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What follows is a distillation of wisdom from an expert at Sotheby's -- blended with a few observations based on personal experience. It's intended to inform those -- especially beginners -- bidding at live bricks-and-mortar auctions, although you may find some elements applicable to other types of auction sales. Should you choose to read, and decide to act on the points that follow, you'll be better prepared than 70 per cent of the crowd at the next auction you attend. The other 30 per cent are, like me, dealers -- you'll need some smarts to get past these other guys so the first maxim is... 1) "Let's watch one first" If possible, go along to the auction house and observe an auction before you bid there. Invest in a catalogue or, if you're in the US, a catalog -- however you spell it they're usually absurdly overpriced, but perhaps it's best to consider the price a tax on learning. Watching an auction should give you a good feel for the saleroom's procedures, its pricing, its actors and its action. This rehearsal should mean you're more confident when you go along to bid for real. It also saves tons of time in the next step which is... 2) "You can't over-prepare for an auction." Actually you probaly can ... but at this stage it's unlikely. Put simply, before you bid in a sale room for the first time, it's wise to ensure you're familiar with each individual auction house's business procedures. While it's not necessary to know every term and condition by rote, you should be aware of things like: -- • how much commission will be charged on your hammer price (the total amount you pay for the lot after the auctioneer brings their gavel down to sell it to you), • whether you'll be bidding using a paddle or by name, • whether you need to register before bidding, • if you need to leave a deposit before bidding and, if so, in what form, • if you're allowed to remove your goods during the sale (some old-fashioned sale-rooms will make buyers wait to clear their purchases until the last lot's been sold), If you're unsure of this, or any other aspect of the auction ASK saleroom staff. If they're smart they'll help you because, like us, they want your business. While it's unreasonable to ask gauche questions ("Hey whatdya think this is gonna make?" "Is that a fake?" blah blah zippedy do bah), staff should help you understand the way their saleroom likes to do business. And if they don't, maybe you should look elsewhere. Once you're comfortable with this basic grounding, it's time to focus on what's on offer for you to buy. Again, until you're more familiar with the auction, get a catalogue or, if the auction's online, print one out for free. Next: identify the lots you're interested in (be selective at first, you can broaden as you go). Then go down for the low down to the auction house to examine the goods on which you're considering spending your hard-earned moolah. While viewing auction merchandise, handling the items very carefully (they're still the property of the vendor) -- but examine the goods closely for flaws, noting imperfections and idiosyncrasies. Make actual notes if you need to. If there's anything that's really bugging you, go back and research again the lot {s) you're seriously interested in: prioritise. Your intuition is often a good guide to what really matters for you: learn to listen to it. I'm assuming you're a collector rather than buying stuff to re-sell. If so, you probably know quite a bit about the lot(s) that interest you -- but you can never know too much. As American crime reporters say: "When mommy tells you she loves you -- check it out." You should (using your own experience, reference books available in your own collection or via friends + family members and online resources) soon arrive at a viable estimate of what each of the lots you're seriously interested in are worth to you. This is the price (including the saleroom's total commission) that you are happy to pay for the goods. Now each of your lots has a magic number -- this is also called the ceiling: the highest bid you are prepared to make. 3) Fix you ceiling -- then stick to it. You'll find there are both dealers and collectors who "will not be constrained by a number." Their maximum bids don't have ceilings -- and soon most of them will be seeing a whole lot more of the floor. Occasionally items come to market that are so rare, beautiful and desirable that you must win them at any price. I spend a great deal of my time finding these items in my chosen field (books) because that is what our buyers want. Having said that, hear this: unless you plan to collect high-end artworks, books or antiquities that have seven figures and two commas attached, lots that you should break your ceiling for are few and very very far between. The balance between overpaying for a lot and missing a lot by one bid is a very fine calculation. A failsafe is to establish your maximum price and then add one more bid ("plus one"). Never go beyond your plus one unless there are the most exceptional circumstances. Experience is the only teacher here -- expect to make some mistakes along the way; such errors are your tuition fees to the College of Knowledge. There's no way to avoid payment, but you can minimise your drop by preparation and good research. But you've already done that, haven't you? So it's time to move on to... 4) Arrive early on the day of the auction. Feel out the crowd and the vibe. Do buyers seem relaxed or edgy? Are they mostly dealers ("trade") or other collectors / members of the public? Dealers hate collectors bidding at live auctions -- they drive prices sky-high. Auction houses love them for precisely that reason. Whatver your reading of the saleroom, at any live auction the best way to be is like a drunk in car crash -- simultaneously sort of loose, self-protective but prepared to bounce around a bit. Double check that the lots you're interested in are as they should be -- it's not exactly unknown in Europe for what dealers call "interference" to occur: items being moved around or removed altogether. As more auction houses put in better CCTV this should decrease but, for now, particularly at the lower end of the market, it's a factor. Ensure you know stuff like where the lavatories are, where to get refreshments and similar details because once the auctioneer takes the podium it's Hammer Time and you need to know about... 5) Saleroom Positioning ... Stand or sit? Front or back? Conventional wisdom is that you should stand at the back of the saleroom, so you can see who's bidding against you. But, until you can recognise competitive bidders within your sector, that's not much use, is it? Auctions can move fast and, to start with anyway, you need to focus on what you're bidding for rather than what other people are doing. You don't want to be so comfortable that you actually fall asleep while the auctioneer drones on between lots you're interested in -- it can happen. Similarly if, for example, you have a dodgy hip or a chronic inability to sit still, that'll determine your sale-room sweet spot. Experiment to find the best position for you in the room. It can vary from auction to auction -- just do what works best for you. "Where you stand on this depends on where you sit". 6) "Lot One can be a bargain" Particularly at smaller out-of-town auctions, the first lot in the catalogue can sometimes be a real steal. The auctioneer is anxious to get the first lot away so the sale can get off to a successful start. But sometimes people aren't settled, they're still opening their catalogues, they haven't got their heads in the sale yet... The trade, you'll be astounded to learn, is wise to lot one. At larger metropolitan auctions the first lot is rarely a bargain, and big auction houses often offer lot one counter-intuitively -- it's often a desirable biggie, positioned at the front of the sale to get the room's attention and encourage confidence. Those starting out as dealers are referred to point 4 [above]. 7) Making your bid Newcomers to the sale-room are sometimes afraid that they will, like some hapless chump in a hoary 20th century comedy, accidentally end up paying a seven figure sum for something by mistake. In the real world this does not actually happen, as you will have seen if you've followed point 1 [above]. If in doubt, most auctioneers will ask quite sharply: "Are you bidding?" If you're not, shake your head and say 'No' clearly. What can happen though is that, in the hear of the action, it's easy for the bidding to run away with you. This is why you have a plus one bid [as point 3, above] -- if a rival bidding against you hits your ceiling on their last bid you'll be offered your ceiling + the next increment up (the plus one... assuming you've done your research and got your magic number right, If you are bidding, it's a good idea to maintain eye contact with the auctioneer. Newcomers to auctions will be surprised how easy it is... 8) Commission bidding If it's impossible to attend the auction, you can usually leave a commission bid with the front-of-house staff at the sale-room. Theoretically the auction house bids on your behalf up to your maximum amount. And at a straight auction house that's exactly what happens. At a less than honest house the auctioneer will take bids 'off the wall" to maximise your bid. Watching an auction before bidding (as in point one, above) should give you a feel for the auction -- but there's no substitute for calculating your magic number + 1, and sticking to it. It's the old story: you can't control other people's actions, but you should be master of your own. 9) Phone bidding Some auction houses will allow potential buyers to phone in their bids to an auction. Many only permit this above a certain level (eg £100 +) and below that will suggest you level a commission bid. At a top-notch sale-room, a staff member will call you on the number you've pre-arranged a little before the lot comes up. They'll then say "Lot 458…" and wait until the bidding in the room is winding up. They'll then say something like: "The bid's at 250 against you. Do you wish to bid?" You just reply in the affirmative or negative, the staffer alerts the auctioneer to your bid and keeps you appraised ("450 against you. Bid?"). Don't get in over your head -- if you hit your ceiling tell the individual at the other end of the line "No, stop." If you're the top bidder, you should hear something like "1250 with us ... (then a pause that can seem inordinately long as the auctioneer scours the room trying to squeeze out one more round of bids) … that's yours." 10) Never get emotionally involved in bidding. Don't get in over your head and find you've over-payed. Keep your cool and your eyes and ears open. GOOD LUCK!
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