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In the past three weeks a number of people have contacted the Antiques trade Gazette to complain about firms – all based outside the UK – demanding money for listings in guides. In every case the dealer signing the order document thought they were merely updating their details for a free listing. However, the small print confirms otherwise.

Despite such questionable marketing tactics being highlighted several times over the past few years, many people in the trade still seem to be falling foul of them.

The latest complaint involves the Barcelona-based European City Guide, a company that have already been fined £14,000 by the Catalan authorities following complaints from the UK’s Office of Fair Trading about a mailshot sent out in 1999.

The OFT are still awaiting a decision on a further complaint about the guide’s latest mailshot, which has caught out UK antiques dealers. They reported it to the Catalan authorities last December.

The 2001 mailshot makes it even less clear than their earlier one that dealers who sign are contracting to pay fees – usually of about £500. The sting in the tail is that if they do not cancel further orders by a specified date, they then become liable for more charges.

The introduction to the guide’s listing form, which asks the addressee to fill in their details, makes no mention of advertising or charges, nor does it give any indication that it is inviting the individual to do anything more than update their details.

It reads: “We are presently compiling commercial information for the European City Guide. Filling in this form would give you the opportunity to be published in our interprofessional Guide and Internet Directory. In order to positively represent your company and your city, we would be grateful if you would fill in and return this form. Please send us any additional information about your business in a separate envelope. Thank you in advance for your co-operation.”

When the Gazette contacted the guide last week to ask them to make the purpose of their forms clearer, they refused to comment other than to say that they thought the forms were clear and to tell us to write to their correspondence department with any queries.

At least one dealer who has not paid their bill has now received a letter purporting to be from the guide’s legal department demanding payment and adding interest to the charges.

Interestingly, although the terms and conditions on the original order form stipulate that “the place of jurisdiction is the editor’s address in the case of action being taken by either party”, when the Gazette rang the guide and asked to speak to the editor, the switchboard seemed baffled by the question and three members of staff in the correspondence department told us that the guide did not have an editor.

And what do those who sign the forms get for their £500 or more? Checking their Website for the details of one dealer who complained, we found the dealer’s name, address, telephone and fax number.

The only indication of what they sold came under the heading ‘Detailed activity’, and read: “ART–HANDICRAFT-ANTIQUES”. The details are repeated in a printed guide that accompanies the first invoice.

Those who have contacted the Gazette complained of being misled and were concerned at being pursued for the money. Despite threats by other guides of further action being taken in the event of non-payment, the Gazette has yet to hear of any such action taking place.
Anyone receiving unsolicited forms that appear to be asking them to update details free of charge should read the terms and conditions carefully before deciding whether or not to sign up. Those who have already signed and sent off forms and are faced with unexpected bills should seek professional legal advice if they do not wish to pay them.

The OFT, who have no jurisdiction in the matter because the European City Guide is based in Barcelona, said UK businesses should be alert to the sort of marketing practices exercised by such companies.

They also advised that those with complaints should write directly to the Catalan authorities at:

Generalitat de Catalonia
Direccion General
de Securidad Industrial
Avda Diagonal 405 bis
08008 Barcelona

The Gazette would be interested to hear from anyone in the trade who has had similar difficulties and especially from anyone who has resolved them satisfactorily.