cooke maintain that he had no idea his members were feeding the media with misinformation. He told Mary Wilson on RTE’s Drivetime programme: “No, I don’t believe anyone was aware of that until this email issued and until the issue got legs in the last few weeks.” How quaintly out of touch he must be with their antics.

Such predictable inertia from the auctioneers prompted a response elsewhere. Hope was at hand. A quango called our errant auctioneers to order. And then, the quango bottled it. The National Consumer Agency read the press reports, summoned our two auctioneering bodies to a meeting, gave them a mild ticking off — and then ran for cover.

On Tuesday, both auctioneers bodies (IAVI and IPAV) met the National Consumer Agency. They were on the back foot. According to insiders, the auctioneers held up their hands in horror. How could this happen? They abhorred this type of activity. They knew nothing. If only there had been a complaint … blah, blah, blah.

The National Consumer Agency huffed and puffed, made threatening noises about its draconian powers under the Consumer Protection Act 2007, claimed credit for extracting a promise from the auctioneers never to sin again and then vowed to “monitor” the situation “going forward”. Book closed. The lads walked away scot free.

The IAVI and IPAV knew nothing, saw nothing. The lame State agency will not be bringing prosecutions; not even after rightly insisting that misinforming the media about property sales is as serious as creating a false market in stocks and shares.

The Consumer Agency has granted the lads an amnesty. The agency’s limp excuse: prosecutions take time! Wow. Tell that to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He would be out of a job. So regulation Irish-style rides again. Offenders will be liberated. Yet injured consumers have no redress. The same consumers may have suffered tangible losses. Some may have overpaid for properties on the basis of false published prices. Which raises the awkward little issue of the relationship between newspapers and the two auctioneering bodies currently acting as fig leaves for the ethics of estate agents.

The Irish Times has a deal with the IAVI; its fully owned subsidiary advertises on the IAVI website. The Irish Times even sponsored some of Mr Cooke’s members’ entry to a casino in Monte Carlo in recent years. The property section in the Irish Times is dependent on advertising.

It is not alone. The Sunday Independent and Irish Independent receive healthy income from property. They too sponsor estate agencies’ activities; but this article is a clear indicator of their influence over editorial.

The Irish Times will be a sponsor of this week’s IPAV conference in the Grand Hotel, Malahide. The IPAV conference is heavy on entertainment and light on business. There is a tour and lunch at Malahide Castle, a golf outing to Portmarnock, a cabaret, a reception and a dinner with entertainment by Geraldine Branagan and her band. Guest speaker will be incoming Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Well connected, these auctioneers. The Taoiseach attends. The media sponsors. No wonder the Bill to reform them has not seen the light of day. What chance have the consumers? New president Edward Carey is a man dedicated to cleaning up the IAVI’s act. God help him in his mission.

All the silver spoons were in place at the end of our lunch. I am glad he did not bring along any of his less palatable members. I should have counted them twice.

Oh, by the way, I picked up the bill.