The Big Find: A Cautionary Tale

When I started writing this article, it was going to highlight the purchase of a type of an Antique Roadshow “Find” I had scooped up cheap–an item of far greater value than anyone else realized. It was an item I spotted at a local auction hall that had made the move to holding some sales online. I’d heard mention of their online auctions from a couple of local dealers and had looked at the website a couple of times.  The items up for bids were seldom impressive, most of it looked like old stock from other dealers that was out of vogue and not selling well, such as formerly very collectible figurines, Victorian furniture, reproductions of Victorian dolls and “Collector’s Plates.”  They held monthly physical previews in a building they owned for the items that would be sold online, but all sales, bidding and payments were made via the internet, thus my story takes a different path.

I had driven by their place many times, but never managed to get there when they were open for an auction preview, only two afternoons a month.  It had been on my “to do” list to pop in and introduce myself for a couple of months, as one can never have too many connections in this business, particularly with auctioneers. I decided to cross that one off my list about a month ago, so I checked their website for the next viewing date and put it in my calendar. While on their website I did a quick look at what was on the menu for the next auction. Like the other sales I’d seen listed there, the stock was the usual suspects:  religious prints, Singer sewing machines, Depression glass, some Victorian furniture, box lots of books and other things that tend to fill tables at yard sales all over the nation. After viewing a couple of pages of this stuff, I broke one of my own rules, “You have to dig deep to find diamonds” and  I exited the page without viewing it all.  Had I taken an extra ten minutes and looked at all the listings, my bank account would now look far better than it does.

brutal mirror

Some of these mirrors list for as much as $2,200.

The next viewing was coming up the following Friday, so I cleared two hours of my calendar to get over to the preview and introduce myself to the owner/auctioneer. When I pulled in, a couple of cars were already in the parking lot. Several couples were walking around the tables when I went in, and another couple was discussing an upcoming sale with the auctioneer, so I took the opportunity to check out the items on display. Unlike open air country auctions where sometimes the display tables are a bit of a jumble, everything here was well laid out, probably to allow taking the pictures for the online catalog. Pictures, wall plates and mirrors were all hung gallery style on the walls. I did a quick circuit of the tables and then checked out the walls. My perception being clouded by the amount of largely unsaleable bric a brac almost made me miss the big find: two “Brutalist Style” mirrors  hung between a couple of dreadful Victorian prints of the Virgin Mary and a patron saint!

I hadn’t seen any of these mirrors sold at auction recently, but had seen some listed retail for $1500.00- $2200.00 and here, there were two of them. If they went cheap, I could make a very tidy profit.  Not wanting to let on that I thought they were anything special, I continued my viewing, then seeing that the auctioneer was now free, I introduced myself. We talked about the state of the market for about 15 minutes, swapped business cards and I left. As soon as I got home I signed up for the sale and thought I was ready to go. The items for the sale were open for bidding the next day and I kept a watch all the next week. Not much was happening, bids for the two mirrors were under $10.00. Not wanting to escalate the bidding early I didn’t bid, expecting at some point somebody would have clued into the value for the mirrors and jump the bids during the last minutes of the sale. 

The last day of the sale I decided to place a bid and see if there was going to be any counter reaction. I signed into the site and clicked the “Bid Now” button, which informed me that my postal code did not match the one recorded for my credit card. No problem I thought and called the bank who issued me the card and confirmed everything was in order. Back at the auction website I tried again, same error message, with an additional note to call the tech support for the software company that looked after that end of things. Time ticking down with only five hours to go now, I immediately called them up and spent about an hour jumping through voicemail linkages before I got to talk to a human, only to be told  everything was fine on their end and to contact the auctioneer’s own tech people who installed and set up the software. I got right on that to the webmaster of the auction site, who tried to put me back on the merry go round to my bank.  In a last attempt, I tried to contact the auctioneer directly by text and phone, when the reply came back that I’d have to contact the tech people, I gave it up. The clock ticked on to the end of the auction about 20 minutes later and I was unable to bid… both mirrors with an appraised value for the pair in the $3000.00- $4500.00 range sold for under $50.00 each.

Sadly, this article isn’t the article I had originally intended it to be, complete with a happy ending and a full purse; however, perhaps there is a lesson here for someone like me out there.  Make sure you are logged into the system of an online auction LONG BEFORE you actually get to start your bidding.  Believe me, you will be glad you did.


Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement. He can be reached through his website Antique-Appraise.com.

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