- This month, let's talk about auctions, some love 'em, some hate 'em, and almost always there is a 'simply must have' item hidden at one just waiting to be found.
There are persistent mercantile myths about the dangers of auctions for the unwary patron
. It has been said, "They are only for seriously rich people" and "if you scratch your nose at the wrong moment you'll be obligated to buy some antique you will never be able to afford without going into hock." You can almost hear the whisper of a ghostly auctioneer urging, "Oh, man-up Sissie...there's a payment plan for every budget."
Myths, along with Urban Legends and Old Wives Tales do not stand up to close scrutiny. Auctions are well worth the effort to investigate. They are terrific events for finding interesting and unique anything at bargain prices because essentially, you select the price you want to pay. While it's true that the excitement, quick pace and the need to make split second decisions can be intimidating if you are an auction virgin, knowing and understanding the process will make it easy for you to make savvy bids.
Be On The Look-Out
In the same way little streams flow into rivers, the inventory that winds up on any given auction block arrives from many and varied sources such as estates, private companies, homeowners looking for quick cash, and so forth. Auctions can be held at a variety of different sites as well. Estate auctions could be held on the site of the estate, while others could be held not only at auction houses but hotels, community centers or even online. Check for notices in newspapers and ask around at antique or used furniture stores.
Do Your Homework
There is a certain degree of similarity between the process of founding your own art collection and going to purchase at auction houses. They both require homework beforehand to ensure a successful, rewarding and satisfying purchase.
As with other areas of life, you want to know whom you are potentially going to do business with. What are the credentials of the seller/auction house? Are they reputable? Those who work in bank trust departments deal with estates and will know who to recommend, or not. Evaluating sellers with on-line auctions is more difficult. Read the comments from previous customers to get a sense of track record.
What's Your Fancy?
Focus in on an area of interest and learn all you can. In the process you will develop "expert eyes" to recognize a real find and a great deal. Talk to dealers and auction houses. Become familiar with the way appearance and condition affect value. Request auction catalogs whenever and wherever possible because they include fairly detailed specifications.
Once you have located an auction that will be selling your object of desire, find out everything you can about the item. Search eBay and Craig's List to compare prices and research the price history of similar objects.
Another benefit of knowing the price points is that if the bidding begins to climb crazy silly high, you'll know it's fueled by something other than facts and common sense.
Look Before You Leap
Obviously, the purpose of an auction is to move merchandise. In the case of an estate sale, entire households must be dispersed. Oftentimes interesting "stuff" is bundled with generic bric-a-brac and sold in lots as a means clearing out everything. It might be worth worthwhile to take the "junk" with the "jewel," but evaluate carefully because lots won't be split up at your request.
Any opportunity to thoroughly inspect the item(s) you want to bid on is to your advantage.
Look into viewing the lots on-line or do a site visit the week before the sale. There are often late-night viewings with specialists on hand to ask for advice.
Get as much detailed information as is available
• Ask what is special about a piece that will make it sell.
• Is it a reproduction or has it been restored?
• Is it an early or late example of a particular period?
• Provenance has a tremendous effect on value. Be alert for makers' marks.
• Take your time and look closely at each detail. Make note of any cracks, dents or any peculiar features you may see.
• If mechanical, is the piece in good working condition?
More fodder for thought
• In the description of the piece be mindful that phrases such as "in the style of" means it is a copy and not as valuable as the real deal.
• Are you buying for investment or pleasure? In general, it's wiser to avoid items that need additional work/repair unless they are very rare and really worth it. Be forewarned that the value of the item will always drop after restoration.
• If the purchase is for your own personal use, then buying furniture in need of repair may not be of consequence to you if you love it, although you would be wise to check out how much the repairs will cost in advance to avoid any nasty surprises.
• Top-notch auction houses especially, assume the prospective buyers will want to preview the merchandise in advance. You can expect items to be on public displays several days before the sale and you are encouraged to bring expert advisors as needed. For art and other valuables, many dealers will offer neutral professional consultation by the hour or for a percentage of the sale price to advise you on the items in question.
• Buying on-line is more of a craps shoot, as you only have the seller's word for fact. Don't hesitate to have the seller fax or e-mail any addition pictures you may need. Ask for any available records of previous sales appraisals or grading. How has the piece been maintained? Ask what condition is the piece in and are there any flaws.
To Bid Or Not To Bid
The bidding process itself is very exciting, and perhaps for the newcomer, a bit intimidating. It's still good fun to simply visit interesting auctions without bidding a few times just to observe before jumping into the deep end of the pool, so to speak.
You can choose the bidding options that suit your style and needs
• In Person: Arrive half an hour before the auction to register. You will be asked to give your name, address, contact numbers, etc. and to specify the kind of payment you will use. In return, you will be handed a numbered paddle to bid with and a list of sale items with their lot numbers. You might be better served to not be the first to bid on your chosen item(s). Pacing oneself in not a bad thing here. Also, if no else bids on it, you might get a better price after the sale.
• Live Phone Bid: Leave a list of the lots you want to bid on with an auction-house rep who will be in the room during the auction. You will be called before your lot comes up and the rep will relay the current bid to you and then bid on your behalf. This method is most frequently used for big-ticket items and very often the transport is provided.
• Absentee Bid: You can record your maximum bid with the auction house via, phone fax, e-mail or in person.
You're In It To Win It, But. . .
There's a reason the auction house secures your address and payment information before the sale begins. Whoever is offered the winning bid is obligated to buy. No exceptions.
Auction catalog prices are only speculative estimates, partially based on what comparable pieces have sold for at previous auctions. They are guidelines at best. If you have done the recommended homework, researched your items of interest and checked prices for similar items on-line, then the next questions are "what is this item worth to me and at what price will I have buyer's remorse. Remember that your winning bid doesn't include all of the extra fees. There might be buyers' premiums based on a percentage of the winning bid as well as shipping charges and taxes. Considering all extras, pick your top dollar and mean it. Don't get caught in a bidding war because of the fever of the moment and the lure of an impulse
All Auctions Are Not Made The Same
Don't let "caught by surprise" be part of the thrill of your purchase. Be clear about all the rules, regulations, terms, conditions, payment options and sales taxes due for every auction house whose sale you might be attending - before the auction. For example, smaller items might be paid for and taken with you at the end of the event or there might be a waiting period or certain conditions for you to satisfy first. Larger pieces will require arrangements to be made for shipping. Find out what that entails.
The "grand-daddy of bottom lines" is this: Always shop for quality, because in the end, one really good thing is better than three of "not so much" quality. Or, put more prosaically, if you buy junk, you own junk. This caveat aside, there is something quite soul satisfying in the adventure of researching, locating, bidding and buying home furnishings at auction. You have provided yourself with access to furniture and objects very much off the beaten path and very often at a bargain price that you were able to name. Auction shopping can be the Thinking Buyer's Entertainment.