How To Buy At Auction

I LOVE auctions. Love them! Perhaps it's a good thing that the nearest auction house requires lots of driving. Still, auctions helped us furnish and decorate our first home when we only had a tiny budget.

They're fun, and funny, and knuckle-whitening tense. And they go fast. If you've never gone to an auction, you might be surprised how fast some auctioneers can talk. I marvel at them every time. It's a real gift to be that clear and quick.

If nothing else, you should attend an auction as a spectator sport. Writers, you can get TONS of character ideas from the people you see at auctions. There are all types.

In the beginning we didn't bid much. We wanted to get a feel for the auction before we jumped into the fray. But once we felt confident, we became pros very fast. It's an education!

When you go, you'll find a desk where someone will give you a cardboard paddle or sometimes a card with a number on it. This is your bidding paddle.

The front two rows are usually reserved for VIPs: Translated to mean: people who historically have spent a lot of money with them. Once the bidding has started, it's usually safe to take any remaining open seats in front.

Find a good seat, leave your sweater or drink on the seat to save it while you browse. Don't be surprised if someone moves your stuff though. People are ruder nowadays. In years past, no one would ever think to move (or take) your stuff if "dibs" had clearly been marked.

It's safer to have one person hold the extra seat, while the other person browses, then switch places. Or wait until the row has been filled and then leave your stuff while you browse. Adjoining seat mates should be able to warn off anyone else trying to take your seats.

Here are some other tips we picked up from many years of attending auctions.

• Every auction house is different, but most allow you a preview day or hour before the auction starts. Go. Pick up their catalog or visit them online to see what will be sold at the next auction.

• Examine the objects you want to bid on carefully. If it need repairs be sure to take that into account for what you're willing to pay.

• Do your research. If you're hunting antiques, get online and see what comparable pieces bring.

• In your super-secret notebook that you won't show to anyone else, write down the lot number and the highest amount you're willing to pay.

• When the bidding starts, stick to your guns. Don't let ego or greed cajole you into spending more than you had decided.

• Remember that most auctions sell with a buyer's fee. It's (usually) an additional 10% of the purchase price. I'm so old, I remember when they didn't tack on a fee at all.

• Come early if you want a good seat.

• Stay late for the best bargains. Many times people leave by 10 pm. If we have no where to be the next day, we might stay until the nitty gritty when items go for a song just so they can close up shop. You'll have less competition too.

• Have a way to haul it home. Most auction houses have guys that will help you load, but that's about it.

• Enjoy the ride, but don't spend more than you planned.

It's thrilling. People get excited and sometimes heated, but it's the rush of adrenaline that hits everyone.

Bidding Tips

• Don't wave your paddle around indiscriminately. You could buy something without realizing it.

• Bid confidently. If you want something, go ahead and bid, but remember your final price and don't go past it.

• We generally wait for someone else to start the bidding, but there's no harm if you want to start it.

• When bidding is tight, you might wait until the last second to put up a bid. That snap decision could either sway the bid your way or start furious bidding anew. In our experience, it tends to lean toward our benefit, but anything can happen at an auction.

Important! If you're hunting antiques you will almost ALWAYS outbid a professional antique buyer. The reason is because you're buying it for your home while he's buying it to resell. That same piece will go for very much higher than the auction price if you were buying it at his shop.

One last tip: Don't be afraid to bid on a "junk" box. Sometimes they hold the greatest treasures. You'll be able to pick through the box in the preview to see what's there, but most often they're hard to reach. The auction helpers will pull out a few items for you to see during the bidding.

My favorite junk box contained an early century gravy boat, a tea caddy, and several charming books from the 19th and early 20th centuries. There were loads of other items in it too, but those were my favorites. All for $5.

Have you ever been to an auction? What was your experience like?


Love the idea of going to an auction as a spectator/writer and checking out all the "characters"!

I went to an auction many years ago, with my family when I was a kid, and my Mom bid on a "junk" box. I don't remember much of what was in it, but it was fun going through it when we got home. :)
Stacy McKitrick said…
The only auctions I've gone to were estate-type auctions, held at the owner's house. It's how we furnished our dining room and the kids' bedrooms. And yes, we could bid higher than the re-sellers and still get a huge deal, because we were buying for ourselves. I haven't been to an auction in years, but then we haven't really needed anything. Now we just got to get rid of stuff!
Jenny Schwartz said…
My friend's dad had a time when he went to auctions ALL THE TIME. You do not want to see the amount of stuff he has jammed into his huge shed. Fortunately he has a small homestead rather than a suburban house and the junk (ahem, treasures) can all fit - and equally fortunately, he's stopped going to auctions! Mostly.
lynnviehl said…
I go to silent auctions at quilt shows, because sometimes you can pick up great quilts at bargain prices. The items up for auction are displayed with clipboards that hold a bidding sheet. Near the end everyone seriously interested hovers around to watch the clipboards where you write your bid (hence the "silent"), mainly so they can outbid you at the last moment.

There are dirty tricks even at silent auctions. A bidding clipboard for a gorgeous king-size quilt I wanted was shoved underneath another one by an unscrupulous bidder, so a few minutes before the auction ended I went up, out-bid them with the highest price I was willing to pay, and then put the clipboard in a clearly visible place. The trickster never showed up for the end of the auction (probably why they tried to hide the clipboard) so I won the bidding. :)
Maria Zannini said…
Madeline: It's great fun. Sometimes we don't buy anything, but it's fun to watch the action.
Maria Zannini said…
Stacy: We're the same. I don't need any more furniture--especially if we ever downsize, but I always keep an eye out for antique paintings and sculpture.
Maria Zannini said…
Jenny: I don't think we're that bad. LOL. We buy what we love. And if it doesn't work out, I sell it. I definitely don't want to store stuff.
Maria Zannini said…
Lynn: That is a dirty trick. I've been to a few silent art auctions, but I've never witnessed any shenanigans. People always find a way though, don't they?
Mike Keyton said…
I noticed in 'amateur' auctions people are initially timid in bidding and some bargains go cheaply. I'm pasting a past experience
LD Masterson said…
I can't do auctions. Just can't. They bring out a competitive streak in me and I'll always overbid just because someone is bidding against me. But, hey, at least I recognize my own weakness and stay away. Lol.
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: I remember that post! You did great.

I don't like to start the bidding, but once it starts people jump in like ravenous dogs.
Maria Zannini said…
Linda: Now that's something I never knew about you. Who'd've thunk it?

I'm very firm on my final price. If it goes above that, I never waver. I just let it go. I have to keep an eye on Greg though. Sometimes sentiment gets in the way of frugality. :)