Buying At Auction: Six Steps

Be prepared.

It is the best motto for anyone getting ready to bid at auction, and it starts with the day the catalog arrives, either in your mailbox or online. Here, then, headed into the Spring auction season, are six steps you should take to make sure your bidding experience ends on a positive note.

1. Research the piece. The major Arts and Crafts auction houses keep their previous sales results posted on their websites for several years, enabling you to quickly and easily find other examples, and to see in what price range they sold. Pay attention to the pre-sale estimate as well as to the final hammer price. Take notes.

2. Compare apples to apples. “Similar” is not the same as “identical.” A refinished, restored or repaired piece can be worth less than half of one in pristine condition. Pay attention to details, including the name of the artist or designer, the year it was produced and the condition report.

3. If at all possible, inspect the piece in person. Photographs are never as good as a pair of eyes. Attending the auction is not as critical as attending the preview, when the piece is on display and arranged for you to inspect it carefully. If you cannot be there, contact a friend who can attend the preview and can inspect the piece while talking with you over the phone. Have a list of questions to ask — and take notes of what you are being told. At this point, you should have a price in mind you are willing to pay for the piece.

4. Read the fine print. All auction houses typically post their terms and conditions on their website and in their print catalog. Determine what the buyer’s premium will be for you, depending on how and when you intend to pay for it (see In the News). Determine whether or not you will be assessed sales tax and how much. Decide how you would want the piece transported from the auction house to your house. If you are using the auction house, ask for an estimate of what it would cost to have the piece packed, insured and shipped to you. If you are going to pick it up at a future date, ask about any storage fees.

5. How are you bidding? If you are planning to bid in person, make sure you arrive in plenty of time. You also may have the option of bidding over the phone; if so, make your arrangements well in advance and provide two contact phone numbers. You can also leave a written bid in advance of the sale. Finally, you can bid using a service available on the internet, for which there will be an additional fee. Determine what that will be in advance.

6. Make a chart. In the first column write down the bidding increments the auctioneer will use for your piece, such as $500, $600, $700, etc. In the second column, calculate what your buyer’s premium will be at each increment, based on how you plan to pay for your purchase (see In the News). In the third column calculate the sales tax. In the fourth, list any shipping costs or storage fees. In the final column, total each of these figures.

Then, during the emotion-packed heat of the sale, regardless whether you are in the back of the gallery or home alone, when you place a bid of $700, you can immediately look at your chart and see precisely how much that bid will actually become when you write out your check or open your next credit card statement.

Be prepared = No surprises.

Good luck!

– Bruce