Geoffrey Walsky: From 1st Timer to Expert Auction Buyer in a Few Easy Steps

April 3, 2015

I’m constantly asked how to buy from auctions. It’s funny because it was only in the recent years that I even started buying from auctions myself. I must be doing something right, however, as I get the question all the time. Now its uncommon that a week goes by where I’m not bidding on items either locally or online.

I recall the first auction I ever attended and the heavy anxiety and downright fear I felt walking in the door. Auction buying can be a very daunting concept, and its very common for people to be completely overwhelmed by it, hopefully these few words of advice well help quell the fear. Even if you wont feel like an expert—at least you can look like one. Fake it until you make it, as they say.

Picasso Lithograph

Auction Find – Picasso Lithograph

That being said my first recommendation would be to know you’re going to an auction, and don’t be caught by surprise. But before we even get to that, let’s start by finding an auction. Auctions are held all over the place, local VA halls, antique centers, empty warehouses, and of course full fledged auction galleries. The best place to start would be auctionzip.com. On Auction zip you can enter your zip code and find all auctions with a certain radius that you set. Just about every legitimate auction you will want to find will be listed on Auction Zip, even those storage unit auctions like you’ve seen on TV. In addition to being able to sort by zip code, you can also enter into the search key words. So if you are looking for antique Coca Cola memorabilia, as an example, you can enter it and all the auctions with Coke stuff will come up.

Warren Platner

Auction Find – A Warren Platner Side Chair 

I really break down auctions into two categories, auctions that are online and those that are not. For someone attending in person, there really is no difference, except that you may be bidding against someone without the ability to stare them down with a dirty look when they raise your bid. For the types of things I buy, its very common for me to be bidding on auctions all over the country. The ability to view images and condition reports online and then bid from home, or my handheld is imperative. In addition, auctions can take hours and I’d rather chase my kids around the house than sit in an auction gallery. Lastly, it’s not uncommon to find me with two or more live auction windows open, bidding from multiple auctions that take place at the same time. 

There are also many auctions that don’t have an online option and attendance is mandatory to place a bid. You can find phenomenal things at these auctions, and they have a tendency to be cheaper since you don’t have to compete against online bidders. 

So now you’ve gone to auction zip, you’ve entered your zip code and looked for everything within a thirty-mile radius on Wednesday evening and found Atypicalfind Auctions offering a bunch of mid-century and antique furnishings and collectibles that look interesting. The auction starts at 6:30pm. They are not online so you are going to go in person and make an evening out of it. They happen to serve wine and food so it’s quite an enjoyable experience. You arrive an hour early so that you can preview all of the items ahead of time and really get a good look at everything. 

ATypical Find Auction

ATypical Find Auction

ATypical Find Auction

Every auction has a check in desk. You will need to provide some basic information and identification. Some may ask you for a credit card number, not to worry, they won’t charge you. Once they check you in, they will give you a bid card. It could be as sophisticated as a print out, but I’ve also gotten numbers on the back of a paper plate. That is your unique bidder number and will be used to identify you on purchased items and at checkout. Don’t lose it, and don’t raise your hand if you don’t know your number, as that will be embarrassing when you win an item. 

Clarke Auction

Clarke Auction

I still remember from my first few auctions how nervous I was bidding. I would raise my paddle, and my heart was pounding so hard. Then every time someone else would bid and it would come back to me, harder and harder would be the pounding. Its not unlike the feeling one gets from gambling, except at auction, when you lose, you get to keep all your money, but when you win, losing your money feels good and you have something great to show for it.  It’s fun, it’s exhilarating, and it’s a great way to buy great things. 

Online auctions are much the same. You can still find them on Auction Zip, or go directly to one of the online bidding platforms, Live Auctioneers being the largest and most popular. You will need to register for the auction, much like you check it at an auction in person. Because this is online, do not wait until an hour before auction. Try to do so at least a day in advance. Many of these online auctions require that you register in advance. They will also need some basic information from you, and possibly credit card information. But once you are approved, you will get a notification, and you are free to bid online, or from your mobile app, and its quite convenient.  

Westport Auction

Westport Auction 

Here are a few details and terms you should know to really show your expertise and make sure there are no surprises. A “Bid”, as obvious as it sounds is your agreement to pay the current price, and it is binding. The “Under Bidder” is the person who lost the item as the next highest bidder. A “Left Bid” is a bid placed in person or by phone for a maximum dollar amount for someone not able or wanting to attend the auction in person. Left bids are great ways to bid on items when you won’t be present, and are just as efficient as bidding in person. What I mean by that is a left bid for $500 can still win an item for $100, if the under stopped at $95. A “Passed Lot” is an item that did not receive a bid and has gone unsold. The “Estimate” is a rough number that the auctioneer has placed as the potential purchase price of an item.  Estimates usually have a range, for instance $300-$500 which is called the “Low Estimate” and “High Estimate”. The “Opening Bid” is the amount an item will start at and is generally about half of the low estimate, but does not have to be, depending on the auction. This number is also known as the “Reserve” and is really the minimum an item can sell for. Lastly, and maybe most importantly in the calculation of cost is the “Premium.” This also depends on the auction but generally there two kinds of premiums. “Buyer’s Premium” which is the percentage a buyer must expect to pay in addition to their winning bid amount. Most smaller and local auctions start at about 15% buyer’s premium, while larger and online auctions start at 20% and go up from their depending on the auction. Always ask at check in, or check online in advance to see what the buyer’s premium is so you are not surprised or bid too high. There could also be additional costs for paying by credit card, and online bidding usually comes with an increased premium. The “Sellers Premium” or “Commission” is what the auction house charges a seller to consign their items. 

Bamboo Secretary

Auction Find – A Bamboo Secretary

Remember these terms and this process, act calm and look cool, and no one will know whether it’s your first time or thousandth auction.  Happy Bidding!

Geoffrey Walsky is the owner of The Fairfield County Antique & Design Center. He is a passionate collector who finds it hard to pass up anything midcenturybut like many collectors plenty of other styles make their way into is home as well.