Buying at auction. Just did it: some tips!

By Caitlin Kelly


I’ve been going to auctions for decades, mostly small regional ones in Nova Scotia, England, New Hampshire and Ontario. I’ve scored some great/lucky deals, both in the room and bidding by phone, buying (gulp!) almost sight unseen, beyond a small thumbnail image on a website.

I’ve even bid in Swedish (!) on a visit to Stockholm and came home with a large antique tray.

On holiday this past summer in Berlin, I stumbled upon an auction house there, Grisebach, and now get their catalogue as well.

My best auction buy ever is a large teal-stained armoire,  possibly Quebec in origin and possibly 18th century — as evidenced by its form, its hardware and its construction, (all of which I’ve studied so I had some idea what I was buying!) I bought it over the phone from a New Hampshire auctioneer I know and trust; even with delivery charges to New York, it cost less than new junk made in China.

This week I went into Manhattan to Swann Galleries, a 66-year-old auction house on East 25th. St., hoping to acquire a print from 1925 by Raoul Dufy or a lithograph from the same year by Maurice Vlaminck.

We’ve sold photos at Swann, so I get their newsletter with upcoming sales and carefully examined everything on-line for this one. So many gorgeous things!

This sale was of 19th and 20th-century prints, including drawings, lithos, etchings, engraving, monoprints, by everyone from Picasso to Thomas Hart Benton to Diego Rivera, whose pencil portrait was something I so wished was in our budget. The estimate was $20,000 to $30,000 — and the price rose quickly from $14,000 to the hammer (final) price of $32,000.

(It’s called the hammer price because, like a courtroom judge, the auctioneer knocks with a small piece of wood on his podium to audibly finish the bidding and announce the piece is sold.)

If you’ve never attended or bid at auction, it can seem terrifying and mysterious, but is neither.


My paddle and the catalogue; (the cover painting, a watercolor by Feininger, sold for $38,000)


You really do have to do some homework, though, to know what it is you hope to buy and whether it’s a limited edition, its rarity, in what condition, and who owned it before, known as  provenance. That can add a huge boost to the perceived value of an item, for example, a Cartier watch that belonged to Jackie Onassis, estimated at Christie’s for $129,000 sold for $379,500.

The auction preview — all of this free — allows everyone to carefully examine and note the condition of the item(s) you might want to bid on; if furniture, it’s quite normal to take a small flashlight or blacklight, (which can show evidence of repair), even a threaded needle to see if “wormholes” are fake.

If you’re looking at furniture, you also need to know that a  “marriage” means someone has added new material to an older piece, reducing its value, even if it looks great.

At Swann, I saw immediately that both prints I liked had some acidic damage to the surrounding paper, something I wouldn’t have known by bidding online and I learned that a conservator could clean it and what that might cost.

You have to set a budget, as there’s almost always a buyer’s premium, in Swann’s case an additional 25 percent, (plus New York City tax) so the final cost was just over 33 percent more than the hammer price.

Several others might be bidding against you, driving up the price very quickly. Decisiveness is key!

You register and are given a paddle, (a sign with a number), to signal your bid. Each time someone bids the price rises, by increments each time of $100, $1,000, $2,000 or more. (At smaller sales, those can be much smaller.)

Others might also be bidding against you on-line, by a left bid, in the room and by telephone, and the auctioneer has to stay on top of all of it; at Swann, there were four people handling phone bids, one handling on-line bids and one with orders, bids left on paper.

Every item also has a pre-sale estimate — i.e. what they think it might sell for, at the lowest price, but it can go for less, (usually not less than half of that) or for much, much more. It just depends how badly someone wants it.

As the final bids came in, the Swann auctioneer gently said: “Fair warning…Are we all through?” When someone won a piece who was in the room, he said: “Thank you. Congratulations.”

After I won both images (!), he smiled and said “You’re cleaning up today!”

The Swann saleroom was empty most of the time I was there except for a few dealers, with all the action happening on-line and by phone. There were several dogfights and one piece, (by Picasso), started at $60,000 and quickly soared to the hammer price of $100,000.

Matisse works went for $8,000, $13,000 and $12,000 — but one also went for only $550. A work by Paul Klee began at $19,000 and sold for $24,000.

Not every auction is this pricey! At smaller regional auctions, I’ve carried home armloads of loot for $20 to $50.

Who attends, and bids at auction? Collectors, dealers, interior designers shopping for clients.

Sometimes ordinary people like me.

Have you attended or bid at auction?

Did you enjoy it or buy anything?


21 thoughts on “Buying at auction. Just did it: some tips!

  1. Jan Jasper

    I’ve never bid on any expensive artworks like you did, Caitlin, but I’ve been buying at auction for decades; my mom started me young. I used to buy 1920s beaded handbags and such. Several years ago my late husband and I bought a house (a large Victorian with 2 fireplaces!) and it’s almost entirely furnished with antiques and eclectic stuff, most of which we got at auctions. Nothing museum-quality, just nice pieces. Yesterday I got a 3-piece Victorian set, a loveseat and 2 chairs, for only $140 plus fees and taxes, which brings it to about $172. It’s in excellent condition, obviously it has been re-upholstered. Amazing deal. Some advice for novice auction buyers – decide in advance what is the max you’ll pay, and add in the buyers premium. Some auctions charge a 24% premium – that means an item you get for $400 ends up costing you $500 – PLUS tax. Then, try not to get carried away in the excitement around you, don’t over-bid. And beware of anyone who tries to chat with you just prior to when the item you’ve got your eye on goes up for bidding – some people who want the same item will dry to distract you, they work in teams.

    1. Exactly!

      Buying art at this level is a very new step for me, let’s be clear! 🙂 But I’ve saved hard for decades and the hell with it. If not now, when?

      Glad you scored so well!

      Where was your auction — very very affordable!

  2. Jan Jasper

    This auction yesterday was in Edison, New Jersey. The 3-piece furniture set I got yesterday would normally cost more at this auction, which I’ve gone to dozens of times over the last decade. I expected the price would be at least $400 or maybe $500 – I was stunned to get it for so little. I think I got lucky because apparently no one wanted it except me. That’s pure luck. I was also considering the cost of likely paying to have it delivered, but miraculously, it turned out, I was able to fit it all into my car, a small SUV. Even if the bidding had reached $300 – still very reasonable – I would have had to drop out of bidding because I anticipated having to pay the auction co. to deliver it..

  3. After my mother died, I went to Drouot auction house in Paris and sold her diamond ring. It was photographed in the catalogue and everything. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so odd in my life as I stood at the back of the room watching the bidders and wondering how high the price would go. My stomach was lurching. Today, I can’t even remember how much it sold for.

    As for buying things, I’ve picked up some lovely old Persian rugs and designer clothes from the 1970s and stuff at Drouot. You should go next time you’re in Paris (or maybe you’ve already been). It’s an institution.

    Juliet in Paris

    1. That must have been weird indeed…I have my 1st engagement ring and have considered doing this with it as well; the offers I got in NYC from dealers were insultingly low.

      I’ve always wanted to visit a Drouot auction. Next time!

  4. i never have, other than fund-raiser auctions. what a fascinating world this is behind the scenes. it’s clear that homework is important and understanding the process is mandatory. it sounds like you had a very successful day there – congrats!

  5. Thanks for demystifying the process. I’ve always been curious about these types of events and always thought I just didn’t have the cash to spend. But sounds like price points vary.

  6. Jan Jasper

    One auction I’ve gone to many times (it’s monthly) has some stuff so hideous that you couldn’t pay me to put it in my home. I watch, incredulous, when I see people actually bid on it. I stopped going for a long time because I felt I was wasting my time. They have hundreds of photos on their web site but – even if you can read the tag with the lot number – there’s no indication of what time each will go up for bidding; they don’t do lot numbers in sequence. But this is the same auction company where, last week, I found the 3-piece Victorian loveseat and chair set that I bought for $140 plus fees. This auction starts at 10 am and concludes around midnight – that’s a long time to wait for the items I want to “come up.” I do know they start the furniture at 7 pm, but that still could finish around midnight. If you’re interested in anything but furniture, you could easily be there all day and evening. There is another auction company (also in central NJ) that’s much better organized, the photos on their website are numbered and the auctioneer goes in sequence, so once you realize that they “do” about 60-80 items per hour, you can estimate whether they’ll get to “your” item at 11 am or 4 pm. I like this auction much better, tho everything is pricier.

    1. I can’t imagine who has that kind of time to waste.

      I arrived at Swann at 1:30; the 2nd section started at 2:30 and my items came up around 4:00 or so. I really enjoyed watching the action, but I’ve waited long hours before and it’s not much fun.

  7. Jan Jasper

    I wonder if some folks at this auction are out of work and regard it as free entertainment. There are regulars I see who collect certain things like model trains, etc. and they’ll go to great lengths. Others are dealers who get things cheap to re-sell. I rarely go to this auction, I will only go for specific furniture items if the website photo is very appealing. I plan to arrive just before 7:00 when they start the furniture, and I’m done usually in a couple hours, tho once it was 10:30 before “my” item came up.

    1. That may well be the case.

      I lived in rural NH for 18 extremely lonely/boring months — no family, friends or job, pre-Internet — and my entire social life was attending a local weekly auction. I enjoyed it, learned a great deal (it sells quality things) and filled my time happily til I fled to NY.

  8. Good tips, I never knew about the buyer’s premium. I always thought that was included already in the bid price. I’ve only been to one auction to watch and although I wasn’t bidding, I could see how people can get caught up in the emotion.

  9. Jan Jasper

    Yes, some people do get too caught up. One time, I went to an auction with a neighbor of mine, it was his first auction. He bid on an eye-catching piece without thinking about whether it would fit in his dining room where he’d want to use it. He got excited, ended up paying more than he really wanted to, and when – after his winning bid – he finally measured the piece, he realized that it would not fit where he’d planned to put it. Talk about buyers remorse!

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