A beginner's guide to bidding at auction

Television has laid bare the secret world of the auction house but in reality the closest many of us get to a live auction is the occasional flirtation with eBay. So just what happens when items go under the hammer? Chantal Haddon explains...

Television has laid bare the secret world of the auction house but in reality the closest many of us get to a live auction is the occasional flirtation with eBay. So just what happens when items go under the hammer? Chantal Haddon explains...

Suffolk is scattered with auctioneers. With all sorts of sales taking place each week the possibilities are almost limitless; where else could you hope to find grand architectural statues sold alongside live chickens? Every saleroom and every auction has its own unique atmosphere and as TW Gaze auctioneer, Elizabeth Talbot, points out: “Auctions are really good fun, not just for buying and selling antiques but as a great place to people watch.  Those who come along to view a sale often treat it is as a day out. During the school holidays we get parents coming down with their children, they grab a cup of coffee, meet friends, and wander round the saleroom. This can be a great way to learn about the whole auction procedure and you should never be embarrassed about asking us questions, we encourage new buyers so we are always happy to explain how the whole thing works.” There is never a guaranteed outcome at auction and you may not walk away with the lot that you were after, but this air of uncertainty can actually add to the experience and if you do win your bid, you get a real sense of triumph. As Elizabeth Talbot says: “You may come along to buy an x and end up with a y but that’s part of the magic – you just never know what you’ll see.” One of Suffolk’s leading independent fine art advisors, Mary Axon, can help the uninitiated through the auction process. “So many people are needlessly put off bidding because they are worried they don’t understand auctions, the favourite myth being “if I scratch my nose I’ll end up with something I don’t want.” But it is pretty straightforward once you’ve learnt the ropes and when you think that this is where dealers source paintings and antiques, prices can be very competitive.” Most auctioneers have their own website where you can view lots and learn about sale conditions. Many run live auctions online but if you’re a beginner it really is worth going to view an actual sale first. To simplify the whole process, auctioneers tend to use a paddle bidding system. You register for the auction at the start of the sale and they give you a paddle with a buyer’s number on – if you want to bid you just hold up your paddle. Try and work out what the bidding increments will be by listening to the auctioneer during the opening bids, the higher the estimate the higher the jumps between bids. An added and often overlooked incentive for visiting your local saleroom is that auctions provide a very green option for furnishing your home, or for selling unwanted items –perhaps one of our oldest and quaintest re-cycling schemes.  Edward Crichton, Fine Art Manager, at Lacy, Scott and Knight in Bury St Edmunds, says: “The greatest advantage to buying at auction – if you take the long-term view – is that it is effectively free. If you buy what you like and the best you can afford, (quality usually always holds its value) you can bring the same item back to auction a few years down the line and you often find its value has kept pace with inflation – sometimes you’ll even make a decent profit.”James Mander from Mander Auctions, Clare, has seen the number of new buyers explode over the last five years. “Private buyers liked the comfort of buying through an experienced and knowledgeable antiques dealer but now they realise they can use an auctioneer in the same way. I’m always there for anyone who has a query about a lot, whether something has been repaired or not, or if it is likely to exceed estimate. I’m there to help. We want you to have a good experience and come back – so it is important to give the best advice we can.”Free verbal valuations are an additional service that auctioneers provide – you get an up-to-date market value without any obligation to sell your antiques. It is worth knowing that if you do sell, the auctioneer will charge a seller or vendor’s commission (which can vary from 10-15% on the final hammer price) to cover costs for cataloguing, photography, insurance, marketing, and in some cases further research.  Even if your item doesn’t sell successfully you may be liable to pay a standard flat fee so check this out with the auction house first. Most auctioneers also charge a buyer’s premium which varies from 10-21% on top of the hammer price, so it is worth thinking about this before you bid.  Neals in Woodbridge is one of the few regional auctioneers that doesn’t charge buyer’s premium and Russell Cole, their saleroom manager, advises anyone new to auctions “to go for lots that you are passionate about but set yourself a price limit that you are comfortable with and remember that when the auctioneer bangs his gavel down on the rostrum at the end of bidding (the hammer price) it is a contract to buy.” Edward Crichton agrees. “The most skilled auctioneer can gently coerce you into paying a little bit more so try and stick to your limit if you can.”Rowley’s hold quarterly Fine Art and Antique Sales in Newmarket and their senior auctioneer Will Axon, sums up perfectly why auction novices shouldn’t be intimidated. “Auction houses are becoming more like retail outlets – geared towards the private buyer or collector – the smoke and mirrors attitude to sales has more or less disappeared; honesty is the key to an auctioneer’s success because it encourages more bidders. “We work as agents for the vendor and buyer and it is in our interest to maximise lot value.  You shouldn’t be afraid of getting your commission’s worth out of saleroom staff. Tap into our knowledge, after all we are working for you.”


Most sales go on view two to three days before an auction

Abbotts, Campsea Ash 01728 746323 www.abbottsauctionrooms.co.uk

Durrants, Beccles  01502 712122  www.durrants.com

Lacy Scott and Knight,  Bury St Edmunds01284 748622 www.lsk.co.uk

Mander Auctioneers, Clare 01787 277993 www. manderauctions.co.uk

Neals, Woodbridge  01394 382263 www.nsf.co.uk

TW Gaze, Diss01379 650306 www.twgaze.com

Rowley’s, Newmarket 01353 653020 www.rowleyfineart.com

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