Sunday, July 11, 2010


Months before her planned visit to Manhattan to see her son, Eric, a reader from Ohio named Patricia had purchased tickets for them to see August Wilson's play, "Fences," and the musical "La Cage aux Folles."

The play was a limited run starring Oscar winner Denzel Washington, making it a hot ticket, and the tickets became even hotter after Washington won a Tony Award for his performance. Patricia never saw either show, however, because an emergency occurred shortly before her scheduled departure and she was forced to cancel the trip.

The tickets did not go to waste, though, because her son was able to resell them on the Internet ... and therein rests a tale.

Patricia writes that, because her ticket for "Fences" was hot, it was worth far more than its face value on the open market. Believing it ethically wrong to ask for more than his mother had paid for it, however, her son sold it for only the face value.

His mother disagrees with his take on the situation.

"If a property becomes worth more than what the owner paid for it," she asks, "is it ethically wrong to sell that property for the new market value?"

Anti-scalping laws exist for a variety of reasons, whether to protect the public from unscrupulous resellers or to help avoid the sale of fraudulent tickets to performances or sporting events. The laws regarding resale of such tickets vary from state to state. Some prohibit it, some require resellers to be licensed. Some put limits on how much of a markup, if any, is permissible. Auction Web sites, such as eBay, often post state regulations on such matters, and they can be dauntingly complex.

The law is not the issue here, however. It would be "obviously wrong" to ask her son to do anything illegal, Patricia writes, but she believes that it would not be illegal to mark up the price of her "Fences" ticket, noting that her ticket for "La Cage aux Folles" sold for much less than face value.

"Assuming that selling the ticket for the greater value was legal," she writes, "isn't it just good business sense to do so? I don't see this as an ethics question, but obviously my son does."

I appreciate Eric's urge to be ethical, but - so far as no laws are being violated - I don't believe there would have been anything wrong in his letting the market dictate the price of his mother's tickets. As she says, the value of items can change, and the price a seller paid for an item seldom has anything to do with how much a buyer pays for it. If my grandson bought a packet of Yugioh cards, came across a valuable one and decided to sell it for more than the cost of the whole packet, there would be nothing wrong with that, if he could find another collector who wanted the card and was willing to pay for it.

That said, the fact that Eric considers it unethical isn't irrelevant. Ethics vary from person to person, and what's fine for one person may be wrong for another.

If this comes up again in the future, the right thing for my reader and her son to do will be to determine the applicable laws and then come to some agreement about how to price her tickets. If Eric isn't comfortable selling them for more than face value, he shouldn't have to, and my reader shouldn't force the issue. She should sell the tickets herself or find someone else to help her, someone who is not uncomfortable with her pricing requirements.

There's nothing wrong with letting the market dictate the price of the tickets, but it's not mandatory, and Eric has every right to say no if he doesn't want to get involved.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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