Auctions 101: A Beginners Guide to the Auction House

Going to live auctions is an exciting experience. It’s fun, fast-paced, educational and arguably the best source for bargains. It can be, however, very daunting—especially if it is your first time.

My first live auction was much like the first time I walked into a casino. I wasn’t sure of protocol; I was uncomfortable betting money and I’m sure everyone had picked me out as a novice. I don’t go to casinos very often, but when I do I now feel right at home.

Here are a few tips to help you get more comfortable with the auction experience and help you understand what to expect. Let’s begin.

Once you arrive at the auction, you’ll need to register with the house. This will require a photo ID and a valid credit card that they will keep on file for the auction. At that time, you will be issued a bidder number—usually on an enlarged index card. This number is your unique identifier for the auction and will be shown to the auctioneer should you be the winning bidder of an item. Without registration and a bidding number, you will not be eligible to participate in the auction.

Items at auction are sold “as is,” so preview, preview, preview. There are no returns. The house will set times for auction-goers to preview the items up for sale. This is an important phase to the whole process. Even if you can view photos online, it’s always best to see the items in person. Often, you’ll see something that looks great in photos, but upon closer look, the item might not be in as good condition as presented. It might be a little banged up; it might be smaller or larger than expected. It can be chipped, torn, scratched, wobbly . . . the list goes on and on, so thoroughly inspect the items that you’re interested in.

Auctions can last hours if you stay for the entire show, so get comfortable. It’s a grind. You might consider bringing a seat cushion, as the chairs provided are often not padded. That said, the auction may be standing-room-only, so wear comfortable shoes as well—you might not get a seat.

I won these W.F. Whitney Tiger Maple chairs with sprung seats and original labels and benchmade butterfly table, circa 1911, at auction.

Hopefully, the item(s) that you’re interested in aren’t the first to be auctioned, so get a feel for the auctioneer. Try to figure out his style and tempo. Try to get a feel for the time elapsed between final bid and close of sale. “Going once, going twice, sold” is rarely the language an auctioneer will use. Fair warning of close will be given, but different auctioneers can use different language.

Once your item comes up for auction, don’t be the first to bid. The auctioneer will start the bidding at a reasonable price but if there are no interested bidders at that level, the auctioneer might drop the bid to entice the floor. The opening price can sometimes be dropped dramatically, so be patient. You might be able to get your item well below the original opening bid of the auctioneer.

Personally, I like to stand or sit in the back of the house. This way, I can see who is bidding on an item, how aggressively they bid and what they look like—which can be important. I was once bidding on a nice piece of Danish Modern furniture at an auction but I had competition. She was an attractive, stylish woman bidding confidently, taking notes and keeping her cool. I immediately pegged her as a dealer, and she wasn’t backing away from the item. I dropped out knowing I wasn’t going to beat her. I approached her later and indeed I was right. She was bidding on behalf of one of her clients (who happened to be a well-known children’s author) and wasn’t letting go. She thanked me for recognizing her dealer status, more so for backing off.

If you’re trying to bid on an item and the auctioneer doesn’t see you, it’s perfectly acceptable to call out (politely, of course) to get the auctioneer’s attention. After all, you’re upping the bid and he wants to hear from you. This is especially important toward the end of a sale. You won’t get another chance once the item has closed.

Another of my auction victories: An 1880 walnut two-door cupboard.

At the end of the auction, you’ll need to settle up with the house. Cash or check is usually preferred. Once you’ve settled up, you can collect your merchandise and call it a night. The house will usually offer a grace period to collect your winnings—sometimes up to two weeks—but be sure to understand their policy regarding pick-up. If you’ve won bigger items that require some form of shipping or moving, the house can help you with arrangements. Typically, they have preferred moving companies that they work with. This, of course, will be at your expense. Free shipping doesn’t exist in the auction world.

Don’t be surprised when you get your bill and it’s more than the total of your winning bids. You have to pay Uncle Sam and you have to pay the house—that’s known as the “buyer’s premium.” Usually, a buyer’s premium is no more than 15 percent and is added to your bill. This is a big part of how the auction house stays afloat. Be sure to understand all of the conditions of the auction in advance of any bidding; the auction house will always post the amount of a buyer’s premium.

Hopefully, these tips will encourage you to find and attend the next auction in your area. Check local newspapers and penny savers to help you locate them.

Good Luck!

John Londoner is a digital media professional and antiques hobbyist. He frequently attends antique auctions in the Upstate New York area and can be contacted at jlondoner@nyc.rr.com.

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  1. Ma.Pauk Pauk says:

    Dear Sir,
    I’m from Yangon,Myanmar.We have 1pcs of Plate which is product of Dunn Bennett & Co., Ltd,Royal Victoria Pottery,Burslem,England. We got it as a souvenior from “The Irrawaddy Flottia Company 1876″.We like to sell it.If you are interested in,pls kindly contact me & I can show you the photos of it.(For language problems,you are kindly requested to contact me by e.mail)
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  2. Good article. One of my first jobs was at an auction house and I still love them! I like to wait to the very end to place a bid, when someone thinks the hammer is going to drop for them, that is when I get in. I frequently win with just one bid that way.

    The bidding is frequently already more than I’d have gone anyway, so I never get in on a lot of things that were of interest to me. BUT this strategy keeps one from bidding more than you’d planned. People just bid something up at times just by getting caught up in the thrill of competition. It is something to watch out for when you are new to the game.

    - Lisa Kroese, Expert Estates

  3. Good article of a new buyer. I would like to see the other side of the coin, vetting auctioneers to sell a collection.