Tips on How to Be a Pro at an Antiques Auction
Four men held the set of early nineteenth century mahogany shield back chairs over their heads, showing them to the audience. The carved backs of the chairs, their splats, were shaped with a ruffled ostrich plume and fancy drapery swages. The design and workmanship is characteristic of one of America's most famous cabinet makers. My mom, Daria, of Daria of Woodbury Antiques, turned to me.
"Wayne, those chairs were made by Duncan Hines!" she joked.
A dealer turned and looked at us as if was looking at a double yoke egg.
"No mom," I said, going along with the joke, "Duncan Hines makes cake batter. Those chairs were made by Duncan Phyfe!"
The point of this story is my mom bought the chairs. She also purchased a good folk art trade sign, and several other great antiques that evening. That's because she's been attending auctions for almost forty years and she knows what she's doing. The guy who sneered at us paid a small fortune for a fake antique bird cage. Here's some insider tips on how to handle yourself like a pro at an auction.
HOW CAN I FIND AUCTIONS? Scan this paper and its classified ad section daily and subscribe to a good antique trade newspaper.
Two of the best are the Newtown Bee's Antiques and Arts Weekly (203)426-3141 and the monthly publication, Maine Antique Digest 1-800-752-8521. Hundreds of auctions are advertised in those papers every month. I counted twenty-five upcoming sales in Connecticut alone. When you find an auction you like, get on their mailing list.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? There is seldom admission cost or any obligation to buy anything, even at showy New York City sales like Sotheby's and Christie's. Often, auctioneers offer a descriptive catalog and good food and drinks for a reasonable price.
I'VE NEVER BEEN TO AN AUCTION BEFORE. HOW DOES IT WORK? Lot by lot, items are brought before the audience. The auctioneer asks for a bid: "How bouta fifty dollars to get it started?" Generally, bidding starts out at about half of what he/she wants and continues until the lot is sold to the highest bidder. Some items have minimum bids (reserves) attached to them. If this minimum is not reached by the audience the lot will be "bought-in" by the auctioneer and go back to the owner. Other bids, like absentee "left bids" and phone bids may also be executed by the auction house.
CAN I RESERVE SEATS AND PREVIEW THE ITEMS TO BE SOLD BEFORE THE SALE BEGINS? Yes. You can find preview or inspection times by consulting the ad for a particular sale. All buying decisions should be made at preview. I strongly recommend that you:
- Get to inspection early and reserve good seats.
- Scan the room and identify all items you might want to bid on.
- Inspect those items carefully.
- Write down, in your catalog, the most you'd be willing to happily spend on those pieces. Many auctions now add a 10%-15% buyers premium to all purchases. Consider this premium and sales tax in establishing your bid limit. Prioritize your list considering your budget and needs.
- Listen carefully to the "Conditions of Sale" that are announced the beginning of the auction and follow the sale diligently.
- Bid on no item you have not identified and inspected.
- Bid no more than the unemotional price you wrote down in your catalog.
I AM INTERESTED IN BIDDING ON A MAJOR PIECE AT AN UPCOMING SALE. WHAT DO YOU RECOMMEND? Hire a pro. For a commission of about 10% you'll get advice, and with most dealers, a guarantee as to integrity, condition, and value.