Eric Knowles Eric Knowles, Antiquarian

Going, Going, Gone! - An Auctions 'How To'

Eric Knowles explains how to scratch your head at an auction
without ending up owning a Rembrandt

It may well prove a little intimidating the first time you attend an auction and it is often prudent simply to observe and keep your hands down for several sales before joining in with the proceedings.

It's amazing the number of people who, when asked, readily admit to never having attended an auction. For many, auction houses still remain both mysterious and daunting, but rest assured as none could exist without maintaining a good relationship with their clients. In short, the auction houses of this world want your custom either as a seller or buyer, or preferably both. The secret of a good auction is usually found in the focus of all attention, the auctioneer. An experienced auctioneer, who knows how to relate with his/her audience and is not afraid to bring a little fun into the saleroom, can prove to be cunningly seductive, and before you know it, you're bitten by the bug which your doctor may well diagnose as auction-itis.

18th C Georgian Silver Tea Pot

Most auction houses announce their sales in specialist, local or national newspapers and magazines. The first rule is always to check the sale is going ahead i.e. the foot and mouth situation saw many country auctions cancelled at short notice.

Once you know that the sale is on, you need to enquire about the viewing times prior to the actual auction and the parking facilities available in the vicinity of the saleroom - a consideration which is even more important on the day of the sale. Some auctions offer viewing time on the morning of the sale, but do give yourself time and avoid rushing through the lots in which you are interested, you could end up buying a damaged or restored object. Most auction houses produce a catalogue where you should find mention of defects, but it is up to you to satisfy your good self that any object is in good order. If in doubt you can always ask a member of the auction house staff for their opinion.

Taking the plunge

If you intend to bid at auction you will first be asked to register. This requires giving your name, address and bank details. If you cannot face the idea of bidding yourself, most auction houses offer a free and confidential bidding service. A commission clerk will act on your behalf and endeavour to buy the lot for you, as cheaply as possible, dependent upon other bids and the seller's reserve price. With a little luck you can sometimes be successful in buying your lot for less than your top bid and the knock on result is a very pleasant feeling. If you decide to take the plunge and do your own bidding you will be given a numbered card or paddle with which to both bid and show the auctioneer, should you be successful with your bid.

Auctioneers, being human beings, tend to plough through the lots at different rates, with the old bangers selling 60-80 lots per hour whereas the formula one types often exceed 150 lots per hour. Consequently, it is as well to check with the auction staff how many lots per hour the designated auctioneer usually sells. If you intend to spend a significant amount it is advisable to let the auction house accounts department know at least 24 hours prior to the sale, so that they can get the necessary guarentees from your bank to allow you to remove your successful purchases directly after the sale.

Before you start bidding, it is absolutely essential to check the conditions of sale. Most auctioneers, but not all, implement a buyers' premium which can vary from 10%, 15% or 20% on top of the hammer price with VAT at 17.5% being payable on the premium only. For example, if your winning bid was £100 and the buyer's premium is 10%, you will end up with a bill for £100 plus £10 plus £1.75, giving a total of £111.75.

Therefore take extras into account, set your top bid and stick to it. Bidding techniques vary enormously from the slightest nod of the head to the firm raising of the hand or the paddle, but it is a complete myth that a slight gesture will result in you becoming the unwitting owner of a valuable but unwanted object. If you are buying furniture or large objects it is as well to check with the auction house about storage prior to collection.

18th C German Ceramics Meissen with tankard

Most auctioneers offer free storage for up to seven days after the auction for both small and large objects. After that time you could incur storage charges. When it comes to selling at auction, all auction houses will offer a free verbal valuation of your property - but please don't let on about this to Gordon Brown. Should you decide to go ahead and sell it, then it is up to the auctioneer to get the best price possible. The higher the price achieved the more the commission they earn. Where you decide to sell can often be dictated by the object itself.

The larger metropolitan rooms are not, as a rule, interested in household goods and some do not entertain the idea of selling anything with a value of less than £1,000. It is often a good idea to send photographs of your object(s) to several salerooms for an indication of its auction value. If you are selling a substantial amount of property or a collection, most auctioneers will visit your home. Once again this service is free but should you live quite a distance away, the saleroom may charge for the expert's travelling expenses.

Check things carefully

Before you agree to sell you need to ask what charges you will be paying. Don't be afraid to ask about commission rates, insurance costs (usually 1% or 1.5% of the hammer price levied after the sale) the handling charge (usually £2-£5 per lot) and finally the illustration charges. The latter is usually agreed prior to the publication of the catalogue.

In return for entering into a contract with the saleroom they are obliged to present an accurate and fair description of your property in a catalogue along with an estimate of its value. They should also announce the auction in all the relevant local and trade papers. When sold, how quickly you receive your money depends upon how quickly the saleroom receives payment from the buyer, but expect to wait between two and four weeks.

Buying and selling at auction can prove an exhilarating and rewarding experience but do please remember to heed my advice and the fact that a successful sale can never be guaranteed. As for auction-itis, I'm sorry to tell you that despite great strides in medical science, a reliable cure is a long way off.


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