Monday, March 18, 2013

Everything You Wanted to Know about Auctions, But Were too Afraid to Ask

(Note: try not to get escorted from an auction in police custody, like Roger Thornhill)

I could have entitled this post ‘Everything You Wanted to Know about Auctions, But Were too Afraid to Raise Your Hand and Ask Because You Were Scared You Might Actually Bid on Something You Didn't Want” because, really, isn't that everyone’s fear with auctions?

Today, I thought it would be fun to share tips for a successful, stress-free auction experience and I’m not talking Ebay auctions; I mean the bidding-in-person-with-a-numbered-paddle-kind of auction. Since I was a child, I've been attending auctions and during that time I've gleaned a lot of knowledge that’s worth sharing, especially for those who want a good deal on antiques or first access to pieces without paying the retail markup.  And remember, auctions aren't meant just for millionaires. We've all heard of Sotheby's or Christie's, but auctions can be a great venue for finding affordable treasures; after all, at auctions, the bidders name the price. I've walked away with furniture for $20, $10 and even $5! With that, let’s get into it.

Finding Auctions in Your Area
We can’t talk about auctions before mentioning where you can find listings upcoming auctions in your area. A good place to start is with, where you can search auction companies within a specified state or a certain distance from your ZIP code. When all else fails, I've regularly found postings for auctions on Craigslist and in the newspaper, too.
The Preview, or How to Know What Crap You’re Going to Get in a Bidding War Over Later
The first useful piece of information to know is that the auction house running the sale holds a “preview” to show off the goods that will be up for bid, typically a few hours or a day in advance of the sale. At that time, you’ll find that every item or lot (we’ll talk about lots shortly) is numbered; when you see something you want to bid on later, write that number down and determine how much you’d be willing to pay for it. Later, the auctioneer will identify each item to the crowd with this item number once it is up for bid. 

The preview allows you to inspect everything in advance so you know what you’re getting. Remember, all sales are final at auctions. Auctioneers may also be available during the preview in case you have specific questions about value or potential prices of an item. I can’t encourage you enough to attend the preview! How else would you know what you’re bidding on?
Before You Go Crazy Bidding: Registering and Sales Terms
If you see things worth bidding on, you’ll need to register to participate in the auction if this is your first time attending. Registration is free. You’ll need to provide your driver’s license to the auction office where you will be entered into their system for future auctions. At that point, you’ll be given a bidder’s number to use during the auction.

Once registered, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the sales terms, which vary from auction house to auction house. Profits for the auction company come, in part, from a “buyer’s premium” fee, which is a percentage added onto the final bid price. I’ve seen buyer’s premiums range from 15% - 18%, so keep this additional cost in mind when you’re bidding! Most auction houses accept credit cards, checks (if you’ve been to that auction before) or cash, where they may offer a slight discount. And, don’t forget, you will also have to pay taxes on any items purchased.
Lots and Lots of Lots
Similar, smaller items are often put together for sale in what’s called a “lot”. Grouping these items makes for an efficient sale for the auction company. During the preview, you’ll see lots of dishes, tchotchkes, or silverware displayed together in boxes (usually called “boxed lots”). Since you can closely examine everything during the preview, dig into these boxes and see what’s in each. Who knows, you may find a diamond in the rough!

Here's another good idea with lots: if you were outbid on a lot containing one or two things you'd like (rather than the entire lot), it's not unreasonable to approach the winning bidder with an offer for the items you wanted. Remember, be polite and respectful with your offer and you may walk away with something you had your eye on! This is a tactic I've seen work many times, so it's always worth a shot.
In Absentia: Reserves and Bids
Sometimes, an item up for sale at an auction that has a price set by the seller or auction house, called a “reserve”. If bidding does not meet the set price, the item is not sold. The auctioneer will let the crowd know if the item has a reserve at the start of the bidding.

You may also encounter bids left from people who aren't actually in attendance at the auction. Oftentimes bids will be left from those who attended the preview but couldn't make the auction or from those who phoned their bids in.
What You've Come For: Let’s Get Down to Bidding!
You've previewed the items, you've registered, and you've studied the sales terms; now you’re ready to bid, right? Above all else, it’s important to remember to keep your cool. Resist the urge to over-bid! Stick to the price you set for yourself during the preview, unless it’s a piece you absolutely can’t live without. Before the auction starts, get yourself a good seat. Get comfortable. Often, auctions can last for several hours. While you’re waiting for the items you want to come up for bidding, enjoy people-watching. People-watching at auctions is the best. It’s always interesting to figure out who in the crowd is a dealer or who is just a hoarder!

When something you want comes up for bidding, have your bidder’s number in hand and be prepared to bid. Auctioneers may start at a high price, for example $100, but without any immediate bids will lower the price to, say, $10. Wait until the auctioneer lowers the price, then bid. Auctioneers will nod or point to you to acknowledge your bid. He/she will speak very fast, so listen closely! To bid, there’s no need to flail your bidder’s number wildly. Be calm, cool and composed. If you’re the highest bidder, the auctioneer will reiterate your bidder’s number and you will be recorded as the winner on the item’s tag. The auction’s office will keep tally of all the items you won and will have the associated costs ready when you are ready to pay.

While you’re watching the events of the auction, you may notice that not every item is bid on. When an item fails to sell, an auction house will just incorporate into their next sale--perhaps next time the right person will attend the auction and take it home! Finally, at the end of the auction you will usually be asked to take all of your purchases with you, but if you need to make special transportation arrangements you can speak with one of the auction’s office employees.

And Now You Know...
And there you have it, my tips for a successful auction experience! Hopefully, I've eased your irrational fear of scratching your nose at an auction and accidentally winding up the highest bidder on an expensive piece!  

Did I answer all of your questions about the auction process? 
If not, what else would you like to know? 
Do think you'll attend auctions now that you have more info about the experience?


  1. I have been to auctions but not too many lately. Either I get bored waiting for the piece(s) I'm interested in to come up, or I get caught up in the excitement of the bidding and end up paying more than I thought I would, so I would recommend being cautious!

  2. I used to go every month with my parents to auctions when I was little and watch them buy more furniture they didn't need nor have the space for. At least I know where I get it from. :) Great post!

  3. Great tips! Now I feel much more comfortable going to an auction!

    Champagne Lifestyle on a Beer Budget

  4. Great post, Ashley. What I wouldn't give to go with you in person! There's an auction house very near to where we live and I've always wanted to go. Maybe with your tips, I'll have calmed my fear enough to step through their doors.

    Camille the Hoarder
    (Not the Dealer)

  5. What a great and informative post! Auctions can be so fun. Have found some wonderful items over the years. Lately I've not been. Hoping to find time this spring. And, hoping to find some bargains :)

  6. This is SO HELPFUL! I've always been way to nervous to think about going to an auction. It totally doesn't seem that scary now. And, that's such a neat tip that they will lower the price if no one bids initially!

  7. So tips! I have never been to a live auction before and I'm itching to go, but I must admit I've always been scared about not knowing exactly how they work. Off to check out auction zip and see what is near me.


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