How to buy at auction – a masterclass for beginners

27 November 2009
imports_CCGB_goinggoinggonekee_85974.gif Going, going, gone… Keep a cool head to secure your lot.
We’ve previously covered the pros and cons of buying and selling online – now Peter Andrews gives the traditional auction house a similar treatment. ...
How to buy at auction – a masterclass for beginners Images

No matter where you live, it is likely that there is an auction house near to you. Buying at auction is a staple means of acquiring items, especially for dealers, but this buying arena can prove both profitable and beneficial for collectors too!

It still amazes me how many people watch the many TV programmes featuring live auctions or buying and selling at auction, yet so few have actually experienced the thrill of an auction for themselves. Old myths of unwittingly buying a masterpiece as a result of blinking, coughing or even the slightest movement still haunt first time bidders, and deters them from attending. However, the auction room is a lively and great place to further your collections. Even if you do not bid, it’s worth attending a few just to get the feel of the place. Be warned though, it is highly addictive, but it can offer some potentially great buys if you keep your head.Be clear with your bidding: waving your bidding number card ensures your bid will be seen and prevents any accidental bids.

Viewing and bidding
If you can make it to an auction viewing, you will get to see the items coming up in the sale with your own eyes and can assess their condition and desirability for yourself. Viewing times also give you the opportunity to register for the sale.

Normally larger sales will require you to register for a bidder number and this is what you will use to place your bids. This method also reduces the chance of an accidental bid – a simple wave of your number will inform the auctioneer of your intent to bid.

If you can’t make the sale, you can always leave a commission or absentee bid. This has pros and cons: it alleviates any panic bidding and also frees up your time and travel, but the downside is that you do not have the power to increase your bid if your commission bid is too low. That said, I have made some great purchases thanks to commission bidding and have often been surprised at how reasonable the purchase price was – I could have paid much more had I been there.

Telephone and Internet bidding
The Internet has opened up auction trade and visibility as no one could have imagined. Instead of relying on those who are in the room or commission bidders, auctions now have added visibility via auction hosts – and Subscribers to these sites can search for lots in forthcoming auctions from the comfort of their own homes. By searching for key words – teddy bears, Steiff, Dinky or Lorna Bailey for example – potential bidders are able to see what items are due in forthcoming sales. Not only does this save miles of travelling and endless searching, it opens up the auction house to a much wider audience – worldwide in fact! You can even view or listen to the auction live and bid via your computer if the auction room has this facility.

Condition reports
If you have seen an item either in a catalogue or in an online catalogue, the next step is to establish its condition. A call or email to the auction room to request a condition report is all it takes to establish the condition of a piece. Its report should be an assessment of the piece, but remember, nothing beats seeing something for yourself and making your own mind up. Distance bidding or ‘buying blind’, as it is known, is a gamble and you should be aware of the risks before bidding in this way.

Only recently I was due to bid by telephone in an auction when a saleroom assistant called me to inform me that further damage to the item had come to light. It was a very considerate thing to do and certainly affected
my bidding.

Many auction houses will ship both nationally and internationally, but again check this prior to committing yourself to bidding and buying. Of the auction houses that do ship, some will deal with the postage and packing in-house while others will rely on an outside courier or delivery firm. Whatever you choose, always check your liability if the item is damaged in transit.

Read the small print
Auction terms and conditions are often the last thing we look at – these long pages of small print usually appear at the end of auction catalogues or are sometimes in the rooms themselves. It is very easy to ignore these valuable pieces of information, but do so at your peril. The terms and conditions will tell you more about the auction room’s returns policy, its sales terms, and will answer more of the questions you might be too embarrassed to ask.

Take time to read the small print and you will be more aware of your rights as a buyer as well as fully understanding your responsibilities when bidding successfully. Not only will it explain in detail the terms of the sale, but also the auction house’s liability and where it ends. From a village hall sale to a grand auction house, it’s always worth checking.

Commissions and charges
Your purchase price (the hammer price) is not a final price as there will be charges/commissions to add to this. Auction commissions can vary from 10 per cent to 25 or even 30 per cent, and this commission is subject to VAT. It is imperative that you take these charges into account as this could seriously affect your bidding. Don’t forget your shipping costs too.

You might be the victor in the saleroom after a bidding war, but in the cold light of day when it comes to settling your bill, the invoice may leave you feeling very wounded. Most auction houses will state commission and charges in their catalogues or on their website.

There is much to gain from an auction experience: the energy and the exhilarating feeling as your item comes up for sale still gives me butterflies. With the adrenaline pumping it can become easy to lose all perspective and secure the item at any cost. Don’t fall prey to this, and keep a clear, balanced head – you’ll thank yourself afterwards!


Top Tips

Content continues after advertisements
  • Always attend the viewing if you can. Also view the item again before the sale starts to make sure it has not suffered any damage from careless handling during the viewing days. 


  • Set yourself a maximum price – and don’t forget to factor in the additional costs.


  • If you cannot attend and need the item posting, check all this information prior to bidding.


  • Ask a qualified member of staff if there is any restoration. Do not attempt to scratch, lick or use any of these crude methods to detect restoration – not only is it unhygienic, it can cause further damage. If in doubt, it’s safer to ask.