From Christie’s to Sotheby’s, Bonham’s to Phillips, the sheer variety on offer from some of the country’s biggest auctioneers can be intimidating to a first-time bidder.
It’s natural for beginners to find the whole thing a little daunting but ask the right questions to the right people, and this can be one of the most satisfying buying experiences out there.
What does the item really look like?
The first and most important thing to do beforehand is research. For Jamie Maclean, who worked at Sotheby’s and covered auctions for House & Garden, viewing days – which normally take place a few days before the auction – provide an opportunity to examine the lot.
“A photograph of the wonderful table you’d like might hide the fact that one of the legs is tied on with string,” he says. “Checking things out physically means that the flaws and blemishes that might not be so visible in a photo become apparent. Remember that you’re the end customer.”
Mr Maclean also suggests making sure you’re aware of when a sale can be collected after the event.
What’s its history?
For Chris Ewbank, senior partner at Surrey-based auction house Ewbank’s, condition reports should be examined thoroughly, whether in person or online. “Almost everything you buy at auction is second-hand, so you need to assess the state it’s currently in.
“And make sure you know the estimate: you need to decide on what you consider a fair price, so look into how much something similar has previously sold for.”
If possible, try to gain some insights from specialists in the field, or have a conversation with a curator who can advise on their own expectations of the auction you’ll be attending. Auction houses are happy to chat with new customers, and most will have their own specialists on hand for guidance.
Any logistical issues to bear in mind?
Mr Ewbank cautions first-timers to remember that buyers’ premiums are attached to all sales: the auctioneer will charge a commission fee, and VAT is applicable on those charges too. “You can see how much extra will be added to your bill when you make the bid,” he says.
Factor in the cost, too, of getting the item home, especially if you’re buying remotely: “If you’ve bought in Glasgow and Cornwall, but you live in north Wales, you’ll have to be aware of transportation fees.On low-value purchases, this can exceed the cost of what you’ve paid for it.”
How much are you happy to spend?
Once you feel confident about an item, it’s time for the smart money: set an upper limit and stick to it. Bear in mind that auctions are fast-paced affairs; with as many as 150 lots an hour, it’s crucial to remain focused and attentive.
Make sure you’ve been able to browse the catalogue prior to the start of the auction, and be ready for the item you’re hoping to purchase. It’s worth arriving early so you can hear all the information given by the auctioneer at the start: they’ll explain how the event will be managed – and you might need to grab a bidding paddle for larger auctions, too.