To learn about auctions, let’s start with auction houses. They can be grouped into several categories. The biggest and most famous are Sotheby's and Christie's both of which have locations in New York and other large European cities. They battle for mega-auctions such as the estates of Andy Warhol and Jackie Onasis. However, they also hold "arcade auctions" of items in the $500 to $10,000 range. The next tier includes the auction houses of Bonhams and Butterfields (Los Angeles and San Francisco), Doyle’s (New York) and Phillips-Selkirk’s (St. Louis) While not as high profile as the Sotheby‘s and Christies, they still manage to offer excellent specialty auctions of high grade merchandise.
Auction catalogues are an excellent source for tracking prices. They list a description (but not always a photograph) of each lot (item), as well as an estimated price range to suggest what the item should sell for, based on past sales of similar object. Catalogues can be bought individually or by annual subscription for a given subject such decorative arts, jewelry, or books. Be sure to check an auction’s hammer price (selling price) to educate yourself for bidding.
Although the auction concept isn‘t new, (Christie's was founded in 1766), many firms have entered into the age of technology. Christie's Web site, www.christies.com, lists not only their calendar of auctions but also the hammer prices for the auctions. A glossary is a available and catalogues can be ordered. Sotheby's web site, www.sotheby's.com, has a calendar of upcoming events and a description of auction items. Search upcoming auctions to find specific items for bidding.
Auction houses make it easy to purchase, by phone and many will take bids by fax or e-mail. But be forewarned! There is nothing better than actually seeing the item at a preview. Asking questions, opening drawers, looking underneath, inspecting with a black light if necessary, are better than advice from a staff member or catalogue description. All companies have disclaimers that goods are sold "As Is." Be aware of the buyer's premium, an additional charge that goes to the auction firm usually 10% - 15% of the final price.
Anyone wanting to sell multiple items at auction can request that the chosen firm send its own appraiser to inspect and give a selling estimate. Most houses will do so. Not only will the seller have to pay a commission of $6 - 15%, (depending on the selling price), but the seller will also be asked to cover freight charges to the auction, insurance of the items and photography costs for the catalogue. A “reserve” is the minimum selling price acceptable to the seller and is 40% - 60% of the minimum estimate price. It is important to place items in the right auction, one that includes similar quality antiques. Specialty auctions focusing on a limited category draw larger crowds and higher prices.
How high is your "ulcer Index" ? How much speculation are you comfortable with buying sight unseen from catalogue descriptions! The best strategy is to do your homework, inspect the item, set a firm and realistic bidding limit for yourself and stick with it!
*Published in NFocus magazine September 1998.