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?


The pleasure of using old things

By Caitlin Kelly


I know that for some, “old” equals crappy, broken and dirty. Something to ditch and replace as soon as possible.

If you’ve only had other people’s used stuff — and not by choice but through financial necessity — or had to use your own things until they broke or wore out, even after much maintenance and multiple repairs, the allure of antiques may be completely lost on you.

Some things are nicer bought fresh and new, unstained and pristine, (linens, shoes and intimate apparel, for example.)

And if your aesthetic hews modern, then many early styles of silver and wood, glass and ceramic will leave you cold.

Not me!

I love haunting antiques fairs, flea markets, consignment shops and auctions on a treasure hunt. Once you know your stuff, (how a teacup from 1780, 1860 and 1910 differ, for example), you’re set to find some amazing bargains from those who don’t.

Not for me the joys of Ebay or other online sites — I want to see stuff up close, to touch and hold it and know for sure what I’m buying, or not. Practice, lots of looking and study helps. I really enjoy talking to dealers who are as passionate about their stock as I am. I learn something new every time.

New York City, like Paris and London, holds annual antiques fairs, some selling their wares, literally, to museums. Admission is usually $20 or $25, and the quality on offer is astounding. If you love history and the decorative arts, to see and touch Egyptian or Roman objects, or marvel at a medieval manuscript, is a thrill in itself.

The dealers — no matter how wealthy most other shoppers are — are almost always friendly and gracious, even when it’s clear I won’t be pulling out a check with sufficient zeroes on it.

The teacup pictured above is a recent splurge.

I spied the tea-set at a Manhattan fair, in the display case of a British regional dealer whose prices were surprisingly gentle, (unlike the $18,500 ceramic garden stool nearby.)

The set included a teapot, creamer, two serving plates, a bowl and 12 cups and 12 saucers, a rare find all together and all usable except for the teapot, which has a hairline crack inside.

I drink a pot of tea, or several, daily and sit at an 18th century oak table my father gave us. I love 18th century design and this tea-set is likely late 18th or early 19th century. You can tell by its shape and by how light each piece feels in your hand. The bottoms are plain white, unmarked by a maker’s name.

I hadn’t spent that much money on anything fun in many months — only on really boring stuff like physical therapy co-pays and car repairs.

This was just a hit of pure beauty, and one we’ll use every day.

A bit giddy and nervous about making so large a purchase, I sat in the cafe there for a while to ponder, sharing a table with a well-dressed woman a bit older than I, both of us sipping a Diet Coke. One of the pleasures of loving antiques is meeting others who also love them and she was there to add to her collection of armorial porcelain, a specialized niche I know as well.

Turned out — of course! — we were both from Toronto and had both attended the same girls’ school, although she was a decade older than I.

We enjoyed a long and lively conversation and she very generously gave me an extra ticket to the Winter Antiques Fair, which is also on at the same time, which I attended last year, (and where I bought a black and white photo by Finnish legend Pentti Samallahti. The image we now own is in the 6th row down, 2nd from the left. I’m dying to own the third one from the left in that row!)


Charlotte Bronte’s writing desk

I appreciate the elegance, beauty and craftsmanship of finely made older things and feel honored to own them, wondering who else sat on these chairs and used this table — definitely not while writing on a laptop, but likely a quill pen, writing by candlelight.

Because so many people now disdain “brown furniture” and hate polishing silver, there are some tremendous bargains to be had, all of them costing less than junk made quickly in China.

We’re only passing through.

In their quiet, subtle way, antiques remind us of that.

Going once, going twice…the allure of auctions

Score! Total cost $110.

Just went to my first small-town auction in ages. Score! The photo above shows my loot: a folk art horse, two Victorian transferware platters, an early Oriental rug, an early mixing bowl and a handmade wooden box.

Did I need them?


How could I resist?

I saw in the front row with my Dad, (who scored a pile of picture frames, a lovely wooden side table and a double bed — a great wooden bed-frame for $20.) There was a serious bidding war over a set of china — that went for $2,100 — but many items went for crazy-low prices, like a gorgeous Victorian wicker rocker for $5.

You can’t buy an hour of street parking where I live for$5!

The lady behind me was thrilled to nab a Victorian platter in her great grandmother’s pattern for $20. A dealer came with her 13-year-old parrot, Winston and he hopped happily onto my hand. The woman beside us beat us out for a pair of Victorian silver plate candlesticks for her daughter’s wedding gift.

I’ve scored many of my favorite things at auctions, whether in Bath, England, Toronto, Stockholm, New Hampshire or rural Nova Scotia.

In Bath, in the 1980s when my mom lived there, I got a lovely little hand-painted pottery jug, (which perfectly fit a Melitta filter holder and became my default coffeepot), for $18. In Toronto, a gorgeous brass bed. In Stockholm, a huge black metal tray with elegantly curved edges and in New Hampshire, all sorts of things, from a senneh kilim for $50 to drawings, etchings and funky objects like early wooden candleboxes or tool trays.

I still own, use and love three painted, rush-seated chairs I bought at a Nova Scotia rural auction (and shipped home to Toronto by train.) Their original paint is alligatored, their rails and stiles weathered and worn.

My most recent major auction acquisition is a lovely teal-tinted armoire, said to be 18th. century, which — including shipping from New Hampshire to my home in New York — still cost less than junk-made-in-China-on-sale from a mass market retailer. I bid on it by phone, having only seen a small-ish color photo on their website. Talk about a blind date!

It arrived with a few unexpected scratches and cracks, but I love it.

At yesterday’s auction I saw its twin, and a lady standing beside me said, “I have one just like it. It’s really old.” So maybe mine is 18th century after all…

When I lived for a while in a small town in New Hampshire I had no friends, family, job or other distractions so for amusement I began attending a local regional auction house every Friday. I learned a lot:

what’s a marriage (two pieces of different origin, materials and/or period that have been recombined)

what local dealers wanted (early American furniture) and did not (rugs and drawings)

how to make super-quick decisions

how to trust my gut (after doing my research on periods, materials and construction)

how to decide on my top price and stick to it (buyers usually pay an additional 15 percent premium, easy to forget if you get into a bidding war)

Have you ever bought at auction?

Snag anything great?

The Stuff We Inherit, From Chairs To Pistols — Then What?

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One solution...Image via CrunchBase

What do you with your family’s stuff if you inherit some decent things and have to go through it all?

Sell it — on Ebay? Craigslist?  At auction? Donate it to Goodwill?

An intriguing new book, “Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family’s past, One Chair, Pistol and Pickle Fork at a Time”, delves into the subject. Lisa Tracy, a journalist, auctioned off many of these objects in 2003.

From The New York Times:

She still regrets aspects of the sale; prices were mostly a few hundred dollars. During the auction, she had hoped to tell buyers about the back stories: how her grandparents entertained on the Canton rose-medallion plates and collected wooden chests while posted with the American military in China and the Philippines, and how the protruding hardware on one trunk always snagged the clothing of anyone walking past.

But as Ms. Tracy approached successful bidders in the parking lot after the sale, they brushed her off politely. “I was so dashed by that,” she said during a recent interview at a Manhattan coffee shop. “But I realized people wanted to start investing their own stories in the pieces, about how they got it at this auction.”

Her book is part of a minitrend of literary memoirs based on longtime possessions. Last year the antiques restorer Maryalice Huggins’s “Aesop’s Mirror: A Love Story” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) described her inconclusive research into the origins of a gilded mirror dripping with high-relief fruit. In August Farrar, Straus will publish the British ceramist Edmund de Waal’s “Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss,” about his inherited collection of some 360 Japanese ivory carvings that were smuggled to safety during the Holocaust.

From Random House’s website:

After their mother’s death, Lisa Tracy and her sister, Jeanne, are left to contend with several households’ worth of furniture and memorabilia, much of it accumulated during their family’s many decades of military service in far-flung outposts from the American frontier to the World War Two–era Pacific. In this engaging and deeply moving book, Tracy chronicles the wondrous interior life of those possessions and discovers that the roots of our passion for acquisition often lie not in shallow materialism but in our desire to possess the most treasured commodity of all: a connection to the past.

What starts as an exercise in information gathering designed to boost the estate’s resale value at auction evolves into a quest that takes Lisa Tracy from her New Jersey home to the Philippines and, ultimately, back to the town where she grew up. These travels open her eyes to a rich family history characterized by duty, hardship, honor, and devotion—qualities embodied in the very items she intends to sell. Here is an inventory unlike any other: silver gewgaws, dueling pistols that once belonged to Aaron Burr (no, not those pistols), a stately storage chest from Boxer Rebellion–era China, providentially recovered family documents, even a chair in which George Washington may or may not have sat—each piece cherished and passed down to Lisa’s generation as an emblem of who her forebears were, what they had done, and where they had been. Each is cataloged here with all the richness and intimacy that only a family member could bring to the endeavor.

As someone unreasonably passionate about antiques, I get it. I love feeling connected to the past whenever I use my brass push-up candlesticks or sit on my 19th-century rush-seated painted chairs or use my 18th. century teapot — $3.50 in an upstate junk shop. I wear antique shawls and, as I write, a pair of green glass Deco-era drop earrings I found in an L.A. flea market for $40. My computer desk is covered with pale green ticking bought in the Paris flea market.

Worn and beautiful, well-made old things comfort and soothe me in a way no slick, shiny modern thing (OK, except my Itouch and Mac) can match.

I bought all of it.

We have very few inherited pieces, for a variety of reasons.

What objects have you inherited that you cherish — or couldn’t wait to dump?