(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
A large proportion of antique furniture, paintings, crockery, and other items are sold at antique auctions. They are a great place to pick up a bargain but also a likely venue to pay too much for an item or to spend more than you can afford. Don’t expect to make your fortune from buying and selling antiques. It rarely happens.
If you’re new to antique auctions, there are a couple of things you should do before you actually attend an auction with the view to buying. One is to go along to one or two auctions just to get a feel for how things are done. The other thing is to find out a bit about antiques. The value of an antique is not only determined by its age but also by factors such as how rare it is, its quality, and individual tastes of buyers and sellers. You also need to be able to tell if an item is a genuine antique or a reproduction or even a forgery. This can require a fair bit of research and learning. The American Society of Appraisers (see http://www.appraisers.org/) runs various courses in antiques and you might like to enquire as to where and when these courses are offered.
When you feel you are ready to hit the auctions, the first thing to do is to obtain a copy of the catalogue. This is usually available a couple of weeks before the auction and can be picked up from the auction house. Or it might be available on the auction house’s website, in which case you can simply print it off. The catalogue should contain a detailed description of each item to be auctioned, including its age, materials used (such as the type of wood if it’s a piece of furniture), a statement guaranteeing its authenticity, and an estimated price range the auctioneer expects to sell it for. The items in the catalogue are usually listed in the same order they are offered on auction day. Circle the item or items you think you would like to bid for. At this stage it might be a good idea to measure the height, width, and depth of the area in your house where you plan to put the antique. It’s no good coming home with a huge piece of furniture only to discover it misses fitting in the only spare spot in the house by a few inches. Now is also a good time to set yourself a limit as to how much you want to spend.
The next thing to do is to go along to the auction house and view the items that will be put on sale. Items will usually be available for the public to view at the auction house a few days before the actual auction. Take the catalogue with you, but also make sure you take a measuring tape and a torch. The latter item is important as auction rooms and warehouses are often dark, old buildings. A torch will allow you to inspect furniture, crockery and so on carefully for cracks, scratches, patch-up jobs, a manufacturer’s name, and date it was made. A magnifying glass may also be handy, depending on your eyesight. Make sure you look at the front, back, sides, top, and bottom of furniture. Test to see whether doors open and drawers pull out. Feel free to ask questions of staff. They might even be able to tell you more about an item than what is in the catalogue.
At an antique auction, you can’t usually just suddenly decide to bid if you feel like it. At most auction houses, you have to register your name and address, and they will issue you with a paddle or bidding number. You should be able to do this before the day of the auction. On the day, remember to take along your catalogue, which by now should be well annotated with dimensions of items and comments on them. Your paddle number is important as you will need this if you buy an item. It’s also a good idea to take a water bottle, and a cushion to sit on, as auctions can last a number of hours.
Bidding will usually start below the price range estimated in the catalogue. Bids might go up by about 5-10 per cent at a time. For example, if the estimated value given for an item in the catalogue is $100-$200, then bids might rise by $10 at a time. For more expensive items, and depending on how quickly the bidding progresses, an item might go up in increments of say $100, and then when bidding slows, the auctioneer might take increments of $50 and then $20. Don’t worry about scratching you head or coughing at the wrong time. An auctioneer will only act if he or she sees you are clearly interested in the item. When an item is sold, the auctioneer will ask for the buyer’s paddle number and this will be recorded in the auctioneer’s book. Be aware that you don’t only pay the price of the item you just bought but also a premium or commission to the auction house of about 10-17 per cent of the price. In some jurisdictions, taxes are payable too.
An alternative to conventional antique auctions these days is online antique auctions. There are many internet auction sites, with eBay probably being the best known. Once you become a member, which takes only a few minutes, enter the type of thing you’re looking for into the search box. I’ve just entered “Chairs” and “1800 – 1900” in the search box of eBay Australia and have found an old Edwardian grandfather’s chair. There’s a photo of the chair and a note that says “Needs restoring”. The current bid is $50. End time is 13 hours and 42 minutes away (auctions can last 1-2 days to several weeks). I can enter a bid, which has to be at least $51. But the location is South Australia, quite a long way from where I live in Queensland, and local pick up only is available.
With online antique auctions, you have to be aware of several things. Can you find a similar item cheaper elsewhere, either at another online auction site or at one of your local auction houses? Are you happy to buy based on a photo? Watch out for reproductions and fakes. You can click on “Ask the seller a question?” to find out more information. Look for the seller’s rating based on the experiences of previous buyers of items from this seller. In the example above, the seller’s rating is 99.3 per cent, which is very good. Be wary of a rating of less than 95 per cent.
Antique auctions, conventional or online, can be an excellent place to buy antiques. If you go to an auction house, make sure you get a catalogue, visit the premises before the auction to inspect the items, register as a bidder, and set yourself a spending limit. Online auctions can be quicker and easier, but have the disadvantage of only seeing a photo.