Buying at Auction
Buying at auction can be a daunting experience. This guide aims to demystify the jargon and help you win the items you want.
Types of auction:
Fine art, quality furniture, fine jewellery and high value ceramics. Lot size will be low, often a single item sold at a time, damage should be minimal and prices will be high. Online bidding nearly always available.
May include quality items but are often mixed with miscellaneous and household items, furniture, furnishing pictures, books, metalware, ceramics, glass and costume jewellery. Lot sizes are bigger, sometimes a tray of items, sometimes a box (or multiple boxes) of items. Damage can be frequent. Online bidding increasingly available, consequently lot sizes are diminishing and auctions getting longer!
An auction that concentrates on one area of collecting, such as militaria or fine wine. Online bidding nearly always available
Before the auction
Items offered for sale by the auction house are lotted (sorted into lots of either individual or multiple items) and lots are indexed and briefly described in the auction catalogue. The catalogue is often available online and always available at the auction house, in paper form, for a small fee. The auction house may provide high and low estimates of value, but any reserve price agreed with the auction house will not be disclosed. Sometimes descriptions can be misspelled, or be wrong e.g. plastic described as ivory, so personal inspection is always desirable.
Lots are laid out at the auction house prior to the sale and can usually be previewed the day preceding the sale and the morning of the sale. This is the time for a thorough rummage to decide what you want to buy and how much you are prepared to bid. Helpful aids are a phone/camera to take photos, notepad and biro, jewellers loupe or magnifying glass, a torch, and pocket scales. After the rummage, notetaking and photos comes the research when you will want to investigate and price desired lots. When you have worked out how much you are prepared to pay, adjust that to include the buyer's premium which varies by auction house. If you are prepared to pay £100, and the buyers premium is 18% including VAT, your maximum bid should be £85, which will cost you £100.30 after including buyers premium.
While most auctions are conducted at physical premises (bricks and mortar), most now offer the option to bid online. Thesaleroom.com offers this facility for many UK (and overseas) auctions and, if you register with them, you will be able to see and hear the auction live and bid on the items you want. A small premium is paid to bid online. If you have been unable to personally inspect your desired lots prior to the auction you should already have asked the auction house and been given a condition report on the lot. Obviously, if you bid successfully online, you will need to collect or arrange delivery of lots won. Delivery costs can be excessive!
By direct arrangement with the auction house who will ring you when the lot you are interested in is about to be auctioned.
Where you leave a written bid with the auction house. The auctioneer will usually then start the bidding at your bid (or the lower estimate if this is less than your bid)
Bidding in person at the auction
I want an item but its part of a big lot
This happens all the time. You have two options, bid for the lot and sell on the unwanted items or approach the winning bidder and offer to buy the item. Both options have their drawbacks. Unless you are prepared to invest a lot of time and effort in selling unwanted items, you will have little choice but to sell the lot in bulk.. Buying from the winning bidder can work, unless the winning bidder wants to keep the item you desire!
Day of the auction
If you are bidding online, or by telephone, there is little to do other than log on or anticipate your call from the auction house and bid as desired. If attending the auction it is advisable to get there early to reinspect key lots to ensure that the lots are still complete and condition is the same as when first inspected. Sometimes items get damaged during the preview and it is not unknown for small valuable items to disappear and for parts of a lot to be withdrawn. In this latter case the auction house should so advise when the lot comes to be auctioned but it often does not happen. If the auction is in winter wrap up well as auction houses are sometimes very cold. Hot drinks and food are usually available. Don't forget to bring boxes and wrapping material to package lots won, though the auction house may have spare boxes and wrapping material that cannot be relied upon all the time.
Prior to the auction starting, you should get a bidding card or paddle from the office, which will have your bidder's number. Now comes the fun bit, the bidding!
Each auctioneer will have different ways of conducting the auction and minimum bids and bid increments vary. If you haven't been to an auction before, observe both the auctioneer and other bidders. You will soon see the pattern of bidding and be prepared to bid yourself. When your lot is auctioned make sure you are in line of sight of the auctioneer. To bid raise your bidding card/paddle. Some people keep their card raised which allows the auctioneer to very rapidly take competing bids. Take care with this approach, your carefully worked out £85 maximum bid, can get up to £110 or more in a few seconds! It is probably better to raise your card each time you want to bid, the auctioneer wont lose sight of you. If you win the lot, the auctioneer will note your bidder's number, while you note the winning bid amount and wait for the next lot of interest. If the bidding does not reach the undisclosed reserve price, the lot will remain unsold unless the bid is very close and the auctioneer has some discretion (usually 10%) on the reserve price.
After the auction
You will need to pay for lots won and receive your itemised receipt. Armed with your receipt you will be given the lots you have won for you to take away. Wrap delicate items carefully, it is distressing to have gone to all this trouble to lose your valuable lot due to accidental damage! Most auction houses expect you to collect your lots within a few days of the auction unless you have made prior arrangement to have them sent to you, something to note if buying online. Failure to collect promptly can result in imposed storage charges