Buying at Auctions

As a collector, you’re probably familiar with the phenomenon of the antique you just can’t get out of your head. Maybe a luscious Royal Doulton art nouveau salt-glazed stoneware vase once called to you from a shop window, but you didn’t answer the call quickly enough: it was sold the day after you spotted it. You’ve never been able to forget it. Now you’ve heard from an antiquing friend that there’s a piece just like your elusive vase coming up for sale in a local auction.

The news should be cause for celebration, but you hesitate, since you’ve never been to an auction before. Aren’t fine an-tiques auctions exclusively for the wealthy elite? It’s time to throw that stereotype-- undoubtedly the result of watching too many Hollywood movies--out the window. Most auction houses offer a broad range of items to suit anyone’s budget. There are estate sales for low-end collectibles and catalogue sales for fine quality antiques. You can spend as little as $10 or as much as $10,000, depending on the type of auction.

But before you jump into the fray with your blood pumping and your paddle flying, it’s wise to educate yourself about auc-tions. As a former glass, ceramics, silver and toy specialist for a Toronto auction house, I spent 13 ½ years taking auction neophytes under my wing and guiding them through the auction process. With a little professional advice, you needn’t look like Cary Grant fumbling his way through the bidding in North by Northwest. You can be a seasoned auction buyer in no time at all if you follow a few simple guidelines.

When I was in the auction business, beginners often asked me if they were “allowed” to go to the auction. You needn’t have any special qualifications to attend: admission is open to everyone. Never go to the auction without attending the preview first as you may end up regretting your purchases unless you’ve examined them during the preview. For high-end catalogue auctions, you’ll probably have the luxury of two or three days of preview. For low-end “kitchen sink” sales, the preview may take place the day of the sale or the day before. Take full advantage of preview time, using all the available resources to make informed buying decisions. By resources, I’m referring to both the auction catalogue and the in-house specialist.

Try to obtain the catalogue before attending the preview or, if it’s an option, view the catalogue on-line on the company’s website. Given that a catalogue auction may contain in excess of 1,000 lots, perusing the catalogue beforehand is essen-tial: it enables you to narrow down your choices to the must-haves. The savviest buyers come to the preview with their preferences circled in the catalogue—they know exactly what they’re looking for. If you don’t do this, you’re likely to get overwhelmed and wander through the crowds in a helpless daze.

The catalogue provides you with critical information about each lot, including its age, manufacturer, country of origin, di-mensions and estimate. It’s written by experienced departmental specialists who are intimately acquainted with the ob-jects they catalogue; they’ve researched them and gone over them with a fine-tooth comb. These are the people you’ll most want to talk to at previews. If, for example, Victorian silver cigar lighters inflame your passion, then speak to the sil-ver specialist about the two comparable examples in the sale, both of which have a flame-like wick holder flanked by two lighters on a boat-shaped stand.

Ask the specialist to show you both cigar lighters so you can compare them. Inspect them carefully. Request a condition report on each, since condition information isn’t always included in the catalogue description. Even with magnification, you may not be able to see any damage, so ask the specialist to explicitly point out the problem areas. You might also seek an educated opinion: which cigar lighter is considered the best and why is that the case? Is it because the engraved decora-tion is so finely wrought? Was it made during an especially desirable period or manufactured by an eminent silversmith? Is it so rare that comparable examples are few and far between? Find out what contributes to its quality.

After you get a sense of what defines a superb cigar lighter, ask the specialist about the expected hammer price of your favorite. In the catalogue, you’ll find the estimate

expressed as a range like $250/350, but the specialist’s opinion of what your chosen cigar lighter will actually sell for may have changed since catalogue publication. If it’s received a lot of attention at the preview, the specialist may advise bid-ding aggressively--well above the high end of the estimate. On the other hand, if the cigar lighter has been overlooked by potential buyers, you may have a shot at picking up a bargain.

Now that you’ve selected your potential purchase, all you have to do is bid. You have several avenues of bidding open to you. If you’re drawn to theatrics, attend the auction in person. Register for a numbered paddle and watch the fun begin. Before highly anticipated auctions even begin, the room will be quietly abuzz with tension as bidders await their chosen lots. Watch the hands fly up when the auctioneer hypnotically rhymes off bid after bid, coaxing and cajoling buyers to go that one extra increment.

Of course, the danger of being in the audience is that you’ll break the bank. It’s all too easy to get caught up in addictive thrill of bidding. Try to resist the temptation to bid indiscriminately on items just because they happen to be going cheap. Do you really want a bobble-head doll that no one else seems to want either? Be firm about your must-haves: establish a realistic upper limit before you start bidding and stick to it. When determining your limit, do some quick math: remember that, in addition to sales tax on the hammer price, you’ll be adding the buyer’s premium (an auction house commission) on the hammer price as well. Confirm the buyer’s premium percentage that the auction house charges; it often hovers around 20 percent.

If you can’t attend the auction in person, you do have other bidding options. You can set up a telephone bid before the auction. A designated bidder will call you shortly before your chosen lot comes up and bid with you during the sale; every time there’s an opening, you’ll be asked whether you want to bid or not. From the buyer’s standpoint, phone bidding is definitely the next best thing to being there. Given the anonymity, some may even prefer it. We had one client who en-joyed bidding on her cell phone from the privacy of her closet—even her husband didn’t know what she was up to, at least until the credit card bill came in.

Alternatively, you can set up an absentee or book bid in advance. If you leave a written maximum of $250 on your cigar lighter, an auction house employee will execute your bid on your behalf. This doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be paying $250. Let’s say the auctioneer begins by asking for $180 and the bidding representative jumps in with your bid. If there’s no competition against you, you’ll scoop the lot for a mere $180.

When arranging any bids, hand them in as early as possible. I was the absentee and phone bids manager for a decade, and I can attest to the headache-inducing torrent of bids that inevitably flood in during the last hour before an auction (and even while the auction is already in progress). It’s especially important to arrange telephone bids early. If you leave it to the last minute, there may not be a phone bidder available to call you when your lot comes up, and you’ll have to settle for an absentee bid. Being an early bird also decreases the risk of human error--and the chance that you’ll be angrily calling the auction house wondering what went wrong.

You have one final buying option: bidding live on eBay while the auction is in progress. Not all auctions take place on eBay, so be sure to check that the one you’re interested in does. You must register for bidding through eBay and obtain approval prior to bidding. When you choose this method, be mindful of the possibility of technological failure. I once watched the last hundred lots of a porcelain auction crash and burn because eBay bids suddenly weren’t being received on our end. Though this happens rarely, it’s still a risk. As well, consider the possibility that the eBay buyer’s premium may be higher than the premium you’d pay if you were bidding directly through the auction house. It’s worthwhile to compare the two.

Once you’ve acquired that coveted cigar lighter that inspires the envy of your antiquing friends, you’ve got it for good—dents and all. If the dents make you want to return it, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. When you buy at auction, changing your mind just isn’t an option. Auctions aren’t retail stores to which you can return goods with the bill. Auction veterans know that they’re purchasing everything as is. The only exception occurs when you can prove that your purchase isn’t what it’s purported to be. Your rule of thumb should be this: buy only what you’ve examined first hand, and buy only what you love. That way, returning it won’t even enter your mind. And before long, you’ll be back in the auction gallery waving your pad-dle in the air.


Hammer price: the price an item is sold for, or “hammered down” for, on the auction floor before taxes and the buyer’s premium (or auction house commission) are added.

Estimate: a price, expressed as a range and determined by a specialist, that an item is expected to sell for.

Preview: an opportunity for prospective bidders to view and examine items to be sold in an upcoming auction.

Numbered paddle: a registered number given to a prospective bidder so he or she can bid during an auction.

Ex-appraiser Caroline Kaiser is now a writer and copy editor who serves the editorial needs of appraisers. She lives in Toronto and can be reached at 416-364-0223.