Auctions – how they work

10 September 2008
imports_CCGB_knowwhatyouarelooking_69068.gif Know what you are looking for - this Arthur Wood dog has some paint missing
Here, we share the ins and outs of buying or selling at auction to help first-timers make the most of the experience. ...
Auctions – how they work Images

Drawn by the promise of a rare bargain or the lucrative sale of some unwanted item, the drama and excitement of auctions have attracted many first-time buyers and sellers in recent years.

Auctions can be risky affairs, though, and the sinking feeling experienced when things do not go to plan is not recommended. Here we turn the spotlight on buying ceramics at auction and show how to make the most of the opportunities on offer.

Do auction houses give accurate descriptions?

Auction catalogues are not guaranteed to be completely accurate, especially when it comes to consistency in describing condition and other subtle but important attributes. Damaged pieces will sometimes be labelled as ‘AF’ (as found), but use of this term is often inconsistent – even within an auction house.

The only safe way to be sure of what you are buying is to rely on your own skills and knowledge.

• Guide to identifying china

Your first job when viewing ceramics at auction is to make sure you know exactly what you are looking at. Look for the maker’s mark, any pattern or shape numbers and any markings indicating that the piece is a second.

Do they all match up? Do they match the catalogue description? There are sometimes only small differences in appearance between patterns, but large differences in rarity and desirability.

Make sure you are familiar with the marks used by manufacturers to indicate second quality pieces.

• Understand what you are buying

Looks for seconds 

There are a great many incomplete and mismatched pieces of ceramics bought at auction every year, often unwittingly.

The secret to recognising these pieces lies in considering their original functions – if it’s a rose or flower bowl, is the flower holder present?

Other likely suspects include preserve pots and butter dishes, which may be missing their lids, and were sometimes sold with a matching ceramic spoon or knife.

Lidded vases can be hard to recognise – if you are not sure whether a vase should have a lid, the usual giveaway is a vertical lip around the top of the vase. Look for wear where the lid should sit.

Finally, do the pieces all match? Look out for mismatched lids, cups, saucers and side plates. Also beware of missing or mismatched stoppers in flasks and decanters.

• How to check for damage

By now, you should have noticed any obvious damage, but there might still be something important that you have missed. Run your finger around the edges, and check for sections where the texture or shape changes inexplicably.

Sometimes chips are ground down, resulting in a straight section on a curve, for example.

Look too for hairline cracks – the base, corners, edges and any handle mountings are all prime hairline territory.

• How to spot restoration

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jeweller's eyepiece - auction pic

A jeweller's eyepiece  

Skilfully performed restoration can be difficult to spot on a dirty piece in a poorly lit auction room (a common scenario) so it’s important to be suspicious and careful!

Does it ring when flicked with a fingernail? Some pieces ring better than others, but the lifeless clunk of a restored piece is unmistakeable. If you hear this, steer clear unless you are very confident.

Look around carefully, and run your fingers over any easily damaged areas – are there any inexplicable inconsistencies in glaze texture, colour or decoration? Try to see past any dirt, and don’t be afraid to use a small torch or an eyeglass to get a better look.

• Look out for wear

Wear can be very subjective, and what is acceptable can depend on the type of ware – however, there are two types of wear you shouldn’t miss.

Partial wear to gilding is easy to spot, but look for sections of gilding that are completely missing. They sometimes leave a ‘shadow’ behind, or might just result in an inconsistent look.

Look for paint wear too – flakes of paint or enamel that have come away, sometimes leaving no trace. Is the pattern complete?

How to begin at auction

Before the bidding begins, decide on your maximum bid for each item, remembering to factor in your buyer’s commission. This is typically 15 per cent to 20 per cent, so a £100 hammer price will average out around £117.

During the auction, stick to your maximums, and don’t get carried away by the auctioneer’s banter or the fact that other people are willing to pay more.

If a piece doesn’t meet its reserve, go and see the auctioneer afterwards and make an offer – quite often auctioneers have discretion to do such a deal and will be happy to reach a compromise.

Hidden costs of buying at auction

pocket magnifier - auctions

handy pocket magnifier

Selling at auction can seem very attractive – you don’t have to find a buyer, negotiate a price or take responsibility for any problems  – but is it really that easy?

It can be, but this convenience comes at a price, and you might end up with less for your lots than you expected.

I can’t stress enough that just as when buying, you need to budget for these fees when planning to sell pieces at auction.

Fees you may have to pay include:

•    Seller’s commission
•    Lot fee
•    Picture/illustration/photographic fee
•    Reserve price fee
•    Unsold lot fee
•    Insurance

Fee structures can vary between auction houses and between different types of sale, so make sure you understand all the fees that will apply when entering pieces into auction.

As the hammer falls...

Auctions can be exciting and profitable for buyers and sellers alike, but it’s important not to get lulled into a false sense of security by the hype and excitement on the day.

After all, auctions are aggressive commercial marketplaces, and should be treated with respect.
Like any marketplace, there are risks, but if you do your research and keep your wits about you, auctions can make a great way to buy and sell ceramics.