Reyne Gauge: Bidding at Auction

Whether you bid online or live at a gallery, the gavel rules, and it pays to be prepared before raising your paddle.

Whether you bid online or live at a gallery, the gavel rules, and it pays to be prepared before raising your paddle.

HOUSTON – A few weeks ago I was at the Annex sale at Michaan’s Auction. It is a monthly auction that runs for two days and has everything from jewelry, to household furniture and contents (pots and pans) to collectibles.

I overhead a few people talking while looking at things and discussing how much they thought certain items might sell for. I thought to myself, ‘Well, that depends. Often within their estimate, but if they are better than average, perhaps more, or not so interesting, perhaps less.’

A little while later, I went to look up something in the catalog only to discover there were no estimates, which made me understand why the people I saw earlier were pondering values.

People truly look to the auction house to determine what price they are expected to pay (and the value) of items they are interested in.

So what does it mean when there are no estimates? It means the item will sell for whatever someone is willing to pay that day. It lets bidders know the item has no reserve and if someone bids $5 and no one bids against them, it will sell for $5.

In situations such as this, the auctioneer has to make a very quick decision as to what he or she thinks the item should sell for. For example, if they think the item is worth $100, they might open the bidding at $50, or half of whatever the value is. If they have no interested bidders at $50, they might ask for $40…eventually people start bidding, or the auctioneer will opt to pass the item and move on to the next lot.

Another thing to question at any auction is, “What is the condition?” People often assume if there is no mention of an item having damage or restoration, it must be in excellent condition. This is not the case. Many auction houses do not place condition information in their catalogs. You have to ask. Request a condition report, or view the item in person before bidding. I know I have attended auctions where I previewed only the items I was interested in, only to watch other items selling with low or no bids and think, ‘Wow, I should bid on that.’ If you take the risk of “buying blind,” you should be prepared for disappointment when you receive your item and note its less-than-desirable condition. Not always, but quite often, there is a reason why no one else was bidding.

A final thing to mention: payment. In some instances, if you plan on paying with a check, you might find that the auction house has a rule about keeping the merchandise until the check clears. If you do not have prior experience buying at that auction house and have not had your credit pre-approved, you will need to pay with cash if you intend to leave with the merchandise that day.

Auctions can be exceptionally exciting to attend, whether live or online. Just make sure you have all of the important information in hand before your paddle goes up.

Reyne Haines is an appraiser, author and host of The Art of Collecting. Visit her website at

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