An expert's guide on how to bid and buy at auction

Antique clocks from Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood in Exeter, Devon

Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood hold quarterly fine art sales and specialist auctions at their saleroom in Exeter - Credit: Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood

Considering buying at auction but unsure where to start? 

Auctions can be an affordable and sustainable way to get your hands on unique antiques or collectables, and the process of bidding is more straightforward than you may think.

We speak to Rachel Littlewood from Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood in Exeter, who shares her expert advice on how to bid at auction.  

Q: What does the process of bidding at auction in person involve? 

The salesroom at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood in Exeter, Devon

There is usually a viewing day prior to the auction where prospective buyers can inspect the items and ask any questions - Credit: Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood

A: There has traditionally been a great deal of mystery surrounding the concept of buying at auction, but the reality is that it is a very simple process. All sales are public auctions, so anyone can get involved and all are welcome.  

There is usually viewing a few days prior to the auction and this gives prospective buyers the chance to come and see the items, examine them thoroughly and ask questions from the specialists, who are always on hand to help and give their opinion. 

In order to bid, a prospective buyer just needs to provide a few details. Following this, they will be issued with a paddle number, which is then used in the saleroom. If you wish to bid, you hold up your paddle – it really is that simple. 

If you are successful with a bid, the auctioneer will take down the paddle number and within a few minutes, the invoice will be produced by the accounts department. 

Q: What are the advantages of bidding in person?

Antique chairs and furniture at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood in Exeter, Devon

Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood offer something for all tastes, including antique furniture and specialist collectors' items - Credit: Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood

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A: More and more of the auction business is conducted online, particularly with the changes surrounding Covid-19, but there really is no substitute to attending the auction yourself, at least to view the items. The specialist valuers are always happy to provide condition reports and images if you are unable to attend, but nothing really beats seeing the items for yourself ‘in the flesh’. 

Q: How can I bid at auction online? 

A: The process for bidding online is easy and convenient and is much like registering in person, but this is done through either or Once registered, prospective buyers can bid during the auction online by pressing the bid button. If successful, the account can be settled online and it is even possible to arrange and pay for cartage online. 

Q: How has the online bidding system made the process easier during the Covid-19 pandemic? 

A: Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood have been using online bidding platforms for many years and this has grown in popularity as buyers have realised how straightforward the system is. 

During the second lockdown, the firm took the step to hold a few online-only auctions, which were a great success. However, with most auctions, it is preferable to physically see the items, so the majority of the auctions held are open to the public to view and attend. 

Q: Can I book telephone bids for your auctions? 

Auctioneer at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood in Exeter, Devon

If you are new to auctions, Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood recommend attending the saleroom in person to get a feel for how it works - Credit: Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood

A: Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood will always encourage people to book a telephone line rather than leaving a commission bid, because you can bid on the lot in real-time as though you are in the auction room.

The member of staff allocated to execute the bid will relay what the auctioneer is saying and then ask the prospective buyer whether they wish to bid. If they do, the staff member will bid on their behalf. 

Q: What is the purpose of a commission bid? 

A: Commission bids are useful if you know that you have a fixed limit and do not wish to go above this amount or that you are busy on the day of the auction and cannot attend, bid online or be involved in a telephone bid. 

Q: In your experience, what are the best methods of bidding for beginners? 

A: For prospective buyers who are completely new to the auction process, it is certainly worth attending an auction or two to get a feel for what is happening and how everything works. However, it is not essential, as online bidding is equally as uncomplicated.  

Q: Why should I choose Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood? 

A: Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood is the largest firm of fine art auctioneers in the South West, holding quarterly fine art sales in addition to specialist auctions of maritime items, sporting and collectors’ items, antiquarian book auctions, and 20th century and contemporary sales. There really is something for everyone and for all tastes.

The auctions are usually online two or three weeks prior to the sale, so prospective buyers can peruse the lots at their leisure and choose the most convenient way to bid. 

For more information, visit or call 01392 413100.