at the Auction: Bidding and Buying with the pros.

People ask me all the time, ” where do you get your things”? “Where did you find this?” 80% of the time the answer would be “at the auction”. Although we get calls every day from wonderful people who want to sell something…it is my least favorite way to collect. When I know another person, I cannot help but root for them to get their best price- so I cant be both the appraiser of value and the buyer because as the buyer, I have to buy at the correct price or forfeit profit. As a matter of fact, the need to be a cunning buyer has never been so important or as difficult. So I can buy at auction, having never met the seller and try to get the best price possible. And more importantly, I must remind myself to walk away when the sale is not going my way.

The area in which I live is rich with every kind of auction establishment from the finest to the basement clean out; from the super honest to the shady. There is a rich assortment to choose from…in the fine auction houses, you look for the very best or the overlooked and in the others, you peer around looking for the unusual, the piece of a collection and again the overlooked.

I have Two auction rules that have never failed me.

  1. Research everything before you go. . Know what its worth and what it is worth to you.
  2. Bid for yourself and never against someone else. ( although its totally tempting)

Be secure knowing the point at which you will be happy with your purchase and don’t assume that because someone else is still bidding that you know why. You never know why someone else sees value that you dont.

I attended an auction once in a warehouse with my good friend David Bell with whom I have most of my great auction stories. He had identified the rattan furniture in the back of the auction gallery as having come from Mar a Lago. OMG in a warehouse sale! Then he found a piece of art that was in a box lot and worth thousands of dollars. We had not previewed the auction and now we are in a panic. We had no idea what was in any of the boxes being sold quickly. And we decide that we have to bid on everything.

No one was bidding against us on anything. And we were running boxes to the car as fast as we could. Then we finally got to a good size box, full of pottery with an exceptionally ugly purple covered urn. ” It has to be somebody famous”, says David who does have one of the best instincts in the design world. I think it looks like a cookie jar, he thinks we have found something- because for the first time all day- people are bidding against us. I become ruthless, bid bid bid! And I win.

I could not wait to get home and find out who the artist behind this pottery lot was. I clutched the box and stood in line to pay. The young man behind me in line, who was terribly reserved- said quietly, “congratulations! I really wanted to win that”. I immediately saw him as an art gallery owner from New York. Then he says, ” You must have loved her too”. He immediately morphs back to just nice guy from Bethesda. “What? Who?” Well it was his high school art teacher. She had passed away and he had come to her estate sale. I just handed him the box- paid the bill and David and I sat in silence all the way home. Still I owned that rattan furniture from Mar a Lago, pre Trump in its iconic green fern fabric for many years.

An antique dealer bidding for themselves might be willing to spend a $100 on an item, to finish a collection: they might go to $150- bidding to sell, no more than $50 and buying for someone else- it could be anything. So its best to keep your own counsel- educate yourself and be willing to walk away.

A. Great things can be found anywhere ! Never judge an auction house by its location. The 1000’s of variables that put an item into that room on that day for sale- are at work in every auction scenario. You may get a glass of champagne at one auction and bad coffee at another- it does not change the item. Look everywhere and explore all the auctions in your area on line. Use your gut to tell you who you feel comfortable buying from. Or find a dealer you like to advise you. Most of us are happy to help.

B. Always Look, Feel and Measure. Dont buy anything important that you have not touched. 50% of auction houses cannot take a decent photo and the other 50% give Lord Snowdon a run for his money. I always pray that the photo is bad and the item is good. I am NEVER right. My rule: if you are spending good, hard earned money- treat it that way. Do the work.

C. Caveat Emptor Its not Laziness that makes descriptions faulty. Auction Houses have to make a living too. Each House does it a little differently. One might think that a lengthy description and multiple photos is the best way to inform buyers while another attempts to lure you in to a preview with a single photo and barely any info. And while it would seem better to do the first, that requires a skilled staff and hundreds of hours of pre auction work. Whatever their reasons- you are responsible for what you buy.

Part ll: Lets go to the Auction!

We have previewed the lots, taken our own photos, figured out why we LOVE the item, done the research and now its time to secure that item….

We can bid LIVE and in many places these days, we can bid ON LINE.

Familiarize yourself with the fees to bid. Some auctions have a 10% fee for bidding on top of your bid and some can go as high as 30%. Some auction houses have their own auction bidding services and some use third party sites like, and some use both and often the fee structure is different. You may pay 30% on Liveauctioneer and 25% on the Auction’s own site. As if it wasn’t complicated enough! I frequent auctions whose fees do not exceed 20%. I think that is where I am comfortable. That does not say I wont pony up for the right things.

Placing a bid in the auction room. You will register. Get a number and hold it up when you wish to bid. The auctioneer will find you. Keep in mind that you do not need to be in the middle of more than 2 people bidding. Be patient you need only to be the last bid.

Placing a bid by phone You will register, and request that they call you when your lot is up for bid. The House may not be able to accommodate you but if they can, be sure to be a serious bidder because this is a staff intensive allowance.

Placing a bid online or live in the House. By becoming a regular part of auctions in your area, you can request to be notified when items that you collect are coming up

Placing an Absentee Bid. I honestly do not recommend this. Each auctioneer treats them differently. To one it is a safety net and he spends the bidding time trying to top you and another might use it as the starting off point. In any case, you are not helping yourself. Some auctions are not set up on line and you may either stand through an entire sale to get what you want or leave a bid and hope you are treated well. And under no circumstance are you to say, “just buy it for me”. I left a warehouse auction to get a sandwich and left those 5 words on a note to the auctioneer for a duck decoy I thought would make a wonderful doorstop. When I came back with my $4.00 sandwich, I had a $5500 duck.

No more needs to be said.

Buy what you love, be confident in your taste and and you’ll always have a great time…. at the auction.

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