Buying at an auction gallery doesn’t have to be intimidating, in fact it can be a great way to find unique art, antiques, furniture and jewelry that you won’t see every day at the big box stores. Furnishing and decorating your home? Looking for that truly unique one-of-a-kind gift? Adding to your collection? Prices at auction are often significantly less than for similar items at retail stores or galleries. Look no further, auction houses have it covered and offer opportunities for both beginning as well as experienced luxury goods seekers.
Before you jump into the bidding there are a few things you should consider. Here are three main steps to the process and how to best approach them.
Step #1 Finding what you want.
Do you want to buy Mid Century Modern furniture for your Eichler home? Are seeking a unique ArtDeco diamond engagement ring for your fiancée? Or have you started collecting New York School photography or Yu Youren Chinese calligraphy? Talk with the auction gallery specialist in your interest area to find out what similar items they have sold recently. It is likely they may have similar pieces coming up at auction soon if they don’t have something planned already. The auction house specialists will certainly be happy to add you to their contact list and get in touch when something you want to collect comes in.
Step #2 You found something you want, great! Now do your research.
Ask the auction house for more photographs and details about the item. Go to the auction preview (usually a few days before the actual auction) to see the piece yourself and speak to the specialist in person. You can also request a condition report and additional photos showing more detail. This report should detail the condition—wear, damage and if there has been any restoration work done–and give you a clear idea of any issues with the piece. If you have questions be sure to ask. Condition reports can be subjective and you need to be completely comfortable with condition before you start bidding. You can also request packing and shipping estimates, if you’re not able to pick the items up, and see whether there’s sales tax to pay. Auction specialists will always answer your questions regarding a select piece, and they can also discuss with you the fine points of collecting in your area of interest.
This ArtFix Daily blog post, Understanding the Importance of Fine Art Condition Reports can give you more insight about this aspect of auctions.
If you aren’t that familiar with what you may be buying, take some time to research the item and learn about how it may fit with a certain style of art, furniture, era or genre. Find out if it is signed, and whether there’s more information about where the piece came from and then read about the artist or category and location. Are you buying Craftsman-style furniture that used to belong to a prominent Pasadena family? Or perhaps a Chinese print that was brought to the United States right before the Cultural Revolution in China. Learning the provenance about the pieces can add to the sense of value and help you understand their worth in relation to similar goods. Remember, the market determines the value, and if it has a strong historical story, the market demand will likely be strong.
#3 Excited about a piece, comfortable with the condition and ready to buy? Set your game plan.
Do you want to bid online? Or are you more comfortable doing it over the phone? How about going to the auction in person? It’s always better to view the item and bid in person, if convenient. Outside of that, one way of bidding doesn’t really have an advantage over another when it comes to acquiring an item. Know that different forms of bidding can happen simultaneously and your bids will be represented accurately regardless of how you submit it. Ask for help registering to bid if you need it. If you are nervous about bidding in real time you can submit an absentee bid. With an absentee bid you don’t have to be directly involved in the process—you simply submit a bid and let the auction house know the highest amount you’d like to pay. If bidding doesn’t go over that amount you will get the item. Often, you may get it for less than your maximum.
If you are still feeling intimidated by the process before the auction, let the auction gallery know and they will be happy to walk you through the experience. This Auction Exclusive article First time auction buyer? Eight tips to make your first auction a success! provides even more information to prepare. It might be helpful to familiarize yourself with the language used by an auction house also by reviewing this brief online glossary.
Auction houses provide a wonderful alternative to traditional retail for buying unique art, jewelry, home décor and furniture. The time you initially spend doing research and understanding the process will truly pay off when you find a special piece that you can cherish for the long term.