Attending Auctions: Guide for Beginners

(I just transferred this essay from a different page and will add photos soon.)
Fortunately, auctions bear little resemblance to what shows up on sitcoms. A stray sneeze won’t mean going home with some monstrous item no rational person would buy. However, there are still quite a few things an auction-goer should know to get the most for their money and the most fun with the least agony.  To start with, it’s a whole world that searching and bidding on eBay just can’t touch for fun and fascination, including the people-watching opportunities.

For antiques/collectibles, there are two primary types of live (non-internet) auctions: on-site auctions where the items are sold on the property of the owner, and auction house sales where items from one or more sellers are gathered into one place (either the auction house itself or a rented space). Both types can very radically in terms of quality and technique, and which is more common varies with location and season.

We started in this game back in southeastern Ohio, and the outdoor, on-site auctions are the most common, at least from May to October. The average on-site auction includes everything from antiques to contemporary furniture and even towels, sheets, and general household items. What will sneak through at a bargain price and what will sell for more than it’s currently priced at K-Mart is unpredictable, which is one reason auction-goers need to be more prepared than Boy Scouts.

Your day at the auction starts several days before the auction, particularly with finding out what auctions are being held, when, and where. Even that varies in different parts of the country. There will usually be ads in the local newspaper, but what day those typically appear varies. In Columbus, Ohio, most listings show up in the Sunday Dispatch, but I’ve known places where Wednesday or Thursday was the prime listing day. However, the cost of newspaper advertising, even in the classifieds, has skyrocketed causing many auctioneers to limit the size of newspaper ads or eliminate them all together.

For auctions with a fair amount of antiques, the specialty newspapers or sites can be a major advantage.  Those include Antique Trader, Antique Week and The Maine Antiques Digest.  Ads in these sources will usually include more information and pictures than what you find in the newspaper. They may also include a website, and for the smart auctioneers that site will include many more pictures.  Of course, many auctioneers now have their own sites, and many list on AuctionZip.  You might also check online bidding sites such as Live Auctioneers and Proxibid.  Even if you don’t want to bid online, you might find auctions listed there close enough to attend in person, and you can get a slight preview.  Just keep in mind that the online listings rarely have enough photos, and descriptions are typically hurriedly written and may sacrifice detail and accuracy.

That much sounds easy. Check the newspapers and whatever specialty paper covers your area. Any literate person should be set, but reading these ads requires a fine eye and experience. In some cases, ads are written up based on limited information, which can make them unintentionally misleading. Plus, part of the auctioneer’s job is getting people to attend their auction rather than someone else’s. That means writing the ad to sound as attractive as possible, and the text can get as creative as the real estate ads where cozy means tiny. When in doubt, call the auctioneer for more details. Ten minutes on the phone can save an hour drive.

For most auctions, you can start looking at items at least one or two hours before the auction starts. Auction houses often have a preview the day before the auction. The more time you have to look at things, the better. Take a notebook/pen, a decent, small magnifying glass, and a digital camera.

The first time through, you’re mostly just trying to see what’s there and what stands out. What the auctioneer considers the best items will probably be displayed separately, which is nice but potentially deceiving. Don’t assume that these items will always sell high, and don’t assume that all the good pieces are displayed. One of my best buys was a dust-covered, cobweb-filled Venini vase hiding in a boxlot under a table.

On the first time around, write down what objects interest you plus any significant notes about damage, what table it’s on, etc. For some of the interesting pieces, take a picture. If this is a preview the day before, you now have a chance to do some good research when you get home. If the auction is that day, you have a photo record to help learn. Jot down what the pieces sell for and what the auctioneer says about them. (The average auctioneer is as honest as the average person, which is pretty good, but no auctioneer is always right.)

Special Notes on Previewing Auctions
At almost every auction, something gets damaged by the preview crowd. Sometimes it can’t really be helped, but take time not only to look at the items but to respect them as well.

Handles are mighty tempting, but don’t use them. Every now and then, the flaw you hadn’t seen yet is in that handle, and you may just find yourself holding a handle while the body falls to the floor. Put down your notebook, camera, and everything else so you can pick up each item with both hands. Once you put it back in place you can write your notes.

Also, don’t move items around without permission. Maybe there’s no special reason why that item is on that table, but maybe there is. With box lots, items are often grouped by intent. Casually dropping an item from one box to another, or pocketing what seems unimportant, not only undoes someone’s effort, it also unfairly hinders other bidders who had already looked at the box and planned to bid.

Just follow basic courtesies, and you’ll be fine.

I usually keep a few of the basic research books in the car, plus a few extra based on the auction description. If there’s time, do a little book-searching after your first look through the offerings. After that, go look again. The second time through, you’ll notice some different items and probably notice some damage that you missed before.

One of the great advantages of previews the day before is the chance to see how well an item holds up over time. Even if you only have fifteen minutes or so in between looks, you’ll find that some items just don’t give quite the same tingle the second time around. However, some of the more subtle items will grow on you.

As you go along, it’s not a bad idea to guess what items will sell for so you can compare your guesses with reality and then learn why when you guess wrong. However, don’t let your guesses keep you from taking a close look at everything. Just because you know an item is worth far more than you can afford doesn’t mean that it will actually sell high. From time to time a great piece slips through, even if it’s a well-known collectible.

However, one major rule is never bid on an item you haven’t looked at. Maybe nobody is bidding because they don’t know what a great piece it is, or maybe nobody is bidding because they’ve all found the crack in the back. We all break that rule now and then, and we all regret it almost every time. Almost. In so many ways, it’s the slight difference between almost and always that keeps many of us going back, hoping this is the time that almost falls our way.

Before you settle in for the auction, write down the items you plan to bid on and what your top bid will be. If you have a total budget for the auction, it’s good to put that in writing as well. Auctions can get rather emotional, and it’s all too easy to get carried away. Setting written limits ahead of time will limit that problem.

Otherwise, you could end up like my friend who went to an auction bound and determined to buy a rare crock they had listed. He won it all right, and he was shaking a bit as he carried it out, especially after his wife pointed out that he had paid $1600 for it.

To show how strange this game is, he had a chance to sell it for a good profit within a few weeks (and turned it down). On the other hand, he also learned that a few weeks before he bought it, it had sold unidentified and unadvertised at a local auction for $50.

Written limits can also help avoid overly competitive bidding. From time to time, there will be someone at an auction who seems to bid on everything you want, and win far too often. Suddenly, buying an good item at a good price isn’t nearly as important as beating that dirty, evil person who’s stealing all your goodies.

Eventually, an item comes up that you are absolutely determined to win, and you bid several times more than intended. I can remember the first time it happened to us, and we went home with a lovely paperweight vase for about $70. We eventually found it pictured in a current import catalog.

The retail value was maybe $15, and the value in any respectable antique shop was $0. It ended up in the reproductions and frauds display of the antique mall. Of course, I recognize them very quickly when they turn up in shops or online, but it was an expensive part of our education, especially relative to our budget.

Specifics About Outdoor/Onsite Auctions

You’ll find some outdoor auctions that are almost fancy with numerous high quality items, a tent, and chairs. On the other end of the scale are the ones where you park in a field and hope no cows have been present lately. I used to believe that small, middle-of-nowhere auctions offered the best bargains, but that’s not true, at least not consistently. There are bargains at almost every auction. You just have to recognize it an decide whether or not it’s something you want.

For outdoor auctions, be weather savvy. Know whether or not you can wear those nice shoes or need to take boots and a change of socks. Don’t wonder about an umbrella, just keep one in the car all the time. Aside from unexpected showers, sometimes an umbrella is a great source of shade.

At some auctions, you have to crowd around the tables while the auction goes on, and sitting down may mean missing the one item you were waiting for. Getting a spot close to the table means seeing what’s coming up, but it can be rather claustrophobic. If the fringe of the crowd is still close enough to see what’s being sold, it can at least mean the freedom to move around.

For many outdoor auctions, items will all run through a single spot, and you can have a seat just like you were indoors, except you will probably have to bring your own seat. Toss a lawn chair in the back when you start out just in case. This is yet another reason to arrive early since you want a good spot and may need to make an extra trip to the car.

At the Auction House
(This material is based on attending local or regional auction houses, not upper-niche places such as Sotheby’s.)

When I started attending auctions, I avoided auction houses and areas with numerous antique shops on the theory that items would sell higher at such places. It was several years before I got around to testing my theory, and that means I missed a great education and at least a few hundred bargains. It also means that there was more of a limit to my mistakes while I learned the difference between gaudy and valuable.

Auction houses may sell both antiques and contemporary or household items, but they usually separate the items into different auctions. That means the antique auctions have many more items of interest, often more valuable than you find at on-site auctions. While that increases the competition, it also increases the odds that something will slip through at a bargain.

While auction houses are generally more comfortable than standing around outdoors in all types of weather, there are certain problems. Lighting is often fine for general viewing but insufficient for trying to spot hairlines. Consider carrying a keychain flashlight, or ask permission to carry the item to better lighting.

For items in lit showcases, this may not appear to be a problem, but even good lighting may create glare or reflections. Take your time to check the angles. In carpentry, the saying is measure twice, cut once. In antiques, it’s more like check twice, then check twice more, and buy once.

Since it’s a good idea to move around from time to time at long auctions, a seat on the aisle will make life easier. Some auction houses allow you to reserve seats, but first come, first served is more common. Mark your territory when you arrive.

A packing box is a recognized seat-saver, as is a coat. A newspaper may be a good thing for boring stretches, but it’s not a good seat-saver simply because they also get left behind when people depart. Just don’t leave anything worth stealing.

At times, an auction house will have more items than can reasonably be sold in a single session. In those cases, the auction usually runs until the crowd thins out and bids drop so low that it’s no longer profitable to keep the session going. There can be some great bargains near the end of any auction (and often the beginning), and sometimes that one item you were waiting for is just about to come up when the auctioneer calls an end to the day. Crap.

Fortunately, most auctioneers are willing to take requests within limits. Unless you just got a call that your wife is in labor, don’t make a request in the first hour or two of the auction. Okay, that’s a bit extreme, but don’t do it unless you really need to leave and really want the item. Also, don’t go up with a list of a dozen items that you want up, and up right now.

Such requests should go to one of the people handling the objects and should be done as politely and unobtrusively as possible. If the auctioneer hasn’t said anything about requests, make sure that it’s an accepted practice there. There are some auctioneers who put any requests at the end of the line. Auctioneers can be just as testy as the rest of us from time to time.

In addition to asking too early, be sure not to wait too late. Yes, bids tend to go down late in an auction, and maybe that one person who was going to run you up will be gone in another five minutes. Given how quirky people can be, it’s also possible that somebody else has been waiting and has reached the point that they will bid even higher just to justify waiting so long.

For All Types of Auctions

Most auctions run on a number system for bidding. There will be a registration desk (usually the same as where you pay), and they will almost certainly want to see your driver’s license for identification. You then get a number, usually written on a card about 4 x 8.

When you win a bid, the auctioneer will want to know your number. It’s easiest to bid by raising the card, but at the very least you should have the card ready. It’s a bit annoying for everyone when somebody bids first and then has to go searching for a misplaced card.

Keep track of your bidding, what the item was and how much you paid. The card your bidding number is on probably has plenty of room for that information. I’ve seen people who just bid and bid, then walk up to the clerk and pay whatever the clerk says.

Guess what, people make mistakes. Sometimes your notes are wrong, but other times the information got skewed somewhere between the clerk working with the auctioneer and the clerk running the register. Something may be on your number that you didn’t bid on, or they may not have you as the winner when you should. Lot’s of things can go wrong.

There are lots of ways to bid, some good, some bad, and some just stupid. The just stupid includes putting your hand up and simply keeping it there. Don’t think you’re going to intimidate other bidders and get them to back out. You’re just announcing to everybody that you’re willing to keep paying, and that you’re an easy mark. If you do it more than once, there’s a good chance that somebody will keep bidding purely for the sake of making you pay more.

If possible be in good line of sight for the auctioneer or one of the staff watching bids. Raise your bid card high enough to be noticed and listen for an acknowledgment that they’ve taken your bid, usually marked by a raise in asking price and a nod in your direction. Once they’ve spotted you, a clear nod, lift of the bid card or shake of the head should be enough. Just don’t try to be so refined and subtle that no one notices you.

The auctioneer will name a starting point for each item, but don’t raise your card just yet. With the best auctioneers, that starting point may be where the bidding ends, at least with auctioneers that know the market, but don’t be in a hurry. Except on very rare ocassions, no one is going to bid at the starting price. The auctioneer will come down until somebody can’t resist, and the game is on.

Don’t expect every item to start at a buck, either. When the crowd is slow to start the bidding (and each auction crowd has a different personality), the day gets long, and all but the most patient auctioneers get testy, especially if it’s a bad weather day. As a newbie, it’s probably best to let somebody else start the bids, but as you gain experience, be willing to jump in. It keeps you on the auctioneer’s good side, which is a very good place to be.

Be prepared for a long, long day. Some auctioneers are entertaining, some deadly dull, but with almost any auction there will be stretches where nothing you care about comes up. A newspaper or book isn’t a bad idea if you have a place to sit, but don’t get so distracted that you miss a bargain.

In any case, make sure to move around from time to time. Take another look at items if they’re still available for viewing, or just wander around. Sitting in one place is amazingly tiring, not to mention boring. Almost all auctions have food and drink available, some good, some bad, with prices usually on the high side. It’s good to support small business, but it’s also a good idea to take along some snacks of your own and especially plenty of water. Just be sure to pick a good time to go to the bathroom rather than waiting until it’s irresistible and comes just as they are about to sell your favorite item.

Terms and Conditions to Be Aware Of

Some auctioneers are easy to understand, but for others you may only catch a word every now and then so you really have to learn to listen and what to listen for.

Most items at an auction are sold individually, but there are some variations. An auctioneer may announce that a lot is selling for “one price” or “choice” or “one with the privilege,” or “one times the money.”

One price means that everything in that group is selling for whatever price is bid. For example, if there are 6 tumblers on the table selling for one price, then that’s a single lot. If someone wins with a bid of $25, then they get all 6 for $25.
Choice, or “one with the privilege” means that the winning bidder can take however many of the items they want from that group. If they win with a bid of $25, they can take 1 tumbler for $25, or 2 for $50, up to all 6 for $150.

Times the money means that the winning bidder must take all the items multiplied by the winning bid. If you win with that same $25 bid, you now have all 6 tumblers for $125, no choices. Obviously, there’s room for some serious mistakes if you think the lot is selling for one money or choice when the auctioneer said “times the money” or something similar.

Most auctioneers are aware that “shit happens”. If you screw up your bidding, tell them immediately. If it happens once, the auctioneer will probably grumble a little, but politely, and resell the lot. It’s not a good idea to make that mistake more than once at an auction.

You should also be aware of the payment terms. Auctioneers work on a commission, so having to pay a percentage to a credit card company eats directly into profit. That means some places go strictly with cash or check (and may have special requirements for out-of-state checks).

The terms will often say there’s a buyer’s premium, and it can vary in several ways. This fee began as a way to lure consignments. By passing part of the commission to the buyer, auctioneers could offer better terms to sellers. That’s the theory at least. It began with the ritzy auction houses and has trickled down to many others. The percentage keeps going up and may now range from 5-20% at regional auction houses.

Places such as Sotheby’s and Christies keep raising the price, but most of the local auctioneers have realized that there are limits to what people can or will pay, When the premium is high enough to force people to hold bids down, it becomes counterproductive.

Fairly often, at least in the midwest, you’ll see something like 3% or 13% premium with a 3% discount for cash or check. That three percent is really the credit card fee they’re covering. Technically, that isn’t supposed to get passed on the the credit card user, so they can’t say there’s a fee for using a credit card. By calling it a discount, they manage to sidestep the problem. For most local auctioneers, it’s the only way they can afford to take credit cards.

Sales tax is going to be a variable depending on state laws, but in most places, there’s no tax when items are sold on-site. When items are moved to an auction house or a hall rented for the auction, sales tax is usually required. Overall, read the ad carefully and ask whatever questions needed to figure out what your total cost is going to be, and keep that in mind when bidding.

The average auction is a “no reserve” system, meaning that any item put up for bid will actually sell no matter low low the final bid may be. In a reserve auction, there is a minimum price the seller is willing to take. The auctioneer will usually announce such terms either at the beginning of the auction or when an item comes up for sale if the terms are different on that item. Again, it’s mostly a matter of reading the ad and listening to the auctioneer.

In addition to those bidders actually at the auction, some auctioneers allow absentee bidding. This means that someone has previewed the auction or called but doesn’t attend the actual auction. Instead, they leave behind an official bid and let the auctioneer or an employee of the auction house do the bidding. Most auctioneers prefer to start the bidding with the crowd and then play out the absentee bid. If there are multiple absentee bids on an item, the auctioneer may start the bidding at the point that eliminates the lower bids. (If three people left bids, one at $15, one at $20, and one at $50, the bidding would start at $25.)

There are also illegal bids such as shill bids or ghost bids that can be used to run prices higher. I’m not going into such bids here because it’s far too easy to misunderstand what’s happening compared to what seems to be happening. When an auctioneer isn’t clear or somebody isn’t paying enough attention, it’s all too easy to mistake legitimate bids such as absentee bids for shill or ghost bids.

No matter how honest an auctioneer may be, you’ll find somebody out there ready to accuse them of all sorts of nefarious activities. Use your judgement and bid to your satisfaction, and let the rest fall where it may, at least for now. Watch and learn, watch and learn some more, and then you can start making judgements.

Yes, there are some auctioneers out there who are more interested in money than in ethics, but remember that every good con game depends on the greed of the mark. It’s tough for an auctioneer to take you for a ride if you aren’t willing to go. Don’t worry, be happy, but keep your eyes open.

Differences in Auctioneers

Not every auction or auctioneer is the same. Big surprise. I was lucky enough early on to attend an auction by Kenny Love, which taught me just how much fun an auction can be. Then ran into a stretch that taught me how boring, dense, and downright unfriendly some auctioneers can be. Each time that happened, I checked the paper for one of Kenny’s auctions. As a second generation auctioneer, he had the patter and rhythm down so well that he could carry on a conversation with a member of the audience while selling an item and never stumble.

Some auctioneers use a patter that is almost unintelligible, but they will usually include stretches of real English. It’s much like meeting someone with a strong, strange accent. At first, it’s hard to understand anything, but eventually your ear adjusts, and everything, or almost everything, becomes clear. There are some auctioneers who are simply unclear. Crowds tend to thin more quickly, and there may be some bargains, but you may lose your mind in the process.

Other auctioneers use standard speech, seemingly no patter or special rhythm at all, but as usual the good ones stand out, and you’ll realize that part of it is the rhythm after all. One such is Sam Schnaidt at Appletree Auction. His son David is good and still has time to surpass his father, but back when we were able to get over to Appletree, Sam could move an auction like no one else I’ve seen.

An average auctioneer sells about 75-100 items an hour, which is fast enough to keep the audience paying attention. I’ve known some that slow to about 40 items an hour, which feels as fast as walking on the freeway. You’re ready to scream within the first hour, if you’re still awake. Meanwhile, I’ve known both Sam and David to run at an average of 140-175 items an hour, and I’ve clocked Sam as high as 240. Those attending Appletree for the first time tend to have trouble following the proceedings, but once you get used to the system, it’s beautiful to watch.

It will take you some time to sort out the quality and styles of the auctioneers in your area, but be patient with them and yourself. If your first experience is a disaster, don’t be discouraged. Just do some disaster planning, and give it another shot. Eventually, you’ll have the pleasure of snickering at the person who just paid $45 for an item you saw at K-Mart for $17.50. Just remember that not so long ago, you were that person.

Unexpected Benefits

We started attending auctions just because we could find neat things at great prices, but there are benefits beyond filling our shelves. Auctions are a liberal arts education unlike anything a college can offer. You learn history, sociology, psychology, business, communications, and a great deal more.

Your first auction is likely to still be a confusing, somewhat intimidating experience, but go have some fun anyway. Set yourself a fairly low bidding limit for the first few auctions, and do a lot of watching and listening (and double-checking). Buy what you like, not just what seems to be going cheap. Expect to make some mistakes along the way, but you’ll also get to tell friends about your bid success and about the ones that got away.

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