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Wessex Gallery - Buying Art & Antiques at Auction - Beginners Guide

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

Hello again from Martin Ayers, owner of Wessex Gallery.

I am a long term art and antiques dealer with 20+ years of experience buying and selling at auction. In this article I will be providing my insight and essential information which I believe will equip you to bid with confidence at auction.

Whilst I would love you to view and purchase items from my gallery I also encourage you not to overlook the tremendous buying opportunities provided by a global network of auction houses.

I will be focusing on auction houses which have their own Internet site. Those which don't are under the radar so to speak. I also assume that you, the reader, have access to the Internet.

Auction houses vary significantly in size and sophistication. At one end of the spectrum you have the major auction houses such as Sothebys, Christies and Bonhams who deal in more exclusive (expensive) sales and at the other end of the spectrum you have the small single venue enterprises which schedule house clearance sales. In between there are many variations in terms of size of the auction house and the variety and frequency of their sales.

Before you start bidding.

You are interested in buying at auction but don't know how.

My first recommendations:

  • Identify the type of items you want to buy. Do you want to build a collection or just develop an eclectic mix of items. I do both. I collect paintings by one artist (James Lawrence Isherwood) and I also collect clocks but I tend to purchase a broad range of items which I like. Perhaps you haven't even made up your mind what you want to buy yet but are attracted to the idea of buying items at auction.

  • Before you make any purchases, try to attend as many auctions as possible and sit on your hands i.e. don't be tempted to bid, especially on the spur of the moment - I got caught doing this on more than one occasion and then found the items had issues. Just watch the proceedings and see how the auction is conducted. If you can get to more than one auction house this is ideal as proceedings can vary considerably from one auction house to another. You can easily identify auction houses in your locale with a simple Internet search e.g 'antique auctions Melbourne' and, if you have identified the types of items you wish to purchase, you can refine your search further by searching for specific types of auction e.g 'asian antique auctions Melbourne', 'stamp auctions Melbourne'.

  • If you cannot get to an auction house, don't despair, many auction houses run live Internet auctions so you can login and view the items and listen in as the auction proceeds - some even have live video of the auctioneer as he conducts the auction.

  • Familiarise yourself with auction terminology and sale conditions. This can be achieved by a combination of attendance at auction and by reading the auction houses 'terms and conditions for buyers' which will be published in their catalogues and on their website.

  • Auction houses may provide copies of catalogues from past auctions for free. These can be a great source of information.

Auction House Terms and conditions:

  • How To Register To Bid - You will need to register before you can bid at an auction. This can usually be done online via the website or at the auction house. They will require information including your name, address, telephone number, email address and possibly credit card details. You will then be issued with a unique bidder number which may be a card or paddle. This will identify you to the auctioneer if you are the successful bidder.

  • How to Bid -

  • In person - You can attend the auction and bid in person.

  • Proxy Bid - most auction houses will accept proxy bids i.e. you can fill in a form saying which item(s) you want to bid on and the maximum amount you wish to bid on each item. The auction house will then bid on your behalf, up to the maximum bid you have specified, and try to secure the item(s) for the lowest price.

  • Telephone Bid - Some auction houses will give you the option to book a telephone bid. In this instance a member of the auction team will contact you by telephone just before your lots come up. Please be aware that telephone bids are on a best effort basis and may be subject to a minimum lot price (see below) and will be limited by the number of phone lines the auction house has available. If you want a phone bid, book early to avoid disappointment.

  • Online Bidding - many auctions are conducted live online and you can register to make live bids via the Internet - Read the auctioneers guide on how to bid 'live'. This is a very convenient way to bid anonymously and from the convenience of your home or office. However, be aware that online bidding may incur an additional charge of around up to 5% of the hammer price (the winning bid amount).

  • It is very important to remember that if you are the successful bidder i.e. the item is sold to you during the auction, then your bid is binding and you are legally obliged to proceed with the purchase. You cannot back out of the purchase if you change your mind.

  • Price Guide - Items will generally have a 'price guide' i.e. the price range which, in the auctioneers expert opinion, the item will sell. Price guides are usually either published on the website and or catalogue. If not, then ask the auction staff for a price guide. Remember, price guides are exactly that 'a guide' based on the auctioneers opinion and are not guaranteed. You may well find that rare or desirable items significantly exceed the top end price guide.

  • Reserve Price - Items may also be subject to a 'reserve' price. The reserve is the minimum price the vendor will allow the item to be sold at. Generally, the reserve will be an amount just below the minimum price guide. If the item reaches its reserve price it will be 'knocked down' and sold to the highest bidder. If the lot fails to reach its reserve it will be 'passed in' i.e. not sold. Some items have no reserve and will be sold to the highest bidder irrespective of the size of the bid.

  • Bidding Increments - how much the price goes up each time a bid is made. This does vary from auction house to auction house. Generally, the higher the price goes up, the bigger the increments. Make sure that you know what the increments are to avoid any surprises.

  • Buyers Premium - the percentage the auction house adds to the successful final bid .i.e. their commission on the sale (plus purchase tax such as VAT, GST etc). Make sure you are aware of this charge which can be in the range 20% - 30% inclusive of tax. Be aware that the buyers premium will then be added to your successful bid. For example, if your bid is $1,000 and there is a 25% buyers premium you will pay at least $1,250 plus any applicable online bidding fees and taxes.

  • Paying For And Collecting Your Items - Again this can vary so make sure that you know the rules applicable to this auction. For example, you may not be able to collect items until after the sale is complete. There may be conditions relating to payment by cheque e.g. items not released until your cheque has cleared or additional fees applicable to certain credit cards.

  • Transportation and Storage - The majority of auction houses do not arrange packing and shipping but will direct you to recommended carriers if you are unable to collect items in person. You will have to arrange collection/delivery and payment direct with the carrier. It is best to get multiple quotations for collection/packing/insurance/shipping, ideally in advance. Charges may vary considerably from carrier to carrier and from country to country. For instance, I shipped a large clock from Canada and the cost was approximately $800 which is double what it would have cost me to ship the same clock from the UK. Don't be afraid to negotiate the shipping costs with respected carriers; I routinely do and I am usually successful in getting a discount.

  • Remember, the auction house will not release goods until your payment has cleared. Also, they may charge a storage fee if you do not remove items from their premises by a certain date - check their terms and conditions for the relevant scale of fees.

  • If shipping from overseas, be aware that you may be liable for import fees including customs duty, taxes and customs clearance costs if you are required to use a Customs Broker. Fees may also vary, for instance, depending on the age of the item e.g. antiques (over 100 years old) may be exempt from certain taxes. These costs can be significant so do your research before you buy overseas.

  • You also need to be aware of any import restrictions affecting items you plan to bid on. Refer to the CITES wikipedia for more details. This could impact items as diverse as carved ivory and cased butterflies.

  • Factoring in all potential costs will then help you to determine the maximum amount you are prepared to bid for any item.

Additional information in relation to auctions:

  • Auction houses may be selling items which they own.

  • They may take dummy bids, sometimes known as 'bids off the wall' which are fictitious bids i.e. nobody is actually bidding. They will do this to get a lot up to its reserve price. It may therefore look like there are multiple bidders but in reality you are the only person bidding.

  • Some auctions may largely consist of items from the trade i.e. items owned by wholesalers/ retailers. This may be done to increase their cash flow, clear excess stock or possibly due to retirement. In these instances, reserve prices may be close to retail prices.

  • There are at least two auction houses here in Melbourne which list a large amount of trade items. They tend to describe the catalogue items using terms such as rare, superb, magnificent, outstanding and important. Be wary of such descriptions. Whilst the items may be of good quality, I usually find they are no better than items being listed by their competitors who tend to use more realistic and meaningful descriptions and almost certainly have more realistic prices.

Ready to Proceed?

Right, you have familiarised yourself with the auction proceedings and terminology but you are still feeling a bit apprehensive but you want to proceed:

  • Identify the auction you wish to attend.

  • You may want to purchase an auction catalogue from the auction house. As mentioned earlier, these can be good reference material. However, some can be expensive and it is not always essential to purchase one as many auction houses publish a comprehensive auction catalogue on their websites and some may even provide a free printed catalogue.

  • Identify the items you are interested in bidding on. These will each have a unique number in the catalogue, known as the Lot Number.

  • Try to attend an auction viewing prior to the auction (dates and times will be listed on the auction house website) and in the catalogue. You can then check over the item(s) you are interested in bidding on to ensure that they meet your expectation in terms of quality and condition. If you wish to examine an item in a cabinet or a painting hung on the wall or have any questions, ask one of the auction house staff to assist you. You will find them both knowledgeable and helpful.

  • I definitely recommend that you make the effort to attend a viewing. If however you are unable to, perhaps too far to travel, you can email the auction house and ask for a detailed condition report, details of any provenance (the history on the item) and, if required, additional images. Ask as many detailed questions as possible to leave nothing to chance. Make sure you give them at least a week to respond as they may be inundated with inquiries prior to a sale. If you have not heard back by 2 days prior to the auction, give them a call and they may be able to answer your questions over the phone. Some of the larger auction houses may provide detailed condition reports on their websites but will still address any additional questions you may have. Remember that the condition report is not a guarantee. The auction house prepares the condition report based upon their expert knowledge but they are not infallible. The more questions you ask, the more likely you are to identify any issues/defects which may deter you from bidding.

  • Provenance is very important if you are proposing to buy any really expensive items. However, be careful when checking provenance as the auction business is sadly not immune from fraud and some items may have elaborately contrived but dodgy provenance. If in any doubt, check with the auctioneer. (Occasionally I see an Isherwood paintings listed on Ebay, or at auction, which is clearly not right. Thankfully these are generally called out by the Isherwood collecting community who are quick to identify and follow up on such items).

  • Before the auction commences decide which items you will bid on and set a maximum price you are prepared to pay for each item. Do not exceed the prices you set. I have, on many occasions, seen bidding wars develop where people get carried away in the heat of the moment and bid significantly above what they originally intended to pay. No doubt they will often regret this lack of discipline. One thing I have learnt over the years is that there is always another auction and another opportunity further down the track so don't waste time regretting the one that got away.

  • Ask the auctioneer how many lots on average they process per hour during the sale. This is really important as some auctions may have hundreds of lots for sale. I have been to auctions where as few as 50 lots per hour come 'under the hammer' i.e. 50 lots auctioned per hour. Equally, I have seen as many as 120 lots processed per hour. If your lot is near the end of the auction do you want to be sitting there for hours waiting for your lot - your choice. Also, not much joy turning up an hour after the auction started to find that your lot has already sold.

  • Be aware that auctions can be conducted over more than one day. The biggest auctions may run for three days. Check with the auctioneer to find out on which day and approximate time when your desired lot(s) comes under the hammer.

  • Ensure that you have thoroughly read and understand the auction house's terms & conditions for buyers.

The Day of the Auction.

  • Make sure that you get to the auction on time or, if bidding from home, login on time.

  • Stay calm - On occasions, I can still get pretty hyped up as the auction progresses and my lot gets close.

  • Make sure you have registered and have your bidders number available.

  • Bid with confidence - If attending the auction to bid in person, ensure that the auctioneer can see that you are bidding - auctions can move quickly and items 'knocked down' (sold) within seconds. I usually hold up my paddle, bidders number or catalogue and, if necessary, wave it around until they see me. On occasions I have even stood up to bid (from the back of the room in order not to be too conspicuous).

  • There are all sorts of opinions on the best way to bid. Some people like to bid early, others prefer to let the bidding run and then jump in with a last minute bid. The auctioneer will usually give an indication when he/she is about to knock the item down (sell it or pass it in). They will use terms such as 'Fair Warning' before knocking the item down. However, they do not always give a warning so, if you are planning a last minute cheeky bid be warned - you may miss the opportunity.

  • If you are bidding live online, follow the prompts on the screen. You will see something like 'Bid Now' and the amount of the next bid. You will see a message when you are the highest bidder and receive a message if you win the lot.

  • Do not exceed the maximum price you set for each lot - you may well live to regret it. If you miss out to another bidder, so be it. You save your money for the next opportunity to come along.

  • Do not bid on the spur of the moment on items you have not fully examined. This is the voice of experience and a lesson I learnt very early on.

  • Pay for the items you have purchased and make arrangements for collection or delivery.

Congratulations, whether you were successful or not you are now on the road to becoming a seasoned auction professional.

After the auction.

If you are interested in any items which were passed in (unsold), talk to the auction house staff as soon as possible as it may be possible for them to negotiate a purchase price, on your behalf, with the vendor. Vendors frequently do not want items returned to them and are therefore prepared to negotiate.

Be aware, there is often quite a lot of post sale bartering for unsold items as this presents a good opportunity to pick up items for a relatively low price. This means that you may well find you are still in competition for unsold items. Good luck.

Buying at auction can be a great deal of fun and, occasionally, you may pick up a real bargain. I recommend that you get out there and give it a go. Good buying.

Martin Ayers

Managing Director

Wessex Gallery, Melbourne

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