Something about a live auction sets the soul afire. Bidders’ faces flush in the heat of battle, their signals driving the price up, up, up until finally only one remains — and the auctioneer shouts, “Sold!” The whole affair makes hearts pound wildly, those of bidders and onlookers alike. Especially following a particularly exhilarating exchange, everyone cheers and applauds. Then, it is on to the next lot, and the fun starts all over again.
What causes all this ruckus? What draws even the most level-headed person into a frenzy of bidding? The truth is, it could be any item. The auction world features artwork of the masters, fine furniture hundreds of years old, antiquities, gleaming silver tea services, the finest porcelain and pottery, chairs that have held the weight of world leaders, dazzling jewelry, and Native American artifacts. It also includes land, farm equipment, horses, vacations, children’s class art projects, spa days, fine wine, gun and other weapon collections, Grandma’s prized spoons from every state, and marbles. If your heart desires it, it can be found at an auction.
Ron Long of Charlton Hall Auctions recalls the days when auctions were a family affair. Parents brought their children with them to auctions where little ones were exposed to the excitement and the education such an event affords. Then, when the children grew up, they attended auctions themselves to find their own treasures. In recent years, interest in antiques and auctions has waned among younger generations. Ron attributes this phenomenon to a number of reasons. First, society is more mobile now. Young people often take jobs in different cities or even different countries, and possessions are difficult to transport. Finances are also an issue.
“Before, people didn’t come out of college $200,000 in debt,” says Ron. “Now they do, and they also have spouses, kids, a house, and a car.” This seems to leave little room for investing in things found at auction. Or does it?
It is a common misconception that auctions are only for the wealthy. In fact, this could not be further from the truth. A recent auction held by Wooten & Wooten Auctioneers in Camden offered a set of 12 Chippendale style dining chairs, circa 1880, with an estimated auction price of $1,000 to $1,500, far less than if purchased from a furniture store and of better quality. Persian rugs were available for only a few hundred dollars and a gorgeous George III style mahogany dining table for less than $1,000. Paintings, antique maps, Civil War artifacts, silver of every type, yard furniture, jewelry, and even a large collection of vintage Wedgwood dinnerware were all expected to sell in the low hundreds, possibly lower.
Of course, with an auction, you never know. You can win a fine item for a steal, while something else may go way above the expected figures set by the auction house. It all depends on the bidders. It is quite possible to own a unique piece of history for very little money, such as the lot consisting of an African hide drum and a pair of Middle Eastern child’s sandals that sold at a recent Charlton Hall auction for $62.50.
History is important in the auction world or, in auction parlance, provenance. To whom did the piece belong? What is its history? Its significance? Collecting is a romantic endeavor. It is one thing to look at an item; it is quite another to touch it. At auction previews, you can actually touch chairs once used in the Abraham Lincoln White House. You can hold silverware George Washington used to eat his dinner. Chairs commissioned by the Vanderbilts sold in Columbia and now call the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art home. A letter signed by Abraham Lincoln three days before his assassination also made its way through Columbia, and anyone attending the preview party could have read it for themselves without traveling out of the state. While those are not budget-friendly options, the rare Civil War speaking horn offered at the Wooten & Wooten auction might be had for as little as $200.
The auction process may seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but it is a friendly environment. Preparation paves the way. First, consider budget. Some collectors set aside a sum yearly for auction purchases. As previously discussed, the sum need not be large. A single piece of jade may not, alone, be remarkably valuable. However, collected over a period of decades, jade is not only beautiful but can be a treasure to leave your children, and it is unlikely to take up much space in the home.
Next, consider the relationship between lifestyle and interest. How much room is available for collecting? If your home has little available wall space, paintings or large furniture may not be wise choices. Where no interest in the Civil War exists, there is no reason to collect its artifacts.
“Collect something you love; don’t collect because of what you think it’s worth,” advises Ron. A purchase can be, and ideally is, functional. An antique armoire can repurpose nicely into an entertainment center or bar. Likewise, a Chinese altar table makes a unique coffee table.
Also apply education. Books on antiques are plentiful, as is information on the internet. Learn about features like dovetail joints, if furniture appeals, and what they look like from different periods in time. From handmade to machine made, the differences in dovetail joint patterns can be stark and the related differences in value profound. Talk to dealers at antique malls, like The Red Lion on Hampton Street. Look for similar glass in different colors and ask why one piece is more expensive than another. Let a dealer explain how wear, or the lack of it, affects the value of a chair. Ask to see signs of repair and ask how repair affects the value of a chest or a porcelain figurine.
When beginning to buy, start with small purchases so that any blunders are inconsequential. Set a modest budget and purchase the best item possible while honoring it. With the help of a reputable dealer, learn how to inspect a piece. A photograph, while it may say a thousand words, is no substitute for seeing an item firsthand. Touching it, examining it from every angle, checking it for damage or wear, all must be done in person if at all possible and, if not, by a trusted surrogate. Even during the pandemic, previews are offered.
Before participating in a live auction, get acquainted with rules and methodology. These vary from one auction house or auctioneer to another and include aspects like registration for a bid number, the amount of sales tax, and the buyer’s premium. The buyer’s premium is the amount the auction house or auctioneer adds to the winning bid. Be aware of bidding options. Especially in times of COVID-19, most auctions are online. This is true for C.H. Livingston, Wooten & Wooten, and Charlton Hall. In normal times, bidding options include in person, by telephone, and by proxy.
With online bidding, note that the process does not work like eBay. You cannot swoop in at the last moment and attempt to steal the sale. While bids can be entered one at a time, it is also possible to enter the highest dollar amount one wishes to invest and, like eBay, one’s bidding amount will increase incrementally as necessary until the item is won or the bid ceiling is reached. Most online lots close in a rolling fashion. Those at the beginning close first, and the process progresses throughout the auction. Be mindful of closing times and keep track of bids. If unsuccessful at winning one item, another gem may be waiting in a later lot.
At a live auction, arrive with plenty of time for settling in. Resist the urge to disclose target items to others so you do not invite unwanted competition. Next, find a seat. Some bidders prefer to sit in certain spots. For instance, some sit in the very front of the room where their bids are less noticeable to everyone else. Similarly, some choose to sit in the center aisle where a signal is easier to hide while still being able to observe fellow bidders. Still others choose the back of the room where they can survey the entire scene.
A number of methods are used to indicate a bid. You can raise your hand or bid sheet in the air without attempt to conceal. Raising your hand assertively and leaving it in the air indicates to others in the room that interest is serious, a strategy that can ward off less interested bidders. Others make eye contact with the auctioneer or a spotter and nod. Some even arrange a particular signal with the auctioneer in advance. Once bidding begins, remember the planned budget. In the heat of bidding, it is easy to get excited and bid beyond one’s intention. Letting others bid first is one way to prevent such a mishap. It is also wise to wait out initial bidding frenzies, thereby avoiding participation in driving up the bid.
With luck added to preparation, research, and strategy, it is easy to join in the fun and excitement of the auction world. Younger generations can enjoy auctions along with older ones and find themselves richer for the experience. Even when college debt, family, and other financial considerations do not allow for investment in a letter signed by Abraham Lincoln or a chair commissioned by a Vanderbilt, it is special simply to be in the presence of such an item and perhaps meet its new owner. Auctions feature items for every interest and every wallet. By starting now, young adults have plenty of time to cultivate collections that will enrich their lives and the lives of their descendants. When planning allows for the acquisition of something that makes the heart beat faster, the end result is priceless.