Thom Pattie and the art of the auction

Chief Worthologist Thom Pattie started out as a utility-company linesman stringing cable and putting up transformers—clearly a long way, figuratively and literally, from the antiques and collectibles business.

When Pattie decided that his future wasn’t atop a pole, he went to work for an uncle who had an auction business. “I started by driving a truck and moving furniture,” Pattie said. But over time, he became increasingly interested and versed in a range of antiques and collectibles and the art of the auction.

Growing up on a farm near Manassas, Va., Pattie first attended auctions as a boy. “When a farmer was going out of business, there’d be an auction to sell off farm equipment, cattle, household items, the hay in the barn—everything,” he said. Now, while it might not seem that a heifer and a Victorian antique chifforobe have much in common, when it comes to an auction, Pattie said, some of the same principles apply.

* The key thing is to do your homework. First, know the price range an item of interest has been selling for in the market. “You want to set that price in your mind—if it is $200 or $300 because the auctioneers’ job is to get as much money as they can,” Pattie said. “They are going to try to get $410. It is a head game.”

* Always attend the preview or exhibition before the auction. “This is the time to turn the chair upside down and check the vase for cracks,” Pattie said. It is also useful to bring a few tools—a small flashlight, a magnifying glass and a black light. For more on this, see Tom’s blog, Tools of the Trade .

* At the auction, don’t be afraid to ask questions of the auction staff and even the auctioneer. “They are there to make a sale, so they want to help,” Pattie said.

* Listen carefully to get the auctioneer’s chant so you understand the dollar amounts. “The auctioneer’s chant has filler words between the dollar amounts, and you may think he is asking for two hundred dollars, and he is saying two thousand dollars,” Pattie said.

* Know how you are going to bid, and don’t get rattled. The auctioneer will start at a higher price and then steadily drop it until the bidding starts. Some people will start off with a higher bid to scare off the competition. Others will see how low the price drops, hoping to get a bargain. Some wait until the last minute to jump into the bidding. “You are in a poker game,” Pattie said.

After a period in the 1970s when, Pattie said, “everyone was getting into the antique business,” there has been a shakeout in the auction business. As the competition has gotten keener, the number of auctions has fallen, but the quality of items offered has increased.

The foundation for all collecting, Pattie said, be it at auctions, antiques shops or online, remains the same: knowledge.

“Furniture was my first love,” Pattie said, “but then I started to learn about American pottery, then art. It was a thirst.” That holds true for all of WorthPoint’s experts, Pattie said. “As a generalist, I may not know everything, but I know where to look and what to look for, while our specialists have devoted time to gather the knowledge of American lamps or antique dolls so that they can tell if a thread has been replaced.”

National Auction List offers a roster of antiques auctions around the country.

AuctionZip is another site for tracking down antiques and collectibles auctions.

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