Auctions have been a part of my life for 35 years. After graduating in 1973 from Colorado College as an art history major, I landed a job at Sotheby’s in New York where they needed a preppy proofreader. What a great four years I spent there, learning enough about the art world to launch my own successful fine art and appraisal company. One of my jobs there was being an auctioneer, and I loved it.
Auction rooms are made up of different groups of people. There is the auction house staff, which includes the auctioneer (who is the person who has control of the entire process), various record keepers, telephone bid staff, and people who physically move the items which are being offered for sale. There are also the buyers, a varied group made up of dealers (who may be buying for their own shops or inventory, or who may be buying as agent for a private individual, institution or museum.
Auctions are very fast paced and there are certain protocols and etiquette which can make an auction run smoothly and make the experience of the buyer more enjoyable. I know for myself, that when I am bidding on an item, my adrenalin gets pumped up – the force is with me. My advice to anyone who is planning to buy something at the auction is to be sure to carefully examine the item before the sale. Ask any questions pertaining to condition, provenance, and possible reserve price and estimated value of the auction house staff. In other words, know what you’re bidding on.
In many auction rooms, you will be required to register for a ‘number’ - a bidding card identifying you to the auctioneer when bidding. You may want to get there early so as to ensure getting a seat for the sale, which can last many hours. At Tim Isaac’s Auctions here in Saint John, you can call ahead to reserve a seat if you are known to him. I always like sitting towards the front of the room for most of the sale, but often times move to the back and stand up while bidding. When bidding, make sure you hold the number clearly for the auctioneer to see. Auctioneers are not psychics and blinks and nods can often go unnoticed and your bid may be missed. Do not talk in a loud voice during the auction and do not have your cell phone turned onto ‘ring’. If you must take a call, leave the room or speak in a hushed voice as this is distracting and disrespectful to others.
Remember too that the auctioneer has the final say as to who the successful bidder is. Any disputes should be handled immediately. If you cannot attend the sale, you have a few options. You can ask a friend to bid on your behalf in person; you can leave a bid with the auction house staff; or you can arrange to have the ‘phone bank’ call you just before your item is coming up for sale allowing you to bid over the phone. Telephone bidding is a great way of handling this if you can arrange it. Be sure you have a clear idea how much you are willing to spend beforehand and bid quickly, because if you hesitate too long, the item may well be sold to someone else.
There is most likely a conspicuous sign outlining the conditions of sale posted in the auction room or printed in your catalog. Familiarize yourself with these as they vary from one auction house to another. For example, at Tim Isaac’s sales there is no buyer’s premium. At most other houses there is one, meaning that the final sale price is greater than the actual hammer price by sometimes as much as 20%.
If you are buying a ‘box’ lot - a variety of items sold together in a box, be sure to examine the contents carefully, and do not repack the boxes to your liking. Others may well have examined the contents of the boxes and are placing bids according to what they saw. Unfortunately it happens all too frequently that someone will take a certain item they want and bury in under a bunch of linens, trying to hide it so they can buy it for a song. This is like shoplifting and is in fact stealing from the consignor of the property.
The best way for the bidder to learn about auctions, auction rules, and auction etiquette is to attend auctions regularly. Feel free to ask seasoned auction goers about bidding, removing of property you buy and any other myriad of questions which can arise. The auction house staff is also well versed in all aspects of the auction and is most helpful. Going to your first auction can be an intimidating experience. Go with a friend; plan to go to the exhibition ahead of time and stay for as much as you have time for. You will learn to enjoy these outings and may even pick up a bargain or two along the way.