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Becoming an Auction Aficionado

by Sandra Lee Stuart (07/15/08).

Whether you are just starting an antiques and collectibles collection, adding to an existing collection or the veteran, die-hard bargain hunter, auctions are the perfect venue.

The Neophyte, The Uninitiated, Baptism by Total Immersion

WorthPoint has affiliations with approximately 200 auction houses, and some, if not all, will have an auction that has just the item that you are looking for. Or the auctions might point you in a new direction of collecting. Or they may simply serve as a guide for learning more about trends, prices and fluctuations in the antiques and collectibles market. Many houses have online catalogs—some are better than others depending on the caliber of the sale—that may give a full description of the item, which could include provenance, price estimate, basic dimensions, age, condition, prior ownership, etc.

Now for the beginner, and all you seasoned veterans be patient, I do not suggest starting out exclusively online. By that I mean I don’t want you to start bidding online—not yet. First, go to some of our partner auction houses’ Internet sites. Check out the auction catalogs. Look at items that have piqued your interest in your travels. See what the estimates are. Note: These are estimates only. These are not the prices, just a starting point. Check out the descriptions of the items.

Go to another auction-house site. Search for an item that you are interested in to see if it will be in an upcoming auction. Look for the results from past auctions, and do a cross-comparison study of a “like or similar” item. Compare that house’s estimate, and then, print out the catalog that most interests you or have a hard copy sent to you. Start a relationship with the auction house of choice by getting on its mailing list.

Then with all that information gathered, TURN OFF THE COMPUTER, because, if possible, I want you to go physically to the auction and experience the atmosphere, which is something wholly different than just the passionless act of buying and selling. Old, established auction houses have an atmosphere that is difficult to describe, but I’ve never balked at attempting to do just that. On the days set aside for the preview—yes, you decided to miss the preview cocktail party, but you won’t next time—you may be met by a security guard who has been with the house for years, and he can spot a neophyte when he sees one. Don’t be intimidated by him. He’s just projecting his persona.

The Excitement of the Salesroom

You may see a seasoned high roller, or what you might think is an aficionado, being escorted into the salesroom. Auction houses take care of their own. Don’t worry, your time will come. You may feel upon entering the salesroom, crowded with people and the items for sale, an undercurrent of energy, a tangible buzz of anticipatory excitement, coupled with an essence, a scent that is a mixture of camphor, furniture wax, perhaps mildew—especially if you’re in the South—money and the aroma that is exuded by the person who has the passion to possess.

Work the room. Observe where people are concentrated and what they are studying. Take in each item. Get to understand the collection. Go to the items that interest you most. Mark the page in your catalog where an item appears. Study the estimate. If this is a hot antiques or collectibles item, the estimate range will probably be left in the dust within seconds of the first bid—or maybe not. You can make an educated guess based on your study of “like or similar” items you have researched.

With that price in mind, mark your catalog. You can adopt a price code at this point if you want it known only to you. A price code adds intrigue to the process. If the hammer price exceeds your budget, mark your catalog accordingly for future reference or wait for the sales results to be posted on the house’s site.

It is also, prior to the sale and after reviewing the collection, that you can, where possible, place an online bid on the item. You can, at this time, preregister, giving the house your contact information and being assigned an auction or bidding number. You then are set, with ritual attendance, to become a part of the auction house’s furniture, a regular, and known to the house, even if you never raise your paddle.

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