demystifying the auction

I started going to auctions back in 2008, after we bought our first house.  Some major scores include a plaid pull-out sofa that was “used” on a movie set, but was essentially brand new, a vintage oak Victorian-style three-drawer dresser for my son’s room with fantastic brass owl detailing on the pulls, and a vintage Windsor bench that we use with our dining table — all at rock bottom prices.  

If you have the patience, auctions can be an inexpensive way to furnish and decorate a new space.  If you’ve never been to one, though, auctions can seem a bit daunting.  Some questions I’ve gotten (or have had) are: Aren’t they only for rich people?  Is it difficult to place a bid? Will the auctioneer think I’m bidding if I blow my nose? The answers are no, no, and no. 

First, auctions definitely are not only for rich people.  Yes, prices for some pieces can go quite high, and it’s always interesting to see a live bidding war.  In this case, though, I’m not talking Sotheby’s. Many auction houses have regularly (or somewhat regularly scheduled) sales where common household items are sold alongside more interesting, vintage pieces.  Most auction attendees are bargain hunters, and, depending on the crowd (and the time of day), you can score some really good deals.

Second, many auction houses allow you to bid in different ways.  The most common – and fun way – is to bid in person during the actual event.  I like doing it this way because you get a sense of the crowd (are there a lot of store owners, people buying for themselves, cheap-o’s?), and that will always help you decide when and how to bid.  If you can’t make it in person, you can always place an absentee bid, where you state the maximum amount you are willing to pay  upfront.  Typically, the auctioneer does not start at that point, but will keep your paddle (or bidder number) in the running until you reach your maximum bid.  I generally do not like bidding this way for two reasons.  One you can miss out on something you like by a five or ten dollars, which has happened to me and is very frustrating. Or, which I’ve seen happen to others, you can end up over-paying.  I’ve seen items come up that no one had any interest in, but for which there was already an absentee bid.  In those cases, I think the bidder may have gotten it for less if she had been there.  Finally, there is telephone (and online) bidding, which fewer auction houses seem to offer.  I don’t like this, either, because the folks on the phone always seem to dither and hold up the live action on the floor.  However you choose to bid, you should know that practically every auction house will require you to register before you are given a paddle.  Registration typically requires your full name, street address, and a credit card number.  So, don’t get too carried away.

And third, blowing your nose does not equal making a bid.  I know in the movies you see a little wink of the eye or a tip of the hat or some other super-subtle gesture – that’s the movies.  At a real auction, you have to clearly hold your paddle up high.

A few final thing to keep in mind: (1) The buyer’s premium – This is the amount charged to the buyer on top of the hammer price for their auction item (or lot). The premium can be from 10% to 20% and is added in before sales tax; (2) Preview – Any reputable auction house will provide an opportunity to preview the lots coming up for auction. I cannot stress how important it is to inspect potential purchases ahead of time.  Most auction purchases are final sale, so you should know what you’re bidding on; (3) Have fun­ – I love going to auctions.  Auctioneering is a real skill that is just fun to watch (there’s one guy in my town, Patrick, that is awesome), and it’s totally different than flea markets, barn sales, or any of my other favorite treasure hunting activities.  Everyone should go to at least one.  Now go forth and discover!





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